Revitalizing the word "Pro"

posted by dpm on 01/01/2010

There are those that believe with companies diluting their team with 200+ team members, being a sponsored climber is no longer an honor. This raises the question, what qualifies someone to be considered “pro,” and what qualities and responsibilities should be expected of these pro-athletes?

In the climbing industry, there are large discrepancies in what is expected of a “pro-climber” and what is expected of pro-athletes in other sports. This may be because in our industry, few pro climbers receive more than free shoes, yet we still refer to them as “Pros.” The lack of salary allows these athletes to take the job of being a sponsored athlete lightly. If they act disorderly or represent themselves in an unfavorable fashion, there are often no repercussions, and on the other hand, if they are exemplary role models, there is little reward.

This lack of accountability has plagued our sport with athletes that fail to recognize that their contribution to the company they represent is best served by an increased interaction with the climbing community on a personal level rather than their actual climbing prowess. This is not their fault entirely. Climbing companies often place competition records and big numbers above a climber’s personality and whether or not that climber is a good fit for their team.

This raises the question: When we dilute the pool of pro-climbers with above average climbers that have below average social skills and an elitist persona, are companies hurting themselves and our sport in general? 

It is safe to say, the answer is, “yes.”

The majority of climbers climb at (or below) a 5.10+ level on rope and at (or below) V3 when bouldering. That majority’s buying decisions is often influenced by their climbing heroes, whether those heroes are local phenoms or international sensations. Putting free gear in the hands of the climbing elite who fail to touch the common climber in a positive way can therefore have the reverse effect on the sale of goods. So, should climbing performance be the sole defining factor in determining who is sponsored? Shouldn’t companies look for climbers who are more instrumental in molding the up and coming climber through coaching and mentoring than the regional blogger who scoffs at every newbie that falls on his warm-ups without offering encouragement or beta?

If companies were to hold climbers to a higher standard, requiring their team members to be true ambassadors to the sport and mentors to the community, they may find they not only save money by reducing their team size but they also increase the sale of goods by reaching more people in the community in a positive way. On the flipside, the “pro” athletes may find that companies are more willing to offer larger incentives to those few that meet this criteria, and are truly deserving of compensation, thus producing an environment where one could actually make a real living though rock climbing.

Based on this assessment, we have put together a few things that we feel every aspiring pro-athlete should consider doing for their sponsor. We also have a few suggestions on how these things should be rewarded by the sponsoring company so that athletes are compensated for quantifiable notoriety they bring their sponsors.


Almost every pro-athlete has one. Most of them are web journals of the climber’s exploits, but some provide thought provoking commentary on how to better the sport, product reviews, training tips, etc. These are the blogs that often get the most attention. Blogs should be filled with helpful suggestions for readers to improve their skills as a climber, trip reports with good photos, and props to your supporting sponsors with links to their websites. Regularly updated, these blogs can see a tremendous amount of readers resulting in traffic to sponsor’s sites.

In return for this “traffic,” sponsors should pay athletes a rate based on the number of impressions their blog receives each month or a CPC (cost per click) rate for advertising links on their blog.  Obviously, the more compelling blogs from athletes that are the most frequently updated will generate the most impressions, thus translating to more revenue for the athletes that work hardest to maintain their blog.


Get your photo taken as often as possible in your sponsor’s products. Work with pro-photographers that are regularly published, and make sure logos and product are visible in each shot. Do the same with video. Sponsors may be willing to pay photo incentives for product placement based on the size, placement, and the circulation of the magazine or other media vessel. Some athletes in other sports are paid by the second for their part in full-length DVDs or online videos. The rate they are paid depends upon the number of impressions each video segment receives. Companies paying athletes by the impression will find athletes will work harder to get their face and sponsor’s logo in the media, thus increasing exposure. It also eliminates freeloading. Athletes that do not perform can be eliminated from the team creating a smaller, tighter knit unit, and further branding the team as being the cream of the crop.

Just say, “hello”

Although this is not a quantifiable thing that can be tracked, this meager gesture goes a long way. As a sponsored athlete rolling out to the crag or the gym, you are bound to bump into other climbers. Say “hello,” maybe ask them how their day went or stop to spot and offer encouragement. It only takes a second and will elevate your status within the community further than any V15 send. Climbers talk, and although you may have been having a bad day, if you don’t say “hello,” they are going to walk away and tell everyone on FaceBook that Pro-Joe or Sponsored-Sally is an ass. It may be an unwarranted assessment on their part, but the community holds you to a higher standard and expect some social interaction. If you want to be a “pro,” you should learn how to be an ambassador to the sport first.

Be a Mentor

In the pre-gym era of climbing, the community was much smaller. Climbers stuck together out of the necessity for climbing partners. During this period of time, apprenticeships were formed. More experienced climbers would see the ill-fated direction of the “lesser informed” and instruct them on how to better themselves as climbers both in the knowledge and use of the gear and the code of ethics of a given area. This prevented an excessive amount of riff-raff that seems to predominate many of our more popular crags today. Most gyms don’t teach climbers outdoor ethics, and because of this, our crags are becoming overrun with trash, human fecal matter, and blaring hip-hop music.

As an ambassador to the sport, try taking a few new climbers under your wing and encourage them to venture outside. Teach them what type of behavior is expected of them and hold yourself to those same standards.  Again, being nice to others within the community will go a long way of elevating your status as a “pro” within the community and with your sponsors.

Our advice to companies is to tighten up your ranks and keep the select members of your team happy. Stop the practice of tossing product to every strong climber in the world. Instead, make sure the individuals on your team are likeable extraverted figures first and strong climbers second.

Selecting mentors for your team, treating them well, and encouraging them by paying a fair rate for their hard work will not only increase your company’s reputation and sales, it will also inspire other climbers to follow the example set by your pro team.

Want to read more about how to make more money as an athlete? Check out "No Hill Too Fast" by Phil and Steve Mahre. Marketing Directors and aspiring athletes should check out "Let it Ride: The Craig Kelly Story" for a glimpse of climbing's future and for an inspirational story about one athlete's journey.