Indoor Climbing Gyms Confront Growing Pains

More popular than ever, climbing gyms are scaling up — if they can afford it.

New heights. Fueled by the pandemic, inclusion in the Olympics, and the success of films like Free Solo, the climbing business is booming.

Making the sport more accessible while appealing to the general fitness crowd, indoor climbing gyms have been on quite the run.

  • The number of indoor climbers surpassed 5.6M in 2021, up 7.1% from 2019.
  • There are ~620 climbing gyms in the US, with 43 new locations set to open in 2023.
  • Rebounding from the pandemic, 2022 revenue per climbing gym was up 19% from 2019.

Climb on. But, keeping pace with continued expansion is expensive, especially for independent operators.

Already strapped for cash, after struggling to weather COVID, smaller outfits are confronting rising costs and operational challenges. As former climbing gym owner Michael Cesari told the WSJ, the industry is at a crossroads: “It’s scale or get out.” 

  • 2021: Sensing the shift, Cesari sold Steep Rock Bouldering to national chain VITAL.
  • 2022: PE-backed Bouldering Project acquired three Brooklyn Boulders gyms.
  • 2023: Summit’s four Texas-based locations were bought by private equity-funded Movement.

Shaping up. With the US indoor rock climbing market valued north of $500M, there’s still more demand for gyms than supply.

As Climbing Business Journal points out, climbing gyms have grown faster than fitness facilities over the past five years. But, the two industries share similarities.

Both saw mom-and-pop shops disproportionately affected by COVID. Both are seeing deep-pocketed investors and acquirers reshape the landscape. And fitness amenities, like free weights, cardio equipment, and group classes, have become mainstays of climbing gyms.

Punchline: From niche business to lucrative enterprise, indoor rock climbing is following the path of gyms and studios in the pursuit of building billion-dollar empires. As the effort to scale intensifies, the tensions between climbing purists and bouldering barons will too.

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