The Numbers Behind the Growth of Climbing

Maybe it’s just because I live in Philadelphia, the site of no fewer than five brand new climbing gyms this year, but climbing’s growth seems to only be accelerating.

2018 saw two major climbing films hit theaters nationwide, and hype continues to build for climbing’s debut in the 2020 Olympics. The crotchety forum-bound old-schoolers seem to complain louder than ever about crowded crags.

But few of the doomsayers provide any hard numbers to back the cynicism. We decided to take a look at what data is available to track — and possibly predict — the growth of the sport.

The Rise of the Climbing Gym

By the nature of the beast, statistics for indoor climbing are far easier to find than those for outdoor climbing. Gyms keep records of members, check-ins, and waivers, none of which are required to climb at (most) outdoor crags.

Thus, to begin, let’s examine the growth of indoor climbing over the past five to ten years.

IBISWorld estimates that from 2012-2017 average annual growth for the indoor climbing wall industry was 3.9% in the USA. That’s over 39% greater than the gym, health, and fitness clubs industry’s 2.8% over roughly the same period.

Peak growth occurred in either 2013 or 2017 depending on your metric of choice. According to the Climbing Business Journal’s 2016 Gyms and Trends report, 2013 saw the greatest proportional growth (10.9% increase in gyms).

Then after a relatively quiet 2016 the industry bounced back with 43 new facilities in 2017, the most ever opened in a single year. 2018 is projected by multiple sources to meet or exceed this number.

 

Google Trends also shows an increased interest for indoor climbing based on web search data. Interest for the search term “climbing gym” has been on a steady rise over the past five years in the US.

US interest for the search term “bouldering gym” also shows a visible upward trend.

The growth of indoor climbing doesn’t seem to be limited to the United States. Over the decade since its founding in 2007, the International Federation of Sport Climbing has seen a 25% increase in member federations.

Bouldering-only Gyms Are a Sizable Minority of Total New Gyms

In past years around 40% of new gyms in the US have been bouldering-only or mostly bouldering-only.

 

One statistic of note about the 43 climbing gyms that opened in the US in 2017: 20 were bouldering-only, the most ever opened in a single year.

In Canada, seven of the 13 new climbing gyms added in 2017 were bouldering-only.

Bouldering-only gyms, with their smaller facilities, suit urban areas well. In fact, the CBJ noted that “all of the new bouldering-only gyms in Canada were built in large metro areas.” They predict this trend to continue into 2018 in the US.

Indoor Climbing Industry in North America Poised to Break Billion-Dollar Revenue Mark in 2021

But even with all the new gyms, the market doesn’t seem to be tapped. Many states have large population centers with no climbing gyms, and facilities across the Midwest have proven that proximity to real rock isn’t a requirement for success.

In their 2018 Industry Report, the Climbing Wall Association projects revenue growth percentages well into the double digits for both 2019 and 2020, with the indoor climbing industry poised to break the billion-dollar mark in 2021. Gym operators report strong growth in both membership and program offerings.

 

All these numbers add up to a feeling of optimism in the industry. Gym operators express a generally positive attitude toward new locations. The CBJ publishes pieces with headlines like “Philly Is So Hot!”

One fascinating area where the climbing industry lags the general fitness industry is in membership retention. According to the CWA report, the average 1-year retention rate at a climbing gym in 2017 was 39.6%. That’s well below the fitness industry’s 67.2% benchmark and less than most fitness clubs’ rate at 2 years.

One of few ominous signs for the climbing industry, this statistic could stem from a variety of sources — the number of new climbers who do not last, the nomadic nature of climbers, or the attention span of the millennial professional (a favorite demographic of climbing gyms).

Indoor vs. Outdoor Climbing

So, on to the million-dollar question: do all those gym climbers ever go outside?

The answer is difficult to track down. The best source so far is the Outdoor Foundation’s 2017 Outdoor Participation Report.

The report draws a line between “Sport/Indoor/Boulder” and “Traditional/Ice/Mountaineering.” These are very loose categories, but they’re the closest that any publicly available research gets to distinguishing between gym-focused climbers and outdoor-focused climbers.

 

Not surprisingly, both categories grew significantly from 2007 to 2016.

Also unsurprisingly, as of 2016 the Sport/Indoor/Boulder category boasts nearly double the participation of the Trad/Ice/Mountaineering category.

But here’s where things get interesting. Over the ten years listed in the report, Sport/Indoor/Boulder went from around 4.5 million participants to 4.9 million. Over that same time period, Trad/Ice/Mountaineering added nearly double the number of participants — from roughly 2 million to 2.8 million.

While the absolute number of participants remains far lower, the outdoor-focused category far outpaced the gym-focused category in terms of growth rate.

If these statistics are anywhere close to correct, the consequences for outdoor climbing are significant.

All the above numbers illustrate the demand for climbing. For indoor climbing, business owners respond to and serve that demand — by building more gyms.

The outdoor climbing ecosystem is not so flexible. The closest approximation to “opening” a location is developing a new crag, which takes a great deal of individual and community effort, often for little gratitude and a financial loss.

And even these efforts have a limit. Short of blasting out quarries or waiting a few million years, we’re stuck with the cliffs that nature has given us.

In this sense, the answer to the outdoor climbing question is obvious. Many gyms cater to indoor-only climbers, and many recreational participants will never set foot on real rock.

But — inspired by films like The Dawn Wall, a plethora of beautiful Instagrams, and gym-led instruction programs — at least some will. And as the number of indoor climbers goes up, the number that make the leap to the outdoors will also increase. Many of these climbers will flock where access is easy and climbing is quality, which further limits the number of available cliffs.

All of these issues explain the ongoing challenges faced by local and national stewardship groups. Environmental impact grows, and many climbing areas struggle to handle the traffic. And you can bet the old-school trad daddies reminisce about the days when the local 5.7 never had a line.

It’s this duality that seems to define climbing’s trajectory. The numbers point to two futures: one a bright vision of a growing sport, with better facilities, more athletes, and infrastructure to match; the other a crowded and ironically unsustainable saturation.

These dynamics have hope for equalization. Some disciplines (like bouldering) handle crowds better than others. Given time, outdoor infrastructure may catch up to the needs of new crowds. The hardcore may still (for now) find relative solitude on remote and alpine climbs. Perhaps some of the wealth from the gym industry will flow where it’s environmentally needed.

And surely someday climbing will reach equilibrium, slowing growth and claiming its place among more established American pastimes. Until then, we’re all along for the ride.

About the Author:

Willis is the rare local who was actually born in Boulder, Colorado, and he has been climbing mountains since he was small. He appreciates all styles of climbing and enjoys skiing and running on the side. Favorite climbing spots include Rocky Mountain National Park, Wild Iris, and Tuolumne. He attended college in Massachusetts and currently resides in Philadelphia. He loves cats, green tea, and endurance climbs. You can check out his adventures on his Instagram account.