Go, Ninja Warriors, Go!

Adventure-Focused Fitness Trends Continue Their Ascent

As American Ninja Warrior gears up for its 12th season in summer 2020 and climbing gets set for a higher TV profile through its debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Summer Games, the number of facilities offering these options continues to grow. This is happening in dedicated facilities aimed at both children and diehards. Both ninja and climbing are also becoming more popular in family entertainment centers and similar facilities where these amenities are being added to a suite of multiple attractions aimed at boosting fun and extending patron visits.

Climbing Gym Growth Slows

As climbing continues its rise in popularity, the debut of more dedicated climbing gyms continues nationwide, although at a slower rate.

According to Climbing Business Journal, the net number of climbing gyms grew by 5.21% in 2019 with the opening of 34 new gyms nationwide. This was a decrease from the rapid growth of 11.87% in 2018, a year that saw a record 50 new climbing gyms open in the United States.

Some manufacturers of climbing walls, ninja equipment and other products are unsure of how much more competition the climbing-gym market can bear. "They're kind of like trampoline parks," said Scott Hornick, CEO of a Baltimore, Md.-based company that manufactures ninja courses, aerial courses, ziplines and more. "I keep saying, how many trampoline parks can there be? Yet they keep putting them like four in a city instead of one or two in a city, and it's the same thing with climbing gyms. There are just a lot of them."

Kid-Focused Climbing Soars

In this environment, Hornick is seeing more growth recently in kid-based climbing facilities and attractions, including those that are being added to places like trampoline parks as those chains increasingly recast themselves as multi-attraction destinations. These climbing facilities are characterized more by fun, interactive walls featuring interesting colors and designs, interactive graphics and games, and intensive theming. "I'm sure there'll be more climbing gyms, but I can't imagine you'll double that market again, whereas you might be able to double the market of play kid climbing areas," Hornick said.


These types of facilities also enable climbing to reach families that would never otherwise be exposed to climbing. "A lot of the general public doesn't necessarily go to a climbing gym for fun," said Marissa Kiella, sales executive for an Allegan, Mich.-based provider of ropes courses and kid-focused climbing products. "But our ropes courses and climbing walls make it a more family fun experience rather than people looking at it as exercise."

Kiella is seeing the company's products being installed in places like trampoline parks, multi-attraction bowling facilities and even places like the Philadelphia Zoo and Natural Bridge Caverns in San Antonio. At the Philadelphia Zoo, the WildWorks ropes course allows larger kids and adults to cross bridges, balance on ropes and zip to the bottom from 34 feet up, while a tykes course lets kids less than 48 inches tall explore similar activities.

Natural Bridge Caverns offers a 60-foot high adventure ropes course featuring several zip rails among the treetops, a tykes course and a climbing attraction with multiple fun climbing options for kids and adults alike. Each is offered for a separate admission price and gives visitors a variety of fun activities to do on the surface to complement their cavern tour.

Kiella noted that patrons usually spend anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes on their signature ropes course and 30 minutes to an hour on their typical climbing installation in these types of facilities. "For the most part we cater to anywhere that wants to bring people in, that are looking to keep people around in their facility a little bit longer, and help them earn a little bit more revenue," Kiella said. "This is a good fit for those types of parks and really can help to bring some more excitement and flavor—wow factor—to those types of environments."

According to Kiella, operators are looking for ropes and adventure courses that require minimal staff, and she noted that the company's product allows for throughput of 50 to 100 patrons per hour with as few as two to three staff members. The company also recently added a product line featuring netting around the obstacles. "It's a fully netted experience, so as you make your way through it you don't need staff or safety equipment," Kiella said. "So the staff is really just one person manning the whole thing and kids and families can make their way through, creating their own adventure."

Bouldering Continues Its Growth

According to Climbing Business Journal, nearly half of the new climbing gyms in 2018 were bouldering-only facilities, while 53 new gyms in the United States in 2019 were expansion gyms. An overall look at the last decade found that 39% of new climbing gyms over that time were bouldering only, while 61% featured a mix of bouldering and lead climbing.

But the eight climbing gyms that closed in North America in 2019 were all full-service gyms. Zero were bouldering only. This may be a tribute both to the popularity of bouldering and to the fact that it's much easier to successfully put a bouldering gym into a smaller, less costly area or into lower-ceiling spaces.

"It's definitely easier to go into an existing building or to go into lease for boulder only. A lot of times those wall heights are 12 feet or for professional competition we build those walls up to 18 feet, and we don't recommend that (18 feet) for an everyday fitness facility," said Todd Chester, marketing director for a Bend, Ore.-based climbing wall manufacturer. "With those building heights and interior clear heights, bouldering is just a much more valid business plan and statement."

Chester has also seen more outdoor park and playground boulders installed in park environments. "The benefit of having an in-town boulder park that's manufactured is that maybe you're just walking to that park from your house," Chester said. In this respect, it functions like a fitness area of a neighborhood park in communities in which climbing is popular.

"This is something that everyday climbers, because they're in proximity to that park, will go out and get a fun little workout in after school or work," Chester said. "But what we do want people to realize is that this is a sport—a professional sport. And you can actually go out and get a good cross-training workout if you buy into the correct system instead of just a plastic wall with some holes in it."

The Olympics Fuel Competitive Dreams

With climbing set to make its debut as an Olympic sport in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games, Chester is also seeing more interest from facilities in climbing walls that meet competition criteria. Along with that, more attention is being paid to designs that consider foot traffic as well as to spectator areas that wouldn't have been as much of a priority previously.


