*A quick note on Google Trends. The numbers on the y-axis represent a percentage of the search’s peak interest (100) over the given time period. Therefore, a drop from 75 to 50 represents a drop from 75% peak interest to 50% peak interest and does not correspond directly to actual number of searches. Neither does it correspond to a drop of 25% in the usual sense. Throughout the article, I refer to the numbers on the y-axis varyingly as percentages of the peak, “points,” or simply as the numbers themselves. These different words are all intended to refer to the same thing – growth or decline of interest relative to the peak “score” of 100. Some readers may find this subtlety interesting but it is not necessary for most graph interpretations. Likewise, I often include reference to graphs or accompanying data sets that are not in the article. In the interest of space, I’ve left these for the reader to verify…although I have done my best not to include any potentially misleading information, mistakes are always possible. Google Trends information is available on http://www.trends.google.com
It seems most parkour athletes and entrepreneurs today believe our sport is growing. I certainly did. Looking around at all the new gyms, clothing brands, and events popping up it’s hard to imagine anything else. But the numbers show a slightly different story. In this article, we’ll take a look at four major Google Trends comparisons that should challenge and inspire parkour practitioners to rethink the future of our sport. The point of this article isn’t to tell people what’s going on in their local communities. Rather, we’ll be looking at sweeping global search trends in an attempt to identify community “dead ends” and successful approaches going forward. Additionally, readers should be aware that extrapolating causation from correlation is a dangerous game even in the best of circumstances. I’ve done my best to identify causes only where absolutely necessary or obvious. We’ll all judge collectively just how well I’ve done that.
1. Parkour by the Numbers
Figure 1 (Web searches, global, since 2004)
This first chart maps web searches for the word parkour. Globally, interest in parkour has peaked in January 2005 (Jump Britain), May 2006 (a BBC news piece), May 2010 (MTV’s Ultimate Parkour Challenge), and May/August 2013 (corresponding to a spike in minecraft parkour searches, as we’ll see later). Since 2013, searches for parkour online have been on the decline – recently reaching levels of interest as low as 45% of their peak. Even accounting for the improvement in data collection as of Jan 1, 2016 we are still seeing significant decline. But that’s for web searches…what about YouTube?
Figure 2 (YouTube searches, global, since 2008)
Not even YouTube has been spared. Here, interest peaked in the summer of 2008 and then declined until about 2011, where it held relatively steady until recently. Again, even if we assume the entire drop in interest as of August 2017 is due (as seems likely) to new data collection techniques we are still seeing a drop from approximately 34 points in August 2017 to a low of 22 in July 2018. That’s a drop of 12 points in less than a year. To put that in perspective, between November 2011 and December 2016 parkour’s search interest had a high of 52 points and a low of 37 – making for a difference of only 15 points over a five year span. Let that sink in. In the last year we’ve lost almost as much search interest on YouTube as we did over the previous five years combined.
There are a lot of factors playing into this. Obviously, the growth of Instagram and Facebook as secondary video sharing sites is a huge one, particularly when it comes to “viral” parkour content. But the biggest contributing factor of all may be #2 on our list…
2. The Novelty Effect
When Jump London and Jump Britain hit British TV screens in 2003 and 2005, they were showing people something most had never seen before. Human beings are fascinated by new things. It’s just how we work – it’s why smartphone companies can release new phones every year with minimal or even negative improvement and still see sales skyrocket. But once we acclimate to to our new environment (be it physical or social), it’s back to business. We start basing decisions not just on novelty but also factors like meaningfulness/usefulness and connectedness.
Nowadays, parkour has hit the mainstream. It’s no skateboarding or soccer, but in most countries today the word parkour is familiar to people under the age of 40. If they haven’t heard of it by name, they’ve almost certainly seen a video. Parkour’s novelty has worn thin over the past ten years, but various parkour “spinoffs” haven’t. Take a look at this:
Figure 3 (YouTube searches, global, since 2008)
Here’s the search term parkour video mapped against the top related queries for parkour. The fact that minecraft parkour, parkour fail, and parkour vs are the top three related queries is depressing in and of itself (as Ryan Ford agreed in a previous, more positive article on parkour trends in 2014) but it also reveals the power of the novelty effect. In the absence of unique and genuine parkour content people became fascinated with the next best thing: fails, Minecraft parkour, and cringe-inducing “parkour vs” videos. To wash the gnarly taste of that graph out of your mouth, here’s another one:
Figure 4 (YouTube searches, global, since 2008)
This is the first of the graphs that gives me hope. At the beginning of this year, Storror hit 1,000,000 subscribers on YouTube. As of this article they are at 2.4 million and growing. They’ve done this by balancing consumer trends (long vlog format uploads, clickbait titles, etc.) with game-changing movement, cinematography, and creativity. As a result, storror is the only media-related search term of significant volume I’ve been able to find that has grown consistently over the past three years. It recently surpassed searches for parkour fail on YouTube this June and is close to passing minecraft parkour as well! This is even more impressive when you consider the fact that search statistics for storror don’t benefit from “collateral” searches in the way that parkour video might benefit from people who are actually looking for parkour fails, The Office parkour, or a Minecraft playthrough. You only know to search storror if you want to watch Storror. And that’s pretty dang cool.
