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Interview: USA Climbing CEO Marc Norman Sees the Olympics as Just the Beginning

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USA Climbing just released its Strategic Plan [PDF] for the next four years. The goals range from increasing and amping up American competition climbing’s media presence to making climbing a widespread varsity sport at the collegiate level to making a comp climber a household name. Climbing had a chance to dive into the details of the plan with USA Climbing’s CEO, Marc Norman, to get an inside look on where the organization is headed.

The list of core values in the new Strategic Plan mentions “adjusting if USA Climbing falls short” and “celebrating successes.” So, let’s start by looking back: What were some of the biggest successes of the past few years for USA Climbing?

Marc Norman: I think the obvious successes would be the work to get included in the Olympic Games, and to become an officially recognized national governing body. Those are monumental tasks that the organization, before my time, was able to move and make happen. And with that certainly comes a lot of challenges. But to be able to do that: To move from a youth-sport organization to a national governing body tasked with overseeing all aspects of the sport, from youth to elite, that has an impact.

The first core value mentioned for 2020-2024 is to “put the athlete first.” What are some ways that USA Climbing might work towards that in the next four years?

As an overall principle, we want to make sure that when we make decisions we’re basing them first with the athlete in mind—and the athlete can be anyone from a beginning youth competitor all the way up to our elite athletes. So, if I was going to give you one [specific], it would apply to what the Competition Task Force is doing, which is looking at what we’re doing and saying, “Is this really the best for athlete health and well-being?” And if it’s not, then let’s fix it.

We have some big goals and aspirations in the Strategic Plan and while we have already started to work on some of the goals we have a lot to come. Things like identifying injuries—and if we’re seeing trends, acting on those trends so that we can reduce the amount of injuries in our sport. You name it, it kind of runs across the sport—even to things that aren’t injuries. We’ve seen things related to anorexia and eating disorders; obviously if you drop 15 pounds and you’re still strong, for a short period of time you climb a little better. But we’d look at that as a short-term gain with serious long-term consequences. So educating our membership of the proper diet, training loads, proper use of hangboards, and more are all things that will be coming from USA Climbing in the future.

Were there other governing bodies that you looked at as models for that?

Definitely. We looked at a number of governing bodies. We also looked at the Olympic committee in and of itself. They actually just updated their Strategic Plan as well, and “promoting and protecting athletes” is a significant component of that.

Nobody likes to talk about the challenges that have faced youth sports with sexual abuse, but that’s a part of it as well—ensuring that athletes are represented on the board, ensuring that they have representation on committees, that their voices are heard. Those are all really important things and a place we really want to be, one of those leading national governing bodies on the front-edge of really engaging and involving our athletes in everything we do. Of course, we know they’re not always going to agree. There are always limited resources. So being able to support some [athletes] in some ways, and others in other ways, will always be a little bit of a challenge. But I’ve always believed that the more transparent we can be, and the more engaged [the athletes] can be in the process, hopefully if we do disagree in some places, they will understand why.

You mention sexual abuse in regards to youth sports, and obviously one of the big cases that comes to mind is the USA Gymnastics scandal that was reported in 2016. I remember when that story broke, and in the aftermath, I wondered what USA Climbing—as another national governing body with a huge youth and coach contingent—could and should learn from it.

I think any national governing body, or really any youth sport organization—because this is an issue that goes beyond governing bodies—if they don’t think this is a problem in their midst, their heads are in the sand. One of the early things we were able to do when I came on board was hire a SafeSport manager, Sharlee Holland. That’s her job, she looks at it all day, every day—not just in terms of responding to incidents that happen, but educating our membership to look for it and ways to prevent it. And also in regards to things that you don’t think are wrong but in today’s climate are wrong, or can be perceived that way, right? So protecting coaches too in that way, as much as it’s protecting the athletes. It’s protecting the coaches so they know, “Hey, maybe this seems OK and harmless but for somebody else, it may not be.” So [coaches] need to be cautious of those things so they don’t get themselves into a situation where nothing intentional was meant, but perception is big.

One of the strategic visions is to have widespread media broadcasts. So might we see broadcasts beyond just the national championship livestreams?

Yeah, I think it leaves the door wide open. Obviously the first priority, generally speaking, is to increase the exposure of competition climbing throughout the general public market. I know there are some in our community who don’t love that. But sponsors—and specifically non-endemic sponsors—certainly want to know that we’re being seen not just by the true, dedicated climbers. They want that big market reach. So, to make that happen, we have to get out to the general public, we have to present the sport in ways that are easy to understand. Like our scoring system—we have to question whether that’s the best way for the general public to understand. And then, once we start to broaden that reach and people are interested in consuming the content, then you can do all kinds of things.

