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When the four American Olympians step up to the climbing wall at the (postponed) Tokyo Olympics next summer, they will have overcome a varied gauntlet of previous competitions to prepare for, and ultimately reach, the Tokyo Games: Pan-American Championships and World Championships, most notably, but also World Cup circuits and National Cup series. Previous Youth World Championships and local gym competitions will have also played a part in propelling each of the athletes—Brooke Raboutou, Nathaniel Coleman, Kyra Condie and Colin Duffy—toward their Olympic dreams.
A long string of interconnected events stretching years into the past will make for great Olympic storytelling. Yet, often less explored than the competition narrative is the money it has taken to support American competitors’ Olympic ambitions—and the story of how the national governing body of the sport, USA Climbing, utilizes its funds on a regular basis.
USA Climbing will fully cover the cost of getting those four Olympians to Tokyo—plane tickets, ancillary transportation costs around Japan, food, lodging and medical support. But in many ways, an Olympics that happens every four years will always signify merely the tail-end of funding for elite American athletes. Consider that during the 2019 season, USA Climbing funded eight athletes to attend World Cups. For the 2021 season, the organization hopes to be able to fund the full team (10 athletes, as well as two coaches and a medical staff) to World Cups, which would far surpass the cost of sending four climbers to an Olympics.
Team attendance at a World Cup event in a foreign country typically consists of a full week in a hotel, along with food and rental cars for the same seven-day stretch. Training expenses for the 10 team members while abroad also add up.
“On average, one World Cup stop could cost $30,000 to $35,000 in total,” USA Climbing’s CEO, Marc Norman says. “So, let’s say the American team has six stops on the Bouldering World Cup circuit and six stops on the Lead/Speed World Cup circuit—that’s 12 stops, which equates to roughly half a million dollars. It’s immense, the amount of funds it takes to truly support it.”
Norman points out that covering the cost of an American team on the World Cup circuit (and the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics) is part of one “bucket” of USA Climbing funding—a figurative bucket labeled “high-performance.” And that bucket certainly requires significant capital, as the organization sometimes pumps as much as $800,000 into it in a given year. Some of that $800,000 is covered by funds received by USA Climbing from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. But other, larger buckets compose the full architecture of USA Climbing funds.
By far the greatest expense for USA Climbing, and therefore the financial category that requires the most funding, is organization of many annual sanctioned competitions. These range from high-level National Cup series and National Championships to the Collegiate and Paraclimbing series—as well as regional and divisional youth events. Some of the hefty financial output of these myriad events is offset by money brought into USA Climbing through its other funding buckets: sponsorship and fundraising, in particular, as well as USA Climbing’s annual membership earnings.
Since expenses and revenue in each of USA Climbing’s various funding buckets do not always break even, it is the scrupulous reallocation and transferral of money—from one bucket to another—that keeps the organization successful, solvent and able to grow.
“Every year it is a challenge to identify with the limited resources what you can and cannot do,” notes Norman, specifying that USA Climbing’s goal for the coming year is $5.9 million in revenue. “It’s a continual push to grow the revenue while keeping the expenses in check as best we can.”
A History of Frugality
USA Climbing has a number of funding goals that are yet-to-be realized, including the aforementioned coverage of team costs for a full World Cup circuit and all international Paraclimbing Championships. Norman cites many other ambitions for the future, such as increased medical support for athletes, bolstered strength and conditioning coaching at the organization’s Salt Lake City headquarters, and sports-psychology resources for competitors—all of which will require more money. Norman would eventually like to see direct financial support, such as substantial stipends for high-level competitors so they do not have to balance training with holding other jobs to make ends meet. But all these objectives for the future should not overshadow the great strides in aquiring funding that USA Climbing has already made.
John Brosler, USA Team member, discusses the current realities of being a professional competitor: “I’ve been lucky enough to have some support from my parents, but I still had to work a lot in order to travel, compete and train as much as I wanted to. I would coach for Team ABC and Team Texas, usually for 20-plus hours per week, while also training and studying full-time. I could get by, but I sacrificed a lot of training, and I sometimes wonder if it was worth it if I couldn’t be in the best shape possible for the competitions. Now that we get some funding from USAC, I’m thankful that I don’t have to make that sacrifice anymore.”
All previous national governing bodies for American climbing, before USA Climbing existed, operated in grassroots ways, on shoestring budgets and with very little separation of financial buckets—and never any sort of high-performance budget.
For example, in the early 1990s, the American Sport Climbers Federation (ASCF) was founded by Ralph Erenzo and Peter Darmi with startup funds generously gifted from American Alpine Club board members. The ASCF, the United States’ first national governing body for climbing competitions, was run quite literally from Darmi’s kitchen table in New York. “Ralph Erenzo and I paid office expenses out-of-pocket in the hope we could get the organization off the ground before it crashed under its own weight,” Darmi recalls. “Based on aerodynamics, bumblebees aren’t supposed to be able to fly, but they do. That was sort of our guiding principle.”
The ASCF chugged along for nearly a decade, although fully funding an entire American national team was never feasible. “I don’t recall ever getting any funding from the organization to compete,” reflects Bobbi Bensman, a multi-time United States national team member in the 1990s under the ASCF. “I was fully sponsored, so I used those funds for travel both nationally as well as internationally.”
Continual funding struggles forced the ASCF to slash the amount of national competitions sanctioned, until eventually it ceased operations. The national organizations that emerged in the ASCF’s wake retained similar funding woes. “I felt I was building a business, so I actively ‘invested’ lots of time and money,” recalls Scott Rennak, who founded the American Bouldering Series (ABS) in the early 2000s. “Generally my approach to funding ABS was to keep expenses low, and dip into personal credit/savings anytime we didn’t have enough revenue.”
