Recently, Kai Morgan published a thought-provoking post on the state of the martial arts industry. It has caused me to think about the Filipino Martial Arts Industry. Read her article here.
In relevant part, the post states:
The traditional martial arts are often said to be suffering. Many (although by no means all) instructors are finding it difficult to attract and retain students. The US-based Martial Arts Teachers Association estimates that the number of schools in the US has fallen from 20,234 in 2013 to 15,896 in 2016.
Further, it refers to another blog post entitled “Proof That Interest In Martial Arts is Declining” in which the below graph appears. The blue line is martial arts. The red line represents MMA.
I quickly confirmed this with Google Trends with the addition of Filipino Martial Arts terms. See the graph below. To be honest, I was not surprised by the results.
As one can see, the graph shows that “martial arts” as a search term has declined over the years. This decrease does not come as a shock. Also not shocking is the performance of FMA related search terms such as “arnis,” “eskrima,” and “Filipino Martial Arts.”
To many of us, the reason for the increasing popularity of MMA is evident. The ubiquity of UFC events is surely a large reason for the surging popularity of MMA. However, it may not be the only reason.
Before delving into the other possible reasons for MMA’s popularity, let’s discuss just what we mean by “MMA.” Boxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, grappling, and kickboxing are terms often associated with MMA. More distantly related are CrossFit and related exercise regimens. All of these search terms have one thing in common: an emphasis on fitness. Often, the credo of pushing yourself to the extreme is at the core of the disciplines mentioned above.
Besides, we must also consider the rise of “extreme sports” over the past couple of decades. The most popular events of the past few Winter Olympics? Short track speed skating, freestyle skiing, and snowboarding.
So, in a broad sense, new sports, particularly of the “extreme” version have become increasingly popular among the younger generation for the last 20 years.
Given the excitement, competitive element, and adrenaline rush of these new sports, is it any wonder that “traditional martial arts” look staid by comparison?
Therefore, in a broad cultural context, it is not surprising that MMA has steadily risen in popularity over the years.
MMA and Traditional Martial Arts
Anecdotally, I know of several non-MMA instructors who are struggling to keep their martial arts schools afloat. A couple has gone out of business. A few others struggle mightily to keep their doors open. Many have confessed to having a depressingly small number of students. While a lack of business experience combined with marketing shortcomings may explain the travails of some traditional martial arts schools, part of me believes that the cultural trends are conspiring against many of them.
There are two reasons why traditional martial arts schools are lagging behind MMA in popularity. First is the perception that MMA and related disciplines are more fitness oriented than traditional martial arts. Indeed, many MMA gyms now have children’s programs, such as boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and Muay Thai. In contrast, I have seen some karate instructors who do not look as though they are fit. I remember walking into a local karate school and meeting the head instructor. He, unfortunately, seemed morbidly obese. For all we know, he may be a great karateka. The problem is: how the heck are you going to sell fitness? Perception wise, I perceive MMA gyms to have the decisive fitness advantage over traditional martial arts schools.
Secondly, MMA has done a better job of marketing themselves. As Ms. Morgan points out in her blog, traditional martial arts schools have been laggard in marketing. In addition to fitness, MMA has convinced many that their approach to “fighting” and “self-defense” are more modernized and efficient than their traditional martial arts counterparts. As a result, MMA is increasingly taking over the martial arts market.
Filipino Martial Arts
Finally, we come to the topic of Filipino Martial Arts. Forget about MMA. Frankly, FMAs is getting crushed by traditional martial arts. As can be seen by the above graph, search trends for FMAs have been in flatline status since 2004.
For many of us inside the FMA “bubble,” we believe that FMAs are the most practical means of self-defense. We train across multiple platforms such as the stick, knife, and empty hands. We tell ourselves that the movements are similar across all platforms and that this is an efficient training methodology.
Why then do FMA instructors struggle with attracting students?
I have compared notes with other FMA instructors and, very often, I hear that they have 3 to 8 students for each class. That’s not a lot compared to MMA or even traditional martial arts. Eight seems to be the upper limit for many FMA classes.
In my opinion, there are several reasons why FMA instructors struggle to attract students (in no particular order):
(1) The marketing is lackluster;
(2) Parents have concerns about children working with sticks and knives;
(3) Prospective students may question how weapons work, mainly stick, translate to street self-defense;
(4) Still, others may wonder whether they can become physically fit through stick and knife practice;
(5) FMAs may not be attractive to certain age groups, due to prevailing cultural trends in the sporting world as noted above.
As an aside, I have noticed some demographic trends among my students and those in related Modern Arnis training groups (my group, Ottawa, Detroit, and Chicago). Many adult students are in their 40s and 50s. Those in the teens and their 20s are quite underrepresented among those groups. Finally, while I’ve had Filipino students, most of them tended to be in their late 30s and early 40s.
Instead of appealing to the masses, should we perhaps focus on niche demographics?
I have had a children’s program here in Oshawa for the past few years. As with many martial arts program, I’ve had many challenges. The parents are great and do not object to kids practicing with sticks. Lately, though, some folks have asked me: “do you teach self-defense aside from the sticks?” Pretty clear what they are hoping their kids will learn. That said, I don’t exactly have a huge number of children students.
Now, I have some questions for you readers:
(1) Are you drawing the same demographic trends as I am?
(2) If yes, should we focus more on older age students (30s, 40s, 50s)?
(3) What can we do to attract children, teens, and those in their 20s?
(4) What age groups dominate your FMA training group?
(5) How do you market yourselves? Do you explicitly sell Filipino Martial Arts? Or do you have a generalized self-defense marketing strategy?
I would love to hear your answers and any thoughts that you might have!