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What Will the Pandemic do to Climbing Gyms?

In the past year, over 50 climbing gyms have opened in Canada and the U.S.A. So, how has the pandemic affected the sport?

Photo by: Cafe Bloc

Although the pandemic closed the doors of several small businesses, 2020 saw 53 new climbing gyms open across the U.S.A. and Canada. While this number inspires hope, it does not reflect the 18 climbing gyms that closed as a result of financial problems in that same year.

According to Climbing Business Journal’s report on Gyms and Trends, 2019 saw the lowest growth rate in US climbing gyms since 2013 with 34 new gyms. Although 2020 did beat out this 5.21% growth rate from that previous year, these last 12 months and their gym closures actually made for the lowest industry-increase since 2010. The 5.1% adjusted growth rate of this last year, however, still represents considerable growth for the industry. It should bring some comfort to concerned gym owners.

With the Olympic Games on the horizon, there remains hope that climbing could see a boom resulting from the sport’s inaugural year. While this comes with complications resulting from the pandemic, the last decade has shown that climbing growth is something to rely upon. Still, an alarming survey regarding regular gyms and their members gives the industry pause for questions.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Run Repeat Magazine found at that 50% of fitness gym members did not plan on returning to their home facility. As of March 2021, Run Repeat surveyed 11,193 members of gyms from 142 different countries. They found that 70.97 % of fitness gym members remain out of their facilities. 27.52% of gym members don’t intend on returning even after their vaccination.

To that effect, 55.57% of fitness gym memberships have been cancelled or paused. While 24.24% have mentioned that they will return to their gym, these individuals have decided to wait until their loved ones have also received their vaccinations.

What do these results mean? Although these number do seem high, this study relates to fitness gyms and not climbing gyms specifically. The increasing number of climbing gyms suggests that more climbers will join the community with time.

Furthermore, these numbers do not take into account the fact that one survey found 63% of US gym memberships unused. These memberships exist as a result of many reasons such as unstuck-to New Year’s Resolutions.

With that said, the climbing gym landscape is changing. Climbing gyms of the past were dominated by complete facilities. A complete facility would feature roped routes in addition to a bouldering area. Route climbing would frequently dominate these gyms’ square footage while the bouldering existed as a feature of the larger facility. This has changed.

In 2020, bouldering gyms made up 50% of new U.S. climbing gyms. In Canada, this last year saw eight new climbing gyms six of which were bouldering-only facilities. For those that have entered climbing recently, this might not seem like unbelievable news, but this development speaks volumes.

Bouldering has quickly started to grow with the popularity of social media like Instagram and YouTube. The challenging discipline forces dynamic moves that anyone can appreciate as exciting. While route climbing remains a pillar of the climbing industry, the increasing number of boulderers has helped put a spotlight on the rapidly developing discipline.

At one point, bouldering was not part of World Cup events. Today, bouldering has become the most watched international climbing event out there. Indoor bouldering offers an extremely communal space for a lower opening cost than a complete gym. Bouldering offers greater accessibility only requiring shoes and chalk to participate. The fact that these gyms were slated to open in 2020 before the pandemic even started leads a person to wonder what will happen as we enter another year.

Financial instability has left its mark on business owners and prospective entrepreneurs. The next wave of pandemic-influenced climbing gyms will surely differ from their predecessors. To that effect, the question of what will occur following the Olympics remains. If climbing does experience an explosion, which of the sports’ three disciplines will receive the most attention?

While speed climbing has suffered numerous jokes from the climbing community, the easily understood discipline could receive new athletes from sports of similar formats. Swimming and sprinting reflect speed climbing in their design. These sports have great popularity, so climbing may pull in a number of their athletes.

With that said, the irresistibly flashy boulder problems that describe modern competition route setting might attract an audience climbing has never considered. Furthermore, the daring and smooth lead climb course might, in itself, lend a resurgence to indoor climbing’s most established discipline.

Lead photo: Cafe Bloc