Is Adult Martial Arts Booming Despite The Recession?

Is the sky falling

When the sky is falling…

The Sky Is Falling?

So, we keep hearing all this bad news on television, and it seems like every time the president holds a press conference the stock market takes a hit. I opened the New York Times last Saturday (something I rarely do), and I have to say I have never seen so much “bad news” in a newspaper in my life. (No wonder the newspapers are failing financially… who’d want to read that mess?)

Anyway, Sunday’s message at our church was on cynicism, and it got me thinking about how our perception has a lot to do with how we deal with adversity.

And that’s precisely what I want to share with you today – how perception and choice can make all the difference in how your school fares over the next two to three years.

Fear Makes People Do Stupid Things…

Sure, lots of martial arts schools are seeing their students get laid off, transferred, etc. – this is a reality for us right now, and ignoring it won’t help. However, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. In fact, this is very similar to what we dealt with in 2000 and 2001 when the dot com bubble burst and the bottom fell out of the tech sector.

During that time, my school lost about 1/3 of it’s members, but I didn’t let it affect my thinking to the point of panicking. Oh sure, I had a definite “oh crap” moment, but then I got on the stick and started cranking up our marketing, and also adding some additional revenue streams to the school. Before long, our income had stabilized, we had replaced the students we lost, and we were back at our previous monthly numbers.

Look, fear makes you do stupid things. There’s nothing wrong with cutting back when times are lean, but cutting back on marketing that has been bringing in students is just dumb. Yet, I know there are schools who are doing just that right now, because they are adopting a herd mentality and panicking with all the other sheeple.

The Adult Martial Arts Market Is Booming?

Yes, that appears to be the case. Last week I received the latest newsletter that David Meyer and John Will put out, and they report the following:

“Schools that are overly reliant on kids may experience a wobble or two, if their parents have to find that extra $200 a month to meet their mortgage – but schools who are into BJJ and MMA are usually catering for adults; and in that demographic we see nothing but growth!”

Now, these are guys that deal with hundreds of school owners around the world. I’d say they have an ear to the ground regarding what’s actually going on in the industry… and, my own observations more or less parallel their assessment.

What Smart School Owners Are Doing

or could it be something else

…be mindful of what you catch.

  • One school that I know of, located in a small town with a very high foreclosure rate, just reported to me that they enrolled five people last week and see no sign of it slowing down. Their competitors are struggling, but they’re thriving. So, what’s so special about this school? They are marketing heavily and not afraid to spend money on advertisement. In addition, they are especially focusing on their web presence and placing ads in local, family-focused media channels.
  • I visited another friend’s school last night. His place is in a not-so-great section of town, located in a small, off the beaten path office park with zero street visibility. But let me tell you, it was nothing but wall-to-wall adults in there (and yes, his programs do cater to the adult market; MMA, grappling, and kickboxing). His “secret”? He markets heavily and does a lot of events for his adult students. In addition, the atmosphere at his school is extremely positive, and it’s clear they go out of their way to make people feel welcome. Oh, one more thing – his school has grown 17.6% over the last two years.

These are just two examples, but I know from the posts on our forums and the emails I am getting from the SAMAS members that they’re not the only ones experiencing moderate but steady growth in their schools right now.

A Pattern Emerges…

After reading between the lines, here’s the pattern that I’m seeing in all the schools that are doing well:

  1. These school owners are pro-active instead of reactive. They are proactively marketing and advertising their schools, stepping it up a notch instead of trying to cut costs by cutting corners in their marketing.
  2. These schools have been active in creating programs for and marketing to the adult market. They are offering fitness, MMA, and grappling in their schools, even if it’s not their “core” program. A wise person once said, “The secret to success in business is selling what the market is buying.” Even if you don’t want to offer MMA, fitness is an evergreen market, it never goes out of style. At the very least, you should be implementing fitness classes in your school that appeal to hungry buyers in your market.
  3. These school owners focus on solutions instead of “problems”. Whining about the economy is a waste of time and energy, and it’s not going to do a thing for your bottom line. So, stop whining and start spending that energy instead on tasks that actually provide you with a measurable and positive return… marketing/PR, advertising, and retention.

Coming To Grips With Reality Is Just The First Step

Lets face it; lots of schools became complacent after things settled after the dot com bust and before the gas crunch and mortgage crisis. For a while, it looked like things would return to the days of plenty we had during the mid to late 90’s, but that’s not how things fell out.

So if you’re one of them, coming to grips with reality is only the first step. After that, it’s time to get into gear and deal with the situation in a very real and actionable way.

