It can be tough to pinpoint the moment a burgeoning subculture makes the evolutionary leap to mainstream relevance. But in the rapidly expanding industry of high-end climbing gyms, anthropologists might one day look back and deduce that the moment arrived on August 25, 2015, the day Brooklyn Boulders inked an investment deal with New York private equity firm North Castle Partners. The amount: $48,750,000.
"There’s only so many ways to grow a company. You can try and hold onto it yourself and go slowly or organically. Or you can try to make something crazy happen," says Lance Pinn, the 31-year-old co-founder and CEO of Brooklyn Boulders (BKB). Pinn won’t specify what the terms of the deal are—just that he’s working on building the first national climbing gym brand. "We wanted to take on investment that fits our growth timeline rather than waiting 20 years or however long it would take to expand in a meaningful way,” Pinn says.
BKB currently has only four gyms—two in New York, another in Chicago, and one outside Boston—but is working on building a fifth from the ground up in Los Angeles.* But Pinn and his business partner, Jeremy Balboni, aren’t the only ones thinking big, and North Castle isn’t the only investor bullish on the climbing gym market. The commercial indoor climbing industry grew by 10 percent last year and, with upwards of 35 gyms slated to open this year, is on target to hit around 13 percent growth in 2016, according to the Climbing Business Journal. Case in point: New Jersey’s Gravity Vault, which operates three gyms in New England, is poised to launch four new franchises this calendar year in the northeast alone.
Investment offers seem to be falling from the sky. Private equity groups and venture capitalists are sniffing around. Tech entrepreneurs with marketing chops are inquiring about joint ventures. Several operators are even being called and courted by overseas investment groups keen to launch full-scale indoor gym chains in countries without established climbing scenes. East Asia, South America, and parts of the Middle East are prime targets, gym owners say.
"I get calls at least a couple times a month from people looking to open a climbing gym," says Movement Climbing & Fitness owner Mike Moelter, who consulted with Zappos founder Tony Hsieh a couple years ago about an idea Hsieh had to open a gym near the Las Vegas strip. "I think we've passed into the majority consciousness."
Competition has followed the influx of cash, particularly for early claims to dense population centers like Los Angeles, a place considered an underserved market, where at least three new gyms are slated to open in the next 12-to-18 months. That proliferation has not only pitted certain brands against each other for turf claims, it’s put climbing gyms on track to edge into the market share of the reigning brick-and-mortar fitness option: health clubs.
Maryland-based climbing gym chain Earth Treks, for example, opened its first gym in a warehouse in Columbia for $420,000. "Now we spend three-to-six million [dollars], depending on the project," says Chris Warner, Earth Treks founder and CEO, who sits on the Climbing Wall Association’s board of directors. His next venture (Earth Treks’ fifth gym), a 45,000-square-foot facility in Crystal City, Virginia, slated to open this month, is designed to go head-to-head with traditional gyms and health clubs. "We have over 7,000 square feet of fitness in there," Warner says. "That's bigger than a lot of YMCAs.” It’s larger than most 24 Hour Fitness branches or Crunch gyms, too.
“If we're going into any major metro area,” Warner says, “we're coming in there with six million dollars so we're in the best position to dominate the market."
Warner is financing that using savings, borrowing, and tenant improvement allowances. But many gym brands looking to scale up quickly are beginning to look at private investment. At the Climbing Wall Association Summit in May, Bill Flaherty stood before an audience at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Loveland, Colorado, and gave a quick primer on the mechanics of private equity. Flaherty, a 53-year-old climber and real estate consultant for Consumer Capital Partners who lives outside of Denver, came at the request of Warner as a sort of finance guru. Gym owners have been salivating over the BKB deal, and Flaherty informed the crowd that the type of investment deal they’d be most likely to land would end in one of two ways: an IPO or a buyout.
“But you look at the outdoor climbing universe and there aren’t many who can buy you for 200 million bucks,” Flaherty said later. “I struggle to see institutional private investment”—the kind BKB secured—“playing in this space because that exit is challenging.”
In other words, as soon as you ink a private investment deal, the clock begins ticking for you to hit a series of benchmark returns for your investors. With outdoor retailers, it hasn’t always ended well.
"Private equity has been both a blessing and a curse for the outdoor industry," Warner says. The stock price of Black Diamond, for example, which was acquired in 2010 by a public company and began trading at $10 per share, hovers at less than half of that price. In 2008, at the height of the Great Recession, Sierra Designs underwent a round of layoffs after the company that owned it, along with outdoor brands Kelty and Royal Robbins, was bought by private equity firm Sun Capital Partners. “These iconic brands of our youth are now owned by gigantic private equity firms,” Warner says.
Private investment, others say, is integral to the success of several iconic outdoor companies. “I’d counter that for every example of something that didn’t end perfectly, there are many more examples of things that ended wildly successful,” says DJ Jenson, an operating partner at North Castle Partners who helped engineer the BKB deal. He counts off Arc’Teryx, Marmot, the North Face, and Patagonia. Jenson boasts on his North Castle profile page that he helped build the snowboarding company Burton from a $12 million “single-product company” to a $500 million lifestyle brand. “All brands, regardless of where they are in terms of size and trajectory, need to access the capital markets in some way, shape, or form,” Jenson says.
Whatever the means of growth, climbing gyms are fastening a stony grip on the fitness industry. Whether we’re in the midst of a bubble doesn’t seem to be a major concern to the 12 gym operators I spoke to for this article. After all, when was the last time you saw a climbing gym go out of business? “We’re nowhere near the peak of this market,” Warner says.
"Sometime in the near future, it is not outside the realm of possibility that we would have more climbing gym owners and operators driving Lamborghinis than Subarus," says Kynan Waggoner, the CEO of USA Climbing and former gym owner. "That’s the direction it’s likely to go."
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that BKB operates only three gyms.