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.

Cultural Trends

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!

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11 thoughts on “The State of the Filipino Martial Arts Industry

  • January 16, 2017 at 11:03 am

    I can’t really address this from an instructor point of view, but as an older-aged student I have a couple of observations. Firstly, I have absolutely no desire to spend half my class time on freaking calisthenics. Not only is it (to me) boring as all get-out but my knee joints simply can’t take it (not to mention these sorts of repetitive movements can be very damaging to the joints in the long run) . So this is the first thing I enjoy about weapons training in general and modern arnis class in particular: we get right down to training. At the end of a good class I am feeling it though – it’s hard work!

    I think for older students especially, a crazy-energy MMA type class could be very off-putting – especially so for those who have never done any sort of martial arts. However, younger people are more readily influenced by the media, and FMAs have been used a lot in movies lately. Then there is Dog Brothers style – high energy, full contact sparring. These are the sorts of things that appeal to younger martial artists.

    Another point you mentioned is how FMA training translates to the infamous “street”. Empty hand translations are good, but old farts like me need mechanical advantage. Don’t just talk about how it works with umbrellas or rolled-up magazines, have people work with these sorts of objects from time to time.

    • January 16, 2017 at 7:19 pm

      Hi RoseAnne,

      Thanks for reading and responding with your awesome comments. I couldn’t agree more with what you said. As I said in the article, the demographics of my classes lean heavily toward those in their 50s. I do have to take that into consideration as far as the fitness/exercise related elements of the class. Lately, I’ve been doing FMA moves for fitness purposes. For example, last Thursday, I had the folks do 100 reps of redonda. They liked it! So long as the moves involve FMA related moves, they are okay with it. I hear you about the mechanical advantage! 🙂

    • January 21, 2017 at 2:45 am

      Brian I would certainly agree that my demographics match what you have presented. The average age of my students is late thirties, most of my students have experience in a variety of other martial arts. They generally come to me with in interest in learning practical weaponry skills, over half of them are already concealed weapon permit holders and are looking to expand whatever training they have had into other weapons. I am actually quite happy catering to this particular crowd, but I am not trying to make a living as a martial arts instructor.

      And just a mention on the Dog Brothers, I would guess that a full third of the active fighters are above 40. There are certainly some young bucks in the crowd, but I would guess that the average age is high thirties. I am 44 and the best fight (most dynamic, most tactical, most interesting) that I have had was against a 51 year old, that dude can MOVE :D.

      • January 23, 2017 at 9:59 pm

        Lamont, thanks for reading this post and commenting. Particularly, thanks for confirming that your demographics match those of my students. I will have to see if those demographics hold steady over the next 12 months and that will give me a better idea of who’s coming to me.

  • January 16, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    This is such a good article Master Brian, and it’s moved my own thinking on quite a bit from the original starting point – thank you for that. There’s a certain irony in it all too, as I’ve just been told in the last few days that Defence Lab (the subject of the original article) is actually derived from the Filipino martial arts. So if this is true, you and they are effectively selling the same thing in a sense, but obviously in very different packaging and from what you are saying with different outcomes.
    I’m surprised at your overall theme though, as I had a (completely made-up) idea that the FMA were very cool and trendy these days, e.g. due to their association with the Bourne movies, and I think other movies too, as RoseAnne says. As I think you know, I only really know about the Japanese martial arts, and I believed until now that you had quite some advantage over us. But it sounds like times are hard for some of your friends in the industry, which is such a shame given the richness and quality on offer from your arts . . .

    • January 16, 2017 at 7:26 pm

      Hi Kai,

      I’ve figured out the reply to comment issue. Very weird. Anyway, thank you for reading and sharing this post. More importantly, thank you for the inspiration in your original post. That REALLY got me thinking and your reference to the Google Trends graph really hit home. Hmmmm about Defence Lab. I will have to look into this and see, more in depth, how they are marketing themselves. Yes, it would seem that FMAs might attract more attention as a result of the Bourne movies. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case.

  • January 17, 2017 at 12:33 am


    Although your research may be accurate, in the established martial arts, cross training community, I find the FMA is more popular in the past 5 years or so:)



    • January 23, 2017 at 10:00 pm

      Hello sir! Thanks for reading and commenting! With the right outreach, the FMA can appeal to more folks out there. It’s going to take a bit of work but it can be done!

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  • December 25, 2018 at 1:12 pm

    Greetings, sir. I’d like to address points 3 & 4 on your list regarding self-defense and fitness in FMA training. I do think its a problem. Few of the FMA systems I’ve trained in offer much in the way of either. In the first case, there is an over-emphasis on stick, some knife, and little else. In the second, I didn’t break a sweat for years in a single FMA class I took until I started traveling to Cebu for training. Looking back now, a common thread in both of those (a common fix?) is a lack of sparring. But let me back up.

    As for the self-defense aspect, its true that most schools (in my experience) don’t demonstrate the utility of FMA for self-defense. They talk about it, but it doesn’t take long for the student to figure out that the stick and knife aren’t sufficiently practical for self-defense in a law-abiding society. I have ‘fixed’ this problem in my classes by teaching in a particular flow, and I’ve never had anyone question the utility of FMA in self-defense. I’d say its the opposite; that I’ve been able to demonstrate its effectiveness. In any given period – 6 weeks, 12 weeks cycles – I teach in a ‘flow’ from weapons, to disarms, to empty hands (striking, locking), to takedowns, to grappling. Always. No matter what stick drills the cycle begins with, I always progress the students through the flow from sticks to empty hand striking and locking to dumog. I’ll admit that, after a year, my students know fewer stick drills and sinawali patterns than students in other FMA schools, but they know a lot more about how to realistically apply locks and takedowns and grapple with a downed opponent when they are empty-handed. The last few weeks of the cycle, I have students conduct the flow in a sparring scenario, with resistance and aggression.

    As for the fitness aspect, I’ve tried to correct this in a couple of ways in my classes. First, is by having the students conduct power striking drills. That is, simply, practicing their 12 basic strikes in the air with full speed and power as a warm-up. No one is not breathing heavily after a few minutes. This, I combine with bag drills using padded sticks at full speed and power, with footwork, and it creates a great workout. Most schools I’ve trained at simply drill the techniques/patterns over and over with partners, but I find this insufficient for a few reasons, the lack of the fitness component being one. Once the technique/pattern is learned, I have the students drill it with full power as often as possible. Second, I try to incorporate at least 15-30 minutes of sparring into the end of the class as often as possible. This flows pretty naturally after having them learn the techniques or striking patterns slowly with a partner, then full power alone in the air, then on the bags with footworks, then sparring. If this is done all in one class as it is the last few weeks of each cycle, they’ll spend most of the class sweating and breathing hard.

    These are the two flows I try to incorporate into my 6 and 12 week cycles in order to address the self-defense and fitness aspects. Weapons to empty-hand to dumog, culminating in sparring. Technique to power striking to bag work, culminating in sparring.

    One last thing. The school I teach at is a combination “Fitness bootcamp” school and JKD school, so its all adults to begin with. The general idea is to bring in people with the fitness bootcamp hook (draws more people than the JKD hook) and try and convert them to martial arts students for the long-term. The instructors aren’t CPTs, but the fitness bootcamp hook seems to draw a lot of people anyways. I’ve seen this model used in a few other places as well. Certainly, not the worst model I’ve seen.

    Hope this helps.


    -Ivan Doyle
    Doce Pares, Texas


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