The bottom line is that you can’t change the economy, but it’s your choice how you’ll approach your business during these so-called lean times.

Will you starve by choice?

Or, will you find a way to not just survive, but maybe even to experience growth over the next few years?

It’s your call.

Mike Massie is the author of Small Dojo Big Profits and runs a martial arts business coaching website for new instructors and small school owners,

Questions? Comments? Completely disagree? Let the world know – post your comments below:


  1. Mike Keller on March 3, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Mike, our school is continuing to grow as we continue to advertise and we offer several programs. My greatest advise to any school owner is don’t slack of on advertising. Follow the outline in the SDBP program and success will follow.

    Mike Keller
    Keller’s MMA

  2. Ed Arriaga on March 3, 2009 at 9:08 am

    Despite the news on the TV, BBQ gatherings and family and frinds I have seen a differnt trend in this time of Day. I notice adults are more stress and have more time for themselves than before. I have implemented numeros programs for the Adults Classes and have gain more students than ever before. This is a good time to promote and be ready for the Boom. Keep in mind, We don’t know how long it will last ,Keep cost to its low and ride the wave to the end.
    Hope I can Help,
    Master ED Arriaga

  3. steve siverling on March 3, 2009 at 9:46 am

    You know I talked to a store owner about running an low-cost advertisement. He said, “We dont’ have a marketing budget.” The same guy is complaining about how he can make enough to cover his expenses, he’s blaming the economy. To top it off he was making 40000 a year when the economy was good as a non-profit. The same guy was trying to tell me how I should run my business when he can’t even manage his own.

  4. Richard Hackworth on March 3, 2009 at 9:01 am

    I haven’t done and adult targeted ad in almost a year but we continue to get new adults regularly from referrals. I love referrals because they rarely even ask the price and don’t hesitate to sign since they have a friend in the school already. BTW, love your blog. It is nice to see an honest and realist approach to the martial arts business. There are too many organizations that over-hype everything so the members of those groups are always disappointed with the results.

    Best Regards,
    Richard Hackworth

  5. Mike Massie on March 3, 2009 at 9:03 am

    That’s great to hear, Mike!

    The best news I can get is when someone credits my materials with helping them grow their school.

    But, I know that you’re doing all the hard work – keep it up and let me know if I can help in any way.

    By the way, in case you missed it Mike runs an MMA school, and he teaches both kids and adults.

  6. Mike Massie on March 3, 2009 at 9:05 am

    That’s good to know, Richard.

    Thanks for the kind comments!

  7. Kurt Schulenburg on March 3, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Well said! It’s amazing that some schools still look at advertising/marketing as an EXPENSE. It’s not; it’s the only path to new customers, the lifeblood of your school. Even if you BREAK EVEN on your time/money outlay, you’ve created “presence in the community” and that will always bring the “oh yeah, I’ve heard of you” reaction that you’d like to have.
    (Newspaper ads don’t bring in new students like they used to… we’re taking a big step and trying a radio spot soon.)

  8. Mike Massie on March 3, 2009 at 9:20 am

    I think it’s the publication more than the marketing channel, Kurt, but I agree that print ads don’t do what they once did. That likely has to do with the loss of readership traditional newspapers have seen since the advent of the internet (all the more reason to expand your web presence).

    That being said, two of our site members are having success marketing in local family-oriented magazines versus traditional newspapers – that might be worth a shot before you drop a lot of cash on radio. My experience is that radio and TV are hard marketing channels to leverage.

    However, if you do it and it works, let us know!

  9. Declan Lestat on March 3, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    "So, stop whining and start spending that energy instead on tasks that actually provide you with a measurable and positive return"

    That one sentence is worth a million $ on it’s own (About £1.2 million right now!). Solid gold advice as usual, Mr Massie. Thank you.

    Just to make double sure, would you say these principles would apply in the UK market as well as the US?

  10. Mike Massie on March 3, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    The common thread bullet points are pretty universal, but I really can’t say for a certainty that the same trends are occurring in the UK.

    However, traditionally when something takes hold here the same trends seem to catch on across the Atlantic.

  11. Scott Ward on March 3, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    As a very small club owner I’d like to complain a little. Our revenues are very low so paid advertising is a real reach. But what makes it worse is we the big guy in town makes it impossible. The big TKD school has used their money to buy exclusive advertising rights in the major family focused magazine in town. You might say, “well switch to another magazine.” Problem is there really is not much else. I tried one, but got zero return. I also tested other printed marketing. 100 mailings to a good neighborhood, 250 fliers taken door to door (even a couple of highly attended free woman’s self defense seminar). Still no return. The internet (web site and ad words) has been the only that has had any return. I’m will to spend, I just want to spend where their is some return.

