I have been following with interest some recent pieces about "the industry" that appear to point to a problem that the sport of climbing faces in broadening its appeal, a problem that is in my view a good thing but which to many appears as an obstacle to be overcome en route to a commercial utopia of highly paid "professional" climbers and who knows what other riches for us all. The first is a post by Justin Roth, Petzl Communications Manger and blogger at The Stone Mind, about Adidas and its attempts to "cozy up with climbers." Judging by the lack of comments, besides my own, this piece did not excite a lot of reaction, probably because most climbers are not interested in press releases, but also because (and this is just my impression) climbers don't particularly care about Adidas, or at least in this country. Since I was holed up in a motel in Westborough, Massachusetts, acting as support crew for my wife who was running the Adidas-sponsored Boston Marathon, I actually went to the Adidas website to see what they had to offer.
Well if Adidas actually wants to market to climbers in this country, it seems like they ought to mention it on the website's homepage somewhere or frankly anywhere. A search on the American site showed only "We are having trouble locating a match for your search: climbing". Obviously I needed to go global. Now I got something. I was asked if I was "all in" which is a surprising choice for a catchphrase, as it raises images of poker players or very tired people. OK I decided I was all in so I looked around some more. There was a wobbly video about speed climbing in the Dolomites with a lot of handhugging and some pretty cool helicopter photography but overall it was pretty mundane stuff for one of the top global brands overall and among the very top in sports. The bouldering video is a bit better. And there is the nice video of Sasha DiGiulian. But overall, and again we are speaking of a top global brand here, the feel of the website was disorganized and a bit clunky with awkward Euro-english throughout. A sample quote from "girls on the rocks":
"They want to overcome creative problems in the gym, whether in bouldering or lead. The bolted routes
have long since ceased to emulate the rock faces nature has to offer
and now constitute a world of their own. Because the risk of falls and
injuries on well-secured and safety-tested artificial walls is much
lower, very young girls can have fun trying things out at their leisure
and quickly stretch their limits"
Not exactly the prose style that will pull in the coveted youth demographic in this country. In the end, I am not sure that Adidas is offering anything of value to the climbing market that isn't being done better by already established brands both internationally and here in the US. The feel of the clothing and shoes that they offer seems out of place in the natural settings in the videos. There is something metaphorically "off" about the stripes that I cannot quite explain, something too linear about them in the more fuzzy or granular outdoor world. And I should add, I use Adidas products, especially for running. I just don't see what the marketeers call the "value proposition." Climbing in the US especially is just not seen as an athletic pursuit so the image that Adidas has of focused athletics will have an uphill battle (so to speak) in finding customers here. So over all, I think that Adidas has not done a great job of positioning themselves in this market. Their acquisition of Five Ten does not in my view imply automatic success in climbing either. Again I use Five Ten shoes and have for a long time, but the thought of Adidas somehow taking over the climbing world through this acquisition looks very remote given what I have seen so far.
(Edit: For a sense of where Adidas wanted the US initiative to go as of March 2011, please read this interview. The accompanying clothing graphic certainly gives pause for thought. This video from OR Summer Market 2010 also gives good context, reminding viewers that Adidas has tried this before. Rolf Reinschmidt Adidas VP takes considerable trouble to emphasize commitment, authenticity, etc., in the context of a seven-year plan.)
The other big name company to sign a climber, Fila, has virtually no presence that I am aware of in the climbing scene and I expect that initiative to evaporate as suddenly as it appeared. I would not be surprised to see Adidas come to a similar conclusion unless they can figure out what they really want to do. From my standpoint, that of a clueless blogger, they need to understand better the relationship that climbers have with their gear and why it is very different from other sports. As far as I can tell, it isn't very clear that that they have this understanding.
In a somewhat similar vein, I read the lament titled "It’s not ability the industry lacks. It’s vision." Here Jordan Shipman, from the media producers Louder Than Eleven, wrote a response of sorts regarding their coverage of the SCS Nationals here in Boulder a couple of weeks ago. Shipman was commenting on the lack of a live feed from the comp and explaining that USA Climbing had not budgeted for it. Developing the theme of the piece, he went on to argue how "companies have demonstrated little to no interest in supporting these
professional-scale events. The desire to invest in the future of our
sport is marginal at best." Instead he proposed that companies want "a direct return in increased sales" and hence avoid the indirect option of sponsoring media-friendly events and coverage thereof.
Now I think Jordan and Jon are great, and they work really hard at making free videos that don't suck (except for the segment with shooting guns to the Blue Danube Waltz from the roof of a Honda Element in Poudre Canyon--that sucked) but I am afraid that the problem is neither ability nor vision when it comes to marketing climbing. It is simply about money and how it works. I would argue that climbers are deeply mistaken regarding the broader reach of what they think is appealing about the sport, even in a supposedly accessible form like competition climbing. I have written a little about this before but I think it bears repeating. Nobody besides climbers wants to watch climbing media. That's all. No exceptions, no qualifications. There is simply no way that a large segment of the American viewing public will ever be persuaded to give up even a few minutes of time to follow a climbing competition. Frankly very few actual climbers can be bothered. Comments on this topic at the climbingnarc.com or at LT11 indicate as much. What some climbers may think is a successful audience of several thousand is barely a drop in the bucket as far as big media producers or sponsors are concerned. In other words the big-time ain't going to happen, and I will eat this blog post if it does in the USA. It doesn't mean that people won't try to make it happen and present a distorted and less-than-genuine view of the climbing world in the process, but in the end it won't work out as far as the financials are concerned.
Climbing has long been on the margin of mainstream culture and I don't think that will change much despite the efforts of many to assert that it is now time for the sport to hit the big-time. The stories and the characters are not there, the values don't translate well outside the circle of climbers, and the money is not there to create visuals that can truly be called professional, at least as big media would define the term. Those calling for the professionalization and expansion of the sport are not recognizing the limitations that the sport itself imposes on its practitioners and viewers. I don't believe that climbing is immune to commodification and the inroads of capitalist exploitation and I do think those narratives can do lasting harm to the climbing culture and more importantly the environment in which climbing takes place. But the example of Adidas' own marketing, as I describe above, clearly shows that (fortunately) the marketing and PR types have not figured out the key to extracting untold riches from climbing by pitching it to the masses. This is too bad if you want to make a fortune (or even a living) from making movies or becoming a "pro" climber but good news if you believe in a vision of climbing outside the market.
In my next post, I want to talk about why this vision is important and why a closer critique of climbing's assumptions and practices is so difficult.