So what exactly has Storror done right? They’ve provided consistent, novel viewer experiences that are also meaningful and connected. Jesse La Flair did the same thing at the peak of his YouTube popularity in 2013 with tutorials, spot reviews, and lifestyle videos. Members of the Spanish parkour community like Cosmin, Shifer, and Alex Segura are taking a page from Storror’s book and doing the same thing for the Spanish-speaking community now; each have channels that have spiked in interest after the 2017 data collection shift and are showing growth into late 2018. So it’s not that parkour isn’t cool anymore, it’s just that the 2015 approach to parkour isn’t cool anymore. To continue reaching the general YouTube audience, new and relatable approaches must constantly be adopted.
3. Teams, Clothes, and Competition
We’ve seen teams, clothing brands, and competitions flourish over the past five years. For many young practitioners, building a team with friends or growing a clothing brand is a life goal. But do the numbers agree that these industries are growing? Let’s start by taking a look at three of parkour’s most popular teams:
Figure 5 (Web searches, global, since 2013)
Globally, Storror is in the lead – particularly over the past two years. This makes sense…with over 2 million subscribers on YouTube they’re tough to beat. But let’s look at something else. Since 2013, both Storm and Farang have taken a slow but steady hit in Web searches. On YouTube, we see the same thing. There’s a similar trend for other teams as well – interest in Tempest Freerunning, French Freerun Family, WFPF, 3Run, and Galizian Urban Project have all gone down (though searches for gup have stayed consistent – most coming from Bhutan). Though some teams, particularly larger ones with a single national base like Storm, have stayed steady in their home countries the global numbers don’t lie. This may represent a momentary departure from teams in favor of individual personalities. It may, and probably does to some extent, reflect the general decline in Web interest for parkour as a whole. It may also be natural as we transition from the “classic” teams of the late 2000’s to new, young teams that speak to the emerging generation of young practitioners. The recent growth of interest in The Motus Projects on YouTube speaks to this last point as a legitimate possibility. Whatever the reason, these numbers should challenge both new and old teams to think hard about how they’re communicating with their audience going forward.
On the surface, the numbers for the clothing industry are similar:
Figure 5 (Web searches, global, since 2004)
Parkour shoes has, from almost the beginning, been the most searched term in clothing. This comes as no surprise since it’s the only obvious piece of “equipment” in our sport. Peak interest in parkour shoes was during the month of May in 2010, not-so-coincidentally during the premiere of MTV’s Ultimate Parkour Challenge. Since then, interest in parkour shoes has dropped considerably – likely aided by consistently underperforming shoe models. While parkour shoes dropped from a peak of 100 to a low of 12 in July 2018 (its lowest since February 2007, though potentially outdone soon with a predicted score of 6 for the month of September 2018) the interest in parkour clothing and parkour pants has been relatively consistent. Despite a recent drop, previous trends would indicate an increase in searches and return to previous highs for these terms as winter holidays near.
What else can we learn about parkour clothes from the associated data? Well, for starters the top searchers are the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and India. While we don’t know that these countries are also the top buyers, it seems safe to assume that (unless shipping costs or prices are prohibitive for consumers) they are. When it comes to parkour clothing, we see the highest density of searches coming first from the UK and second from the United States, with top related queries for farang, farang clothing, parkour shoes, and storror. Australians were most concerned with shoes, beating out the US in search density by 13. These numbers provide some food for thought for parkour clothing entrepreneurs. They suggest that parkour shoes – though potentially lucrative – may be a risky investment considering high initial production costs and waning consumer interest. They also suggest the importance of branding and balancing shipping costs to maximize potential markets on other continents. Finally, we see with the massive spike in searches during Ultimate Parkour Challenge that mass media exposure to the right demographic is still a powerful tool when it comes to generating interest in the market.
Let’s close with a look at competitions. When I started training in 2007, competition was abhorred by most respected practitioners. Today, it has become somewhat of the norm with friendly competitive formats infiltrating even “old school” events and organizations. Despite this, web interest in parkour competitions as a whole has not peaked since 2010.
Figure 6 (Web searches, global, since 2004)
Again, the primary spikes in interest correlate to the release of Jump Britain and MTV’s Ultimate Parkour Challenge in Jan 2005 and May/June 2010 respectively. Since then, interest has remained mostly steady with slight upticks during the late summer and fall (parkour’s major competition season). Web searches for Red Bull’s Art of Motion event show the same thing, and YouTube actually shows a steady decline. This lack of market growth may be one of the reasons Red Bull decided to take a hiatus this fall for Art of Motion.
