Cash Prizes in Climbing Competitions

Western Australia is a pretty long way from the person-choked urban centres on the East Coast, but if you’re a comp climber you just got some added incentive to fly West. On 18 August, Portside Boulders is throwing a comp with cash on the line – for Open As there’s a grand for the winners, $750 for second place and $500 to round out the podium. Not to be sneezed at.

The lure of money led us here at VL to do a quick scan of the comp-climbing-for-cash landscape to confirm our anecdotal assessment that dollar incentives are on the rise. And what we found was, yes, dollar incentives are on the rise. Interestingly, it is not just the big events, recent social comps held at Melburn’s Northside Boulders and RAdelaide’s Beyond Bouldering have also offered – albeit somewhat more modest – cash prizes. That casual Friday night sesh could see you walking out with a few pineapples in your wallet.

Competitors at Portside Boulders Pumpfest Competition last year. Image David Garlick

Competitors at Portside Boulders Pumpfest Competition last year. Image David Garlick

Events offering more substantial cash included the 2016 Boulder nationals at Urban Climb in Brisvegas ($1500 1st place, $750 2nd place and $250 3rd place for Open A) and then because inflationary pressure is powerful, Sydney’s Nomad upped the ante for the 2017 Bouldering Nats to $2000 for 1st, $1000 for second and $500 for 3rd (Open A). There are no Sport Climbing Australia regulations relating to events that would come under their remit (States, Nationals), any prize money or in-kind prizes are at the discretion of the event holders and the sponsors. Dave Fletcher from Urban Climb raises an important point about inflationary pressures and expectation as event organisers try to stand out in an increasingly crowded calendar. If cash prizes become the norm it increases the financial risk of running events which may mean some smaller or less experienced gyms don’t put their hand up to run them. The cost impost of running even a small event is big; not to mention a large scale State or National title. When you add up administration, wages, route setting, new holds, prizes and lost revenue while the gym is closed for up to four days that’s a lot of money.

Blochaus in Canberra hasn’t offered dosh yet but has confirmed that it is on the cards for upcoming events. 9Degrees in Sydney hasn’t offered any cash prizes preferring the traditional avenue of in-kind prizes from sponsors. Beyond Bouldering is looking at the financials for its upcoming SA States but have confirmed that there will be a cash component.

In discussing his gym’s attitude to cash prizes, Reuben Bennett-Daly from Northside Boulders introduces the idea of economic fairness and a philosophy that honours an athlete’s contribution. He says that the athletes are ‘putting on a performance and so deserve to be paid.’ In an interesting departure from cash for first, second and third, Northside allocated prize money to everyone who made it through to the finals in the 2016 Victorian State Titles. Not only did this go to recognise competitors’ contribution and success but it also gives everyone an incentive. Should a competitor make the finals they would at least their entry fee back. Competing is a tough gig – physically, mentally, emotionally and financially – and a cash incentive signifies that participants deserve to wring a fistful of dollars out of a comp. This structure also extends the payment rationale from participation to spectacle –the athletes are putting on a show. The logic follows that if you pay prize money you get better climbers and with a better show the climbing public will be more psyched to watch.

Portside Boulders Pumpfest Competition. Image David Garlick.

Portside Boulders Pumpfest Competition. Image David Garlick.

Amongst the people VL spoke to there was some rumbling about monetary incentive leading to outsiders swooping and taking the cash but surely that is the point, right? You are offering money not just as a way to provide recompense for the athletes but also to try to attract the best athletes? Urban have hosted Paul Robinson, Thomas Farrell, Tom O’Halloran, Sam Berry, Campbell Harrison, Matty Cochrane, Monique Forestier, Kuei-Chi Peng, Sarah Hay at their comps and Dave doubts they all would have come up were the cash-carrot not dangled. Portsider Will Atkinson has confirmed that part of the reason they are offering cash prizes is to lure across some of the strong from the rest of Oz.

Whilst competition does not affect all people equally, there is lots of scientific literature pointing to performance increases derived from competition. There is an extrinsic motivation to competition where people will try harder and climb better if they are competing against better opposition. Tom O’Halloran says, ‘I definitely feel like I climb better when there is stiff competition. It forces you to take it seriously and give it some curry each time you pull on. It doesn’t get better than being up against Tom Farrell, James Kassay, Sam Bowman, the Healy boys and trying bloody hard.’

In the long term, cash prizes may drive athletes to be better, causing setters to improve, which in turn may lead to gyms running better more professional comps, and possibly to the overarching administrative bodies to get better. To quote an old maritime truism, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Portside Boulders Pumpfest Competition. Image David Garlick

Portside Boulders Pumpfest Competition. Image David Garlick

It sounds preposterously obvious but cash prizes are expensive. The wholesale value of in-kind prizes – things such as a new bouldering mat or buckets of chalk that are commonly seen at comps – is considerably less than the cash equivalent retail value. A $500 cash prize is about double the outlay of a ‘$500’ bouldering mat. Do elite climbers really need another bouldering mat? Probably not. Do they need a grand? Almost undoubtedly yes. Tom O’Halloran says, ‘Cash prizes are the best type. The best climbers are usually sponsored and so don’t need a gift voucher and so won’t show up. Cash is King. You can choose what you do with the money as well. Perhaps it goes in your piggy bank for the next climbing trip, or pays the rates bill. Being a grown-up is expensive!’

As Yazz and the Plastic Population said, the only way is up baby, at least for the foreseeable future. Part of the rise and rise of climbing is an increasing prevalence of cash prizes in competition. It will not be enough to pay the rent but it should drive up participation and performance. The corollary is that it will add more load to an already big impost on the gyms that do host comps.

If you’re a strong boulderer who has been waiting for an opportunity to head to Western Australia, take our paraphrased-from-Arnie-in-Total–Recall advice, “Get your arse to WA.” Check out the details for West Coast Blocs here.

And whilst you’ve flown all the way over there to swoop on the comp don’t forget that there is also a surprising amount of good outdoor bouldering to be had, check it out here. Win or lose, it’d be a shame not to fondle some of the stone whilst you’re there.

Also on the calendar of many a comp climber with their eyes on a cash prize is the Urban Climb Boulderfest.

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