Opinion: Bouldering Nationals Should Move to the Big City

By John Burgman ,

Aside from all the action, one of the big stories to come out of the USA Climbing 2018 Bouldering Open Nationals in Salt Lake City was the announcement that next year’s championship, as well as the one in 2020, will be held in Bend, Oregon. USA Climbing CEO Kynan Waggoner broke the news at the top of the livestream during an interview withy commentators Brian Runnells and Chris Weidner: “The Bend community, the climbing community, the outdoor recreation community, the businesses, the city of Bend is incredibly excited about us coming there and bringing this event to them,” Waggoner said. Astute viewers might have noticed a climbing-heavy VisitBend.com advertisement before Finals.

It’s hard to argue with the choice—Bend is a stunning place and an exciting city in its own right. Its mountain tourism makes it a suitable host for America’s biggest bouldering comp. Weidner mentioned that Bend is one of the pinnacle spots in American climbing history; the first 5.14 in the United States (To Bolt Or Not To Be) was established at Smith Rock—a breezy drive from Bend—more than two decades ago. There is fantastic bouldering around Bend too. And college towns like Eugene and Corvallis—just a few hours away—have active climbing teams and clubs. An established climbing core already exists, and there are other enticing aspects of Bend, such as thriving gyms with supportive staff. I once interviewed Rich Breuner, Director of Operations at Bend Rock Gym, and he could not have been a more positive ambassador for the sport.

Bend is an awesome choice, but what happens after 2020? It’s worth considering how other cities could offer new, different accoutrements when it’s time once again for Nationals to pack up and move elsewhere.

For starters, let’s look at USA Climbing’s Mission Statement, which can be taken as the foundational objective for any comp the organization puts on:

To promote the growth and success of the sport of competition climbing in the United States while generating competitive excellence for United States athletes in international competition.

Based on the first part of that statement, a discussion of future host venues is worthwhile. Growing the sport implies developing climbing in places that have ample headroom for upward progress. It can mean many things: drawing more eyes to the events, spurring more participation, snagging new advertising partners, and enticing first-time investors. To that point, growing the sport is a business practice as much as it is an abstract mission.

But Waggoner said something else pertinent: “This year we’ll also be doing webcasts of our Collegiate Nationals for the first time, and our Sport and Speed Youth National Championships later this year, and not to forget about our Sport and Speed Open National Championships next month in Reno with our friends at Mesa Rim Reno.” He added, “I think the future of events—it’s a great time to be involved with USA Climbing. This month we’ll also go live with an RFP process for 2018/19 National Cup Series for bouldering, 2019 Lead Cup Series—which is a new thing for us, and as well the rest of our 2019 National Championships.”

That statement, coupled with the recent livestream webcasts of the Bouldering National Cup series, indicate that USA Climbing is interested in having an increased media presence and is interested in putting on a lot of events.

With those interests in mind, USA Climbing should consider heading east. For example, New York City—purely urban and lacking mountains—goes starkly against climbing’s past, but it is an embodiment of what the comp version of climbing is (or wants to be) in the present. True, it’s unlike anyplace chosen to host big climbing events in the U.S.—Snowbird, Colorado Springs, Boulder, Denver, Madison, Salt Lake City, Bend, etc. But here’s the disconnect that nobody is pointing out: With the exception of Madison, those Western cities are all imbued with mountain culture, yet the current comp scene has nothing to do with mountains. In fact, it has nothing to do with rock either. Comps no longer need to be tethered to mountain towns, especially as USA Climbing establishes its own cross-country circuit, an on- and off-season of competition, a widespread network of coaches, and a nationwide fan base separate from the outdoors. The comp scene should differentiate itself as an entity that can thrive anywhere, and carve its own path and media identity. It partially does that already.

There would be higher price tags and a lot of logistical complications to hosting an event in New York City, but if climbing is perpetually flirting with mainstream exposure, why not go all the way? Not only does the city have the deepest network of media and advertisers of any potential host, but it also has a thriving gym scene—and gyms are the lifeblood of comps way more than mountains are. There are already two Brooklyn Boulders in the city and plans to open another one. The Cliffs operates a gym and outdoor bouldering in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Both Metro Rock and Central Rock also plan to open large new facilities. There are smaller gyms like the new GP81 too. The city is hardly devoid of a climbing subculture. Better yet, that subculture is almost uniformly an indoor one.

Plus, there would be a marketable novelty factor, as New York City so rarely hosts high-level climbing events, although it has a history of accommodating big events for other niches like boxing, mixed martial arts, track and field, and dog shows.

There’s the potential celebrity spectacle too, which New York does better than any city. Celebrity appeal can grow a sport like nothing else. See Chris Sharma, or Alex Honnold, or Sylvester Stallone around the 1993 release of Cliffhanger. In the future, Ashima Shiraishi will likely be looking to secure any number of publicized National championships, and she is already one of the mainstream media’s favorite climbers—having been profiled by The New York Times and The New Yorker and other national outlets. And no other climber on the comp circuit can claim to be one of the faces of Coca-Cola. Oh, did I mention she’s from New York City? That localism could be harnessed and amplified, especially in 2021 if Shiraishi is an Olympic alum.

Similar points could be made about other cities AB (After Bend), such as Boston and Philadelphia. The Dark Horse Bouldering Series has already proven that the Northeast has a supportive comp fan base. Chicago, as well, has a high Q-Score among climbers right now with the recent development of the First Ascent gyms. And Los Angeles also comes to mind, with its own profusion of advertising, media, and high-profile gyms like Chris Sharma’s Sender One. Why not fly Sharma in to Southern California, capitalize on his celebrity status and use that “to promote the growth and success of the sport?” Sharma has worked with Bouldering Nationals’ producer Louder Than Eleven in the past—to cover the grand opening of Sender One and the Psicobloc Masters, for example—so it’s not like a partnership would be coming out of left field.

Perhaps it is inevitable that USA Climbing will take its indoor championships to a big out-of-the-climbing-box city at some point. But until it does, we’ll just have to continue to wonder unknowingly how comp climbing’s stature might look in rooms that have somewhat higher ceilings.

See you in Bend.  

John Burgman is the author of Why We Climb: A Dirtbag's Quest for Vertical Reason.

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