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Climbing Reaching New Heights With Olympic Spot

Shauna Coxsey, Tara Hayes, Matt Cousins and Nathan Phillips. Four names you’re probably not familiar with, but it might not be long before you are. All four are climbers and not just the best in Britain but some of the best in the world. With yesterday’s announcement from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that climbing is to be one of five new sports added to the Olympic programme, they could be set to take Tokyo 2020 by storm.
The progression of climbing from a sport regarded for eccentrics and adventurers to one on the fringes of mainstream consciousness has been swift. Yet the reasons behind its incredible growth are as diverse as the sport itself and the IOC’s decision could be another leap forward.

Entering the Mainstream

Arguably it was two climbers, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, who pushed climbing into the spotlight like never before, with their historic free climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan last year. Their epic 19 day ascent of the 3,000 metre Dawn Wall, drew media attention from around the world and made stars (if only reluctantly) of Caldwell and Jorgeson. Whilst the media’s gaze was only fleeting, it gave a unique look at a sport that has slowly been taking off around the world, particularly in the UK.According to the British Mountaineering Council the number of climbing walls in the UK has risen by over 100 in the last five years alone, with 350 public access walls listed in the BMC wall directory. The increase in walls is driven largely by an uptake of young people joining the sport, with the number of people taking part in the BMC Youth Climbing Series rising by 50% over the same period.

Technology, Technology, Technology

So the sport is a clearly a growing force but why and how has it become so, and more interestingly, how far can it go? The simple answer is technology. As with so many extreme sports new technology has allowed climbing to grow through improved equipment, providing a safer and more complete experience of a sport that inherently carries risk – without removing the thrill. Sport climbing is itself a descendant of the introduction of technology. Permanent anchors are secured to the rock face from which climbers can place protection to ensure survival from even the most eye watering falls.

The shift may appear to be a natural progression from the days of Royal Robbins placing steel pitons into the Yosemite cliffs, but the effect has been more wide-ranging. The improvements in rope, harnesses and other climbing gear has allowed the very best climbers to push the limits of what’s possible. The dynamic and occasionally terrifying nature of these new challenges has opened up the sport of climbing to a new thrill seeking audience, one that is looking to not only participate but create and consume as much content about the sport itself as possible.

Climbing Content

In 2006 film makers Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer created the first Reel Rock film tour, taking a collection of short climbing films to live audiences all around the world. Now in its 11th year the tour has been a huge success and attracts sponsors such as The North Face, National Geographic and Petzl, highlighting the growing appetite for climbing content. It appears the sport has become as much about capturing the ascent, as the ascent itself. After all, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

It’s a question that a number of companies and brands are already looking to answer. Epic TV has been quick to provide a channel for the new band of climbers wishing to share their latest exploits, earning them not just an audience but an opportunity to create their own brand with which to attract sponsorship and turn professional. Climbers such as Alex Honnold and Sean McColl regularly share not just their climbing achievements, but their training regimes and other aspects of their lifestyle that hold as much interest to fans as the climbing.

So the sport is growing, with new stars, increasing brand presence and a highly engaged audience mostly made up of Generation Z and Millennials - surely then a place in the Olympics would be a positive next step for a sport on the rise? Yet there remain concerns, including those from professional climbers such as Adam Ondra, who feels the expected format of the competition may need to be amended to reward the more aesthetic aspects of the sport. It’s a concern that isn’t exclusive to climbing, with the much publicised trouble surrounding golf at this summer’s games proving that format is a difficult area to get right for even the biggest of mainstream sports.

Where Next?

Regardless of the concerns around format, it’s clear that climbing is entering another stage of its development and a place in the Olympics will act as validation to the thousands who compete in and watch the sport worldwide. It won’t be long before brands outside the outdoor and adventure space take notice and names such as Coxsey, Hayes, Cousins and Phillips move from the unknown to the everyday.

The Endorsement Olympics: Brands’ London 2012 GB Athlete Strategies Analysed (INFOGRAPHIC)

With Team GB's first gold medals won, national attention is naturally focused on GB's Olympians. So this seems like the perfect time to reveal our analysis of brands' GB athlete endorsement strategies, and to unveil our latest Synergy infographic - Synfographic - to the purpose.

We've looked at a group of 45 brands using current and former Olympians and Paralympians. The group comprises:

- Global and domestic sponsors of London 2012

- Major GB sport sponsors which aren't London 2012 sponsors

- Other non-sponsor brands leveraging athletes in their marcomms

This revealed a total of 404 individual agreements and, if taking into consideration athletes such as Jessica Ennis or Louis Smith who have multiple sponsorship deals, endorsement of 267 unique individuals.

It is worth noting that whilst we have factored in Lloyds TSB’s support of athletes across GB via the organisation’s Local Heroes programme, the figure of 404 agreements does not take these numbers into account. Similarly, neither do the figures quoted incorporate Visa’s sponsorship of the Team 2012 programme. Both these programmes are based on the brands creating or sponsoring group athlete support systems, whereas we wanted to analyse brands' strategies for individual endorsements - brands that have taken on the challenge (and the risks) onus of selecting, contracting and activating individuals, many several years ago, as part of their London 2012 campaigns.

Risk versus reward: over half of the endorsed athletes have qualified for Team GB and Paralympics GB.

Whilst you may not be surprised at the dominance of athletics amongst endorsees, the Synfographic does demonstrate that there’s a healthy range of sports sitting beyond the usual suspects, reflecting the diversity of the Olympics and Paralympics.

Men's deals outnumber women's by 234 to 170, but the two most popular individuals for sponsors are both women -  Victoria Pendleton and Jessica Ennis. The two most popular men? Louis Smith and Sir Chris Hoy.

Looking at the brands, it's striking that the seven Tier 1 London 2012 partners are the heaviest endorsers, with 244 agreements in total, an average of 30 per partner, massively outnumbering any other sponsorship tier. Interestingly, non-sponsor brands are the next biggest endorsers, with 91 deals in total, despite the IOC Charter's Rule 40 restricting leverage of these individuals during Games-time, which has recently been challenged by several US athletes.

It's also good to see that there are deals with 52 Paralympians - compared with 215 with Olympians - reflecting both brands' support for the Paralympics and to integrate Paralympians into their London 2012 activity.

One of the major successes in terms of athlete selection has been BMW’s London 2012 Performance Team*. This is a programme that began with the BMW UK's central sponsorship of 27 athletes, both past and present, and evolved into a dealer-by-dealer support system for local London 2012 hopefuls. The result: BMW and MINI athletes now form 11% of the entirety of Team GB.

The main questions now are which sponsor has backed the most winners, and who'll be the post-Games winners in the endorsement stakes. After yesterday's heroics and today's headlines, Bradley Wiggins is sure to be at the forefront. Let's hope that Team GB and Paralympics GB produce many more over the next month or so.

* Full disclosure: Synergy is BMW UK's London 2012 agency