The ABS, as an independent governing entity, eventually evolved to become the bouldering arm of USA Climbing. Rennak notes that the ABS under his guise was funded mostly “through host fees and modest sponsorship revenue, although that wasn’t enough to cover all the expenses.” To make money needed to pay bills and gain additional funds that could be pumped into the ABS events, Rennak delivered pizzas on a late shift. “I worked the nights because that’s when the good tips came; plus you always knew you would eat good after work for free,” he notes.
One eventual bright spot in early ABS funding was a $3,000 check from the Touchstone gyms; it was a gift urged by famed American competitor Hans Florine and was the largest single cash sponsor ABS ever received. Clif Bar also contributed $2,000 (and donated more than 7,000 bars) during ABS’s second season—and continued as a sponsor through the formation of USA Climbing.
Formally, USA Climbing came into its own in 2003. But in the years that followed, the organization’s main sources of funding continued to be modest membership dues and endemic sponsors—with much of the infused capital being used to hold competitions; hardly any money was devoted to developing and nurturing elite athletes. This began to change with Norman’s appointment as USA Climbing’s new CEO in July of 2018. Five months after he began his tenure, a High Performance division within USA Climbing was formed. A chief goal of this division was getting Americans to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Funds that were funneled into that High Performance division quickly resulted in the hiring of a High Performance Director, John Muse, and the creation of an exclusive 11,500-square-foot USA Climbing training center. Those intiatives contributed to the achievement of the end goal: the United States fulfilled its Olympic quota with four qualified athletes.
Most remarkable was that the success of USA Climbing’s competitors on the biggest stages—World Cup competitions and eventually Olympic qualification events—came without any direct government financial support.
“Across all sports, every country in the world supports their national teams and high performance in some form or another—except for the United States,” says Norman. He postulates that there is a spirit of fierce American independence underpinning this peculiarity, a mindset of “We can do this on our own—we don’t need governmental support to make it work.” But what it equates to pragmatically is the national governing bodies of all American sports being at a financial disadvantage compared to those of other countries. This is less of an issue for major sports in the United States—such as tennis, basketball and baseball—in which lucrative sponsorships easily make up any financial disparity. But for smaller American sports—such as climbing—the lack of government support makes for a constant struggle.
“Frankly, it’s a challenge to compete against many of the top countries in the world who receive sometimes significant government support each year. We can’t simply look to membership and event revenue to cover costs, we need significant support from our partners, both endemic and non-endemic, and through increased fundraising,” says Norman.
A Future of Growth
The biggest economic challenge for USA Climbing this past year has been posed by the COVID-19 crisis, an unpredictable variable that ravaged every aspect of funding. Specifically, USA Climbing’s total annual budget, which concluded at the end of August, 2020, was originally set at $5.36 million in revenue and expenses. However, approximately six months prior—in March, 2020—the organization called an emergency board meeting with its audit committee as the pandemic was just starting to reveal its catastrophic potential. The discussion at hand that day was how the organization could best endure the forthcoming crisis, in which the remaining season—including the Lead and Speed National Championships, not to mention collegiate and youth events—was likely to be canceled.
By the conclusion of that meeting, the planned $5.36 million annual budget had been reforecast to $3.8 million in revenue and expenses—essentially $1.6 million dollars dropped in a single day. It was a funding gut-punch for USA Climbing, soon coupled with the unfortunate stalling of all high-performance training and a lull in new memberships as a forced lockdown took shape.
Still, there were silver linings. An anonymous donor through the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee made a significant multi-year commitment to USA Climbing that supported a variety of key initiatives, from increasing awareness of issues that women and girls specifically face in the sport, to increasing their opportunities and representation in often male-dominated areas (such as route setting). Additional High Performance support, in the form of funding two World Cup stops at the end of the season, was also part of that anonymous donation, as was the ability of USA Climbing to hire a full-time education manager to advance all of the organization’s certification and training programs.
Also, USA Climbing was able to secure funding from the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) amid the global pandemic. The PPP funding allowed the organization to keep its full staff employed without any furloughs. And despite the ongoing calamity of the COVID-19 crisis, USA Climbing will still finish the year with some net income.
Another bright spot during the initial wave of the COVID-19 crisis was the conception of a new USA Climbing foundation. The foundation will serve as an independent nonprofit—a separate financial entity, but one wholly owned and operated by USA Climbing—with the sole purpose of fundraising for the organization. The outgoing president of USA Climbing’s board of directors, Patti Rube, will serve as the inaugural chairperson for the foundation.
USA Climbing also plans to pursue more non-endemic sponsors, which are those brands that reside outside of the climbing sphere. Less than a year ago, the organization’s first foray into non-endemic sponsorship resulted in a multi-year partnership with YETI. Other measures—such as a multi-year broadcasting agreement with ESPN—have been undertaken specifically to increase the exposure of climbing; increased exposure will help make USA Climbing more enticing to non-endemic brands in the future. Endemic sponsors such as The North Face, which has been a partner of USA Climbing since the organization’s formation, will benefit from increased exposure as well.
Ambition begets new quandaries, particularly as USA Climbing has so many important operative components. But the organization now finds itself in a place marked by past growth, ongoing improvement, and an eye to funding the future—not a bad place to be, according to Norman. “This is where it always gets challenging,” he says. “Should we do more with the high-performance space? Do more as it relates to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and providing opportunities for underserved populations to access the sport? Lower various barriers to entry for membership costs? Do more with events? You name it. With money we can do amazing things.”
Feature image Jan Novak