Figure 7 (YouTube searches, global, since 2008)
When it comes to parkour’s current hot-button issue (FIG) the numbers are scary but not surprising.
Figure 8 (Web searches, global, since 2016)
Searches for parkour olympics spiked during the 2016 Olympics, when parkour appeared in both the Youth Olympic Games and the opening ceremony. Searches for the other three terms (more specific to FIG) hit their peak between May and August of 2017, directly in the middle of the conflict. Since then, search interest has gone dormant. Even more interesting is that this conversation, despite claiming to represent a “global issue” in parkour, is being driven online by two primary players – the United Kingdom and United States. These two countries were the only ones with enough searches to qualify on any of the four terms, with fig parkour and fight the fig generating search volume exclusively in America. This is particularly fascinating when you note that for almost all other search terms we’ve listed, major players have included countries like Australia, Canada, Germany, Russia, India, Spain, and France – all notably absent here.
4. Parkour Gyms and Our New Audience
We’ve seen static or declining numbers for many of parkour’s budding industries over the past few years. What about gyms? Here, the news is overwhelmingly positive.
Figure 9 (Web searches, global, since 2004)
Despite fewer searches for parkour as a whole, more and more people are searching for terms like parkour gym and parkour gym near me. That this is happening while searches for more general queries like how to parkour and parkour training are also dropping is even more impressive, and seems to imply a change in demographic for who wants to learn parkour (or at least who is searching). Our next graph backs that up:
Figure 10 (Web searches, global, since 2004)
There was no spike of interest whatsoever in kids parkour when Jump Britain was released in 2005, despite a massive peak in overall web interest at the time. Similarly, though interest increased somewhat during Ultimate Parkour Challenge in 2010 it doesn’t reflect the numbers we saw in some of the other charts. Instead, we see our biggest spike in 2016 – in the middle of a steady decline for parkour searches (Figure 1). The only chart that shows similar patterns of growth is Figure 9, tracking interest in gym programs. While most gym owners recognize that kids programs are their financial bread and butter, the tight correlation between these two graphs really drives home the importance of that relationship. Apart from YouTube searches for storror, kids parkour and parkour gyms represent the only consistently growing global search terms I was able to identify over the two weeks it took me to write this article.
5. Closing Thoughts
What does all this mean for the parkour community? I think it’s simple. It means that our primary audience has changed. In 2005, the people exposed to (and interested in) parkour were adults. It was marketed by the media as a sport for young, strong, reckless men. For those who were truly interested, a few hours of digging on forums were often needed to understand there was even a philosophy behind the movement. Since then, we’ve worked hard as a community to change the perception of parkour. We’ve filmed parkour videos explaining the mindset and basic techniques. We’ve written blog posts and books. We’ve implemented classes and after-school programs accessible to all ages and genders. And in doing so, we’ve managed to take one of the most extreme sports of the 20th century and turn it “family friendly,” all in little more than a decade.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. While searches like epic parkour and parkour death may have garnered interest when the sport was young and shiny, they do little for building sustainable communities. Steady or rising trends for terms like parkour classes, kids parkour, and parkour gym do. These terms create coaching and management jobs, fund new facilities, and provide a consumer market for all the clothing and competitions. They help us build infrastructure on a larger scale and give us the resources to protect our sport from outside entities and corporations looking for quick cash. Most importantly, they force us to become more responsible stewards of the discipline.
And let’s not forget that the trends for kiddy parkour are balanced out by adult athletes continually pushing the limits of what’s possible in our sport. Not so long ago, it would have seemed ridiculous for a parkour team to self-fund a feature length film. In the past three years, Storror have done it twice – and to extraordinary success. We have multiple YouTube channels dedicated to parkour with over 500,000 subscribers run by well-respected athletes and members of the international community. Parkour is being taught to the elderly and in schools around the world. ESPN recently shared a video of Endijs Miscenko sticking the fattest drop rail precision in parkour history! Though casual interest in parkour may have dwindled, the community is going strong…and that is always the most promising statistic.
Looking at these trends, it seems likely to me that this generation will not produce parkour’s Tony Hawk or Alex Honnold. Though some of us may make it as athletes, most will remain the gym owners, coaches, and business leaders paving the way. If we’re smart, the work we have done to normalize parkour for the next generation will result in a world where future practitioners do have the ability to make a decent, consistent living wage doing what they love. Maybe they’ll even be able to change the world with their movement. But for now, our challenge should be to continue to lay the groundwork, to work together, and to build sustainably and ethically with an eye to the future. We can’t stop pursuing our dreams. Instead, we need to continue to spread out and dream as widely as possible. If we’re able to do that, I have a feeling we may beat even the most optimistic predictions about our future.