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Leisure Management - Climbing



Climbing is one of the few sports to have significantly increased participation since the first active england study in 2006

Tom Walker, Leisure Media
As a lot of the climbing takes place outdoors in natural surroundings, there is no facility strategy needed for the NGB
As a lot of the climbing takes place outdoors in natural surroundings, there is no facility strategy needed for the NGB
There are more than 380 indoor climbing walls in the UK – nearly all of which are commercially operated
The nature of climbing makes it a very social activity – and attractive to men and women of all ages

The history of climbing as a sport in the UK dates back to 1886 when Eton-educated Walter Smith first completed a solo climb of Napes Needle – a detached formation which Victorian mountaineers could easily avoid on their way to the summit. Therefore Smith’s ascent was seen as the first ‘sports climb’ in history.

A lot has changed since those days and the relatively recent trend of indoor climbing walls springing up in urban settings has made climbing accessible to all. That is reflected in participation figures – climbing is now one of the fastest growing sports in the UK and is one of just six sports which showed a statistically significant increase since the first Active People Survey in 2005-06.

There are currently 305 clubs and 24,247 climbers affiliated to the sport’s governing body, the British Mountaineering Council (BMC). The latest Active People Survey results from Sport England show that around 87,800 adults in England participate regularly (once a week) in climbing and mountaineering. This includes sports such as indoor climbing, rock climbing outdoors, mountaineering, trekking, hill walking, mountain walking and bouldering.

More significantly, the number of people who participate occasionally (at least once a month) in climbing and mountaineering in England has now reached 250,000. The main growth of these occasional climbers over the last five years has been in the 16- to 25-year-old category (from 74,100 to 88,700). There has also been an increase in female participants (81,900 to 87,800).

There are no signs of the growth slowing down either, according to Dave Turnbull, the chief executive of the BMC. “We expect the overall trend of growth to continue and to see more people taking up outdoor climbing as a result of our engagement projects with indoor climbers,” he says. “With more and more schools getting climbing walls we expect that to have a positive impact on participation of young people.”

Encouragingly, between 15 and 20 per cent of those who regularly climb already are under the age of 18. For Turnbull, the challenge isn’t to get people of any age to try out climbing – it’s to convert them to become regulars. “Through indoor walls we’re managing to attract many young people. Our biggest challenge is how to introduce them to climbing outside and joining clubs.”

There are already plans to tackle this challenge. The BMC has been successful in securing funding from Sport England for the period 2013-2017 primarily to increase participation of 16 to 25-year-olds; women and hill walkers. Thanks to the funding, the BMC was able to employ a team of three regional development officers (RDOs), as well as a hill walking development officer – all funded by Sport England.

“This is an exciting development for the BMC,” Turnbull says. “The RDOs’ (based in London, the north east and the north west) primary objectives are to support indoor climbers making the transition to outdoors and also to help clubs who wish to attract new members.”

The BMC has already embarked on an engagement programme through the new RDOs. They’re working on an ‘Indoor to Outdoor’ campaign to help people who only climb indoors to access opportunities to try climbing outdoors. As part of this the BMC is offering subsidised courses at the National Mountain Centre at Plas y Brenin in North Wales. Social media has also been harnessed to attract young people to the sport. “Over the last couple of years we’ve grown our Facebook page to 33,000 likes and we have 12,000 followers on Twitter,” says Turnbull. “We’re currently doing a social media audit and have plans to launch BMC TV later this year. Also this year we’ll be launching an ambassadors programme, to inspire young people through role models and ambassadors.”

Molehills and mountains
As most of the recreational and competitive climbing takes place outdoors in natural surroundings, or at commercially-run indoor climbing walls and centres, the BMC has no outright facility strategy in place. There are currently 380 indoor public walls in the UK and any changes in this number depend on whether commercial operators deem there to be demand to build more.

Most walls in the UK are built by member companies of the Climbing Wall Manufacturers Association (CWMA). BMC liaises with CWMA but broadly speaking, rather than concentrating on increasing the number of facilities, the BMC’s facility strategy is to form partnerships with organisations to make sure existing sites are utilised.

This means that the BMC works closely with the climbing wall operators, clubs, guides, scouts and youth groups, as well as outdoor centres and providers in its grassroots delivery. There are also strong links with Mountain Training and the Department of Education.

Turnbull adds: “More recently we’ve linked up with the County Sports Partnerships. Also, for climbing outdoors on the access side of things, we work with outdoor organisations such as the Ramblers and Campaign for National Parks, as well as bodies such as Natural England and Natural Resources Wales.”

The BMC also gets involved in promoting climbing outside of the UK and partners with international organisations. Most recently, it was one of the driving forces in a bid – led by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) – for climbing to be included in the main Olympic programme for 2020. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the BMC managed to recruit the likes of Dame Kelly Holmes to be part of the campaign to lobby for the change.

The IFSC’s proposals were for a multi-discipline event which would include a mix of speed climbing, lead climbing and bouldering. According to Turnbull, the format would have embodied the Olympic motto – faster, higher, stronger – perfectly. “Climbing’s bid was considered on a shortlist of eight sports but unfortunately has not made the final cut. We thought climbing put forward a strong case especially as the IOC was looking for something new, which climbing offered.”

Climbing to the top
The nature of climbing – with basic techniques and skills being relatively easy to learn and equipment easy to purchase – makes it possible for dedicated and motivated individuals to start taking part in competitions fairly quickly. At a global level, the IFSC organises World Cup competitions and rankings in three disciplines – lead climbing, bouldering and speed climbing. The BMC has set up talent pathways in each to identify young climbers with ability and to support their development to the very top.

Most young people begin their competitive climbing in a league or bouldering event at a local wall or through taking part in the BMC’s Youth Climbing Series (BMC YCS). The top 12 in each final are invited to join the BMC’s National Academies – where young climbers are helped to improve their rankings.

Turnbull explains: “At the academy level, depending on their age, climbers can start entering other national level competitions such as the British Lead Climbing Championships and British Bouldering Championships.

“The introduction of the BMC Youth Climbing Series has been a fun way for young climbers to get a taste of competition climbing and the competition sees year on year growth. This year it attracted a whopping 860 young climbers and 306 took part in the final.

“We also run two Open Youth Lead and Bouldering events each year and the results from these events are used as a basis for selection for the GB Junior Climbing Team. Climbers on the GB team are eligible to represent Great Britain on the international stage.”

Most recently, in July 2013, 14 of the best British junior climbers travelled to Austria to take part in the IFSC European Youth Championship – with two climbers achieving top 10 positions.

Above and beyond
Looking ahead, climbing’s future looks bright. Participation figures are healthy and people of all ages are discovering climbing. Its ability to attract a wide audience is undoubtedly one of its greatest strengths. And while climbing is a major part of the BMC’s remit, it also promotes other forms of activities.

“Climbing is a very diverse activity,” says Turnbull. “Some people see it as a sport and others see it as a leisure activity or a way of life. As our participation statement highlights the risk and responsibility involved in climbing, we don’t directly encourage people to climb. However, once people are interested, we provide safety and training advice and publications for information.

“We promote the health benefits of climbing, hill walking and mountaineering and we’re one of the key supporters of the Britain on Foot campaign to get Britain more active in the outdoors.”

Originally published in Sports Management 2013 issue 2
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