The ESPN deal was a two-year contract. Does that mean you’re in talks with ESPN now about re-upping the partnership?

Yeah, our contract with them was for last year and this year. This year we’re adding the [broadcast of] collegiate nationals, which I think is a great addition to the national championships for ESPN. We are in a window of renegotiation with ESPN and other partners. So I’d just say yeah, our intent is to continue broadcasting our events through any high-level broadcaster in the country and to ensure that we can increase that exposure.

To give you an example with ESPN: This first time, we were guaranteed two re-airs, three total programs, of each national championship. So we were guaranteed nine showings of the one-hour show. So, now, we’re wondering how can we guarantee more than that? ESPN actually did deliver much more than just nine showings; they delivered 20 airings because they did like it. But how can guarantee more of that—and maybe longer shows. Rather than an hour broadcast, can we get maybe an hour-and-a-half where we can do a little more storytelling? Right now the hour feels kind of tight. And it kind of jumps around. In an hour you only get 42 minutes of actual footage and then there’s 18 minutes of commercials, so it’s really condensed. Certainly our partners—The North Face, Yeti, Clif Bar—they like that we’re reaching out and growing the audience. In the past with YouTube livestreams, we’d see about a million views, and that wasn’t unique views (which you can’t track on YouTube quite as well). But our first year with ESPN, we saw ten million views. So that’s a 10-fold increase in viewership, which is why we want to keep doing it.

So hopefully it only gets bigger and better, and hopefully we can elevate the sports-production side of it. We have to make people want to see climbing and turn it on and leave it on, and be excited about it.

As far as production, I think one of the best moves was bringing back Sam Farber and Sean Woodland on commentary for this year’s Combined Invitational and Open Bouldering National Championship. It was good to use the same team as last year—it established some consistency in pairing those guys with Meagan Martin.

I completely agree. Some of that, in all honesty, was mandated by ESPN—that we have a professional commentator that has done a number of sports with them, so they at least knew they had one person who knew how it worked. So that’s why we paired them up with Meagan. It was the perfect combination. Meagan knows everything there is to know about the sport and brings the fun. But Sam and Sean brought the explanation of how the whole thing works.

Norman climbing the full Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton, Wyoming.Courtesy

My big hope always after a national championship is to see a highlight on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Something like a big dyno seems tailor-made for the SportsCenter Top 10 list or a highlight reel with other incredible plays.

Exactly. I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve heard from random friends all over the world that they’re just sitting in some bar and climbing comes on.

I can tell you it’s just the beginning. Hopefully the Strategic Plan shows we’ve got some big aspirations. We’re going to bring the national championships to major downtown locations where we’ll own portable lead, speed, and bouldering walls. Bring it to the people rather than trying to get the general public into a gym where we get a couple hundred people. Not many gyms are built for having 5,000 spectators, so let’s bring it to the people.

The Strategic Plan also lists the goal of making a climber a household name. We’ve never really seen USA Climbing working on branding a singular competitor—as opposed to the whole, the team—before. Does that mean you’ll put time and effort into promoting individuals?

I think that’s an interesting question. The answer for me would be yes and no. I think it’s a yes, while the team is still given time and attention. The intent here is: Let’s increase the exposure and the professionalism of the sport so that a climber can fulfill that point. If we had five athletes who were doing all kinds of amazing things, we ought to be pushing all five of them for news stories through our various connections with media all over the country … especially with the mainstream media, and helping them achieve that. And whether that’s one or—who knows where the sport goes in the future—maybe there’s a team event in the Olympics at some point. So maybe we’ll have the best women’s team in the world, for example. Allowing every athlete to fulfill their maximum potential, and that’s not just athletically but also from a long-term career standpoint, those are absolutely the things we need to be doing. Funnily enough, that kind of comes back to “athlete first,” right? How do we ensure that the athletes can make a living and feel good about it?

Do the top-level USA Climbing athletes get any sort of media training?

They’ve had a little bit, but we’ll be doing more of that, especially around the Olympic Games, but even more going forward as more media starts paying attention. We’ve done some around the national championships, knowing that [the athletes] would likely get exposure on ESPN: “Here’s what we want, we want you doing this, careful what you say about these things.” But definitely there’s more we can do in that space and definitely the Olympians will get a lot of that. The Olympic Committee puts on a pretty significant media training [program] when you land in Tokyo.

This is somewhat related to saying certain things to the media, and I want to run it by you. One of the things that bugs me—for lack of a better word—is when a big-name competition climber is asked what he/she considers to be his/her greatest climbing accomplishment, and the answer is a big outdoor send. Say, a V15 boulder, 5.15 route, some epic multi-pitch line, or something like that. As a competition fan first and foremost, those answers always crush my spirit. I want to see these athletes citing national championships and competition wins as their greatest accomplishments. How do we get there?