Chester noted that youth climbing has been the largest growth segment for USA Climbing over the past decade, and that has, in turn, created growing interest in competitive climbing at the collegiate level as those kids have grown up.

This has resulted in a push more toward climbing walls that meet competition criteria in colleges and universities. They are increasingly moving away from real rock-style walls toward big wood walls featuring the large, flat planes required for competition.

These competitive demands are limiting what wall manufacturers can do creatively to some extent. "At the end of the day we're trying to create a couple of interesting angles, maybe a couple of interesting things, and you can do them with flat pieces and create waves but we still want them to be pretty big and open and blank," Chester said. "Because the creative then comes to the route-setter. To give them a canvas that's blank, that they can fill and change around for the life cycle of the wall."

Another change is more of a focus on new facilities that are climbing-dominant but that also include areas for cardio, strength training and group exercise—and less focus on large general fitness gyms that include a climbing wall as a secondary amenity.

As the sport becomes more popular and the availability of these specialized facilities increases, programming and regular route-setting becomes an important differentiator. "If you go to a YMCA [with a climbing wall], the handholds have never been changed in five years," Hornick said. "You go to a climbing gym, every month you're going to see new routes up on the gym."

Classes are also important. "Programming is the number one way to have repeat people," Chester said. "Having them in a class that happens for eight weeks or [other] programming is the number one way to have a successful space."

According to Chester, "professional route setter" was barely a job description a decade ago, but now both route setters and climbing coaches are common professional roles both in climbing gyms and in settings like universities. "Whereas [in a university] maybe that used to be a club that had a volunteer. Now these are hired positions. These are real things now."

Ninja Gyms Proliferate

Hornick noted that his company started producing ninja courses around six years ago, and was among the first manufacturers to build a commercialized course. "Now there's around 40 companies that advertise that fact," Hornick said. "In China, I can show you five or six companies that have copied our entire website on their site. I say, 'Take our stuff down,' and they just ignore me. One company had all of our projects and they even watermarked their name on top of all of our photos."

In this environment, buyers of ninja equipment need to do their research to make sure they're working with a reputable company that produces quality products featuring comfortable grips, sufficient padding and age-appropriate obstacle features.

"I just don't understand how many people put these things in without ever asking a single question," Hornick said. "Nobody ever asks us 'Is it engineered? Have you done any analysis? Tell me about the fall protection.' None of that. And you see it all the time."

These considerations are especially important given the relative newness of the sport—and the fact that standards-makers are still catching up. Hornick noted that while AS™ has standards for playgrounds, zip lines and ropes courses, they don't yet exist for ninja courses. "It's an unregulated industry," Hornick said. "So in most cases in most states, they do nothing in the way of evaluating the products and evaluating the safety."

In addition to proper engineering, ninja courses should also be accompanied by instruction manuals, including inspection criteria listing out the various things that should be checked on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. That should also be complemented by yearly inspections either by a state inspector or by the product manufacturer, depending on state requirements.

A well-designed ninja course should also feature adjustability so that the elements can offer the flexibility of being appropriate for 12-year-olds, 18-year-olds and professional-level ninja athletes.


In this environment, Hornick sees wide variations in the quality of various ninja facilities, and in the investment that owners are putting in, from facilities that might spend $40,000 on ninja equipment to others that spend $700,000 to $800,000 or more.

He noted Ninja Nation as an example of a company on the more professional side of the equation in terms of its equipment and programming. The company currently has locations in Centennial and Lafayette in Colorado and another in Frisco, Texas, with two new gyms set to open in Murphy, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C., in summer 2020.

The company is also planning ongoing expansion and is offering franchise opportunities. It's not an inexpensive proposition: According to the Ninja Nation website, the initial franchise investment requires between $1 and $1.4 million, including $300,000 in available cash.

Facilities like these focus largely on children's programming while also serving adults, offering classes for different age groups, competitions sanctioned by bodies such as National Ninja League, and opportunities for kids to try out ninja through birthday parties, summer camps, day camps and field trips.

Ninja Goes Aquatic

As ninja gyms sprout up across the nation, one company is also hoping to bring the discipline to pools nationwide, starting with its first installation opening soon in Baytown, Texas. The system, designed for indoor and outdoor aquatic facilities, descends from the rafters in less than 60 seconds to provide an on-demand challenge course featuring various obstacles that can be customized for different ages, fitness levels and programs.

Kyle Rieger, vice president of sales for North America for the company, noted that the standard system features two lanes of obstacles that cover four lap-swimming lanes, and that the system is suitable for outdoor environments and indoor facilities with a 20-foot ceiling or higher.

He noted that the system was designed with safety in mind and features no solid obstacles or flat-topped horizontal pieces to allow for easy visibility. Competitors using the system start the course from inside the water and don't jump in from poolside. And the course was designed to be unlike the American Ninja Warrior show in that users of the system aren't jumping far into the air.

"We believe it will be just as safe if not safer than a lily pad walk, a water walk, a diving board, a waterslide," Rieger said. "At no time when you're competing will your ankles ever leave the water … We decided if we're going to install this in a 4-foot deep pool, bodies cannot leave the water—we've got to keep everybody ankle-water deep at all times."

Rieger believes the concept will provide a revenue-generating opportunity for classes and competitions during times when a pool is underused. The aquatic nature of it also brings ninja-style competition to people of different ages and abilities. "When you're in the water, you lose about 60% of your bodyweight because of buoyancy," Rieger said. "So naturally, the more submerged people are, it's going to be easier for them to go through obstacles." RM