I think you’ll see that, quite honestly. I think that’s kind of the difference between this current group of athletes who—when they started, competition climbing was smaller, less prestigious, and [had] no Olympic Games and no future via competition climbing. As the sport grows, I think we’ll see that change. Honestly, I’ve had the same reaction. We’ve tried to share with the athletes the magnitude of the Olympic Games. I’ve brought in friends of mine who are Olympians, including my wife, to help convey how big it is, but it is hard to convey until you have lived it. Frankly, you could see it start to turn quite a bit this year as Olympic qualifying progressed, so we are on the right track.

I know that being sanctioned as an official NCAA sport is also a big goal—to the point where USA Climbing even hired a Collegiate & Paraclimbing Series Manager [Rachel Owens] to work on it. I’ve looked into the details of what NCAA sanctioning entails, and it’s complicated. Can you give climbing fans the CliffsNotes version of the process—and more importantly, explain why being an NCAA sport is a priority?

First, you become an [NCAA] “emerging sport,” so you have to apply for that, and you have to meet certain requirements to be considered an emerging sport. I can’t quote the exact numbers, but I think it’s 10 colleges and universities need to recognize the sport as a varsity sport, as well as 20 that recognize it as a club sport. We already easily meet the club sport requirement. I think it’s 174 universities that recognize climbing as a club sport today, which is a massive number. But we only have one varsity sport right now—Brevard College, a big shout-out to them. So, you fill out the application, you submit which universities meet the requirements.

But I think the purpose behind it is to provide that, and show that, transition from a youth sport organization. One of my most-hated terms in our sport—and I hear it all the time—is, “My child has aged out.” Your child aged out of climbing—what? I’m still going to the gym and climbing, so what does “aged-out” mean? It baffles me. So this is a way to eliminate that. You don’t “age out” when you get to age 18; you have a collegiate pathway so now it can pay for you to go to school while being a collegiate climber. Of course, we want climbers for life, and we want them to recognize themselves both as an indoor climber and an outdoor climber for life. So this really is intentional to fill that pipeline so that they can go to school and still climb. We’re not reinventing the wheel. All the sports before us—why do people keep playing basketball when they know they’re not going to make the NBA? Well, because they can go to school, it’s prestigious still, they can get a college education so when they come out of school they can get a job. All of those things come into play.

And what about after people finish college? This all makes me envision something like a USA Climbing Masters Division or a Seniors Division.

Yep—you’re on it!

Because when the Strategic Plan talks about a competition pathway for adults “at all levels,” to me that implies levels below the elite level. In other words: A nation-wide competition circuit that doesn’t have the Open National Championships as the end-goal?

Exactly—I think you’re seeing a lot of that already. I don’t think we have to go out and create this from scratch. The gyms are running all of these amazing comps. I want to build them into this Citizens Class. Or, as you say, a Seniors or Masters Class competition that ranks them and then maybe there is that Masters Nationals that ends up appearing someday. You could do it by age category, or there’s a whole variety of ways you could do it. That is the next level. The purpose is to grow the membership, grow the amount of people who want to be part of USA Climbing.

Right now, the only reason people join USA Climbing, unfortunately, is to be a competitor—and a high-level competitor. There are other programs out there right now that are flourishing, or starting to flourish, and their requirement is you can’t be a USA Climbing member. But we want all these people as part of our organization too for a couple reasons. One, so that when those people go to their local gym and it’s closed for a USA Climbing comp, they’re not cursing our name or their local gym’s name—but they stick around to see it and cheer on and recognize the importance of it. But two, to grow that membership base even bigger and grow climbing’s reach and impact even more.

There is a contingent of dyed-in-the-wool dirtbag climbers who will read these strategic visions of new competition pathways, major corporate sponsors, and NCAA sanctioning and think, “This is not what climbing is all about.” They might call it “going corporate,” “going mainstream,” or “selling out.” I don’t agree with that line of thinking at all, but how does USA Climbing get those people to come around too?

What I hope is that we can prove—and we’re going to have to prove it—that we can bring value to them. And that’s going to take some time. It’s not going to happen overnight. We’re going to have to deliver good content that they find interesting. We have to provide membership value. And again I really think it’s a time issue. This current generation looks at it a little less positively than the younger generation. But I hope as we do those things, we’ll slowly win them over. Certainly we’ll never get everybody, but we just have to do our best. Finally, take a look at snowboarding; they were where we are today back in 1998 with a lot of the same concerns and comments, look where the sport is now, it’s amazing.

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