  12. Mike Massie on March 3, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Hi Scott,

    I’d say your competitor is a smart guy.

    100 direct mail pieces isn’t even enough for a test. Ditto on the 250 fliers. And, without seeing the mailing piece you used, there’s no telling whether it would have been successful had you mailed to a larger sample.

    With that type of marketing, you need large numbers, a good list, and strong copy. Without any of those three legs, you are just wasting money.

    Web marketing is easier and a lot more straightforward. Focus on that.

  13. stuart on March 4, 2009 at 5:53 am

    Hi mike i just wanted to say a big thank you for your help and constant mails even when i had no funds.No one starts a buisness in a reccesion do they ?
    well i have my bigest realisation was having dan grades in the dojo and a white belt at marketing wow what a fast learning curve i can tell you.a few months on march to be exact i have done far better than anyone especially my old karate school said i would thanks guys you have to love them dont you.if i can fill you guys in on a normal day for me 4.30am run hour of power i call it with 10 posters to put up on my round,bus stops,schools anywhere people stand and wait is great then home shower.don my fresh pressed Gi and leaflets with that all important special offer and im off leafleting its important to post early as the customer thinks the postman as been they will probably look at it 3 to six times thus planting that seed.any later and they will bin as junk mail i used to be a postman thats how i know.then about 8.30am stand outside a school with crb check at the ready in case anyone asks giving out vip passes to parents then more leafleting or posters depending if i have a school course to do or not.lunch followed by town centre vips then 3.20pm outside a school again then to an after school club which i do for free thats good for referals.then 4.30pm on to my first class.bring a friend to class,and parenting days are a must i allso offer to hand belts and merits at school so we can show what we do.i all ways have cards and im a walking talking advert for my academy 8.30pm is usually my last class of the night i do this five times a week then a variation on sat and sunday the weekend is usually my family time so i tend not to teach then.i have great passion for what i do so can not ever say i did not try my best i also hope to get my red belt in marketing soon lol

  14. Mike Massie on March 4, 2009 at 6:14 am


    I love hearing from guys like you who are taking massive action, doing what it takes to build a business.

    Now, I know a lot of folks can’t do what Stuart describes above, due to working a day job, etc… but what dedication he has to do all that!

    Hats off to you, Stuart, and keep us posted on your progress.

    – Mike

  15. Ken on March 4, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Hi Mike
    Thanks for the continued mails. I have followed up on a lot of your suggestions and find them to be a great help. As discussed sometimes how you view a problem is often the solution. By viewing it in a slightly diferent way a different picture can emerge.
    Opportunity is nowhere.
    Opportunity is now here.
    Same sentence just changed slightly. I have analysed what I am doing and how I am doing it and with small changes I am now doing what I need to do and exactly how I need to do it. People leaving my dojo with a positively reinforced feel good factor mentally and physically goes a long way to countering the recession blues dominating the news 24/7. Thanks for the continued mails.

  16. Jason Stanley on March 4, 2009 at 11:57 am


    [“Schools that are overly reliant on kids may experience a wobble or two, if their parents have to find that extra $200 a month to meet their mortgage – but schools who are into BJJ and MMA are usually catering for adults; and in that demographic we see nothing but growth!”]

    Hi Mike,

    In response to the article that reported the quote above, I’ve got to almost completely disagree. I live in an area that is hit particularly hard by the *recession* due to so many people being in the construction industry that live here. There is also a very high foreclosure rate. Also I teach traditional japanese karate, no BJJ or MMA. My school is about 85% kids, 15% adults.

    In the last 6 months I’ve lost a few adults who work construction, but have had others join from other industries.

    As far as the kids go, we’re still getting plenty of new enrolments. My belief is that parents cut things for themselves before they cut things for their kids. This has been proven time and time again at my club over the recent months.

    3 real life examples for you…

    1) To paraphrase a parent the other night – he said, “Money is really tight, but this is my son’s dream… by the way he needs a new uniform and patch – here’s the cash plus next month’s payment.”

    2) A family whose father lost his job 2 months ago just enrolled their child in my class. They’ve paid up and signed a 6 month agreement.

    3) Several other families over the last few months who also have lost jobs, continue to find the money to pay for their kids karate tuition.

    Also I should mention that 6 months ago we had to put prices up to cover increased expenses, yet people continue to train.

    It’s their escape from the day to day headaches, whether participating themselves or watching their kids.

    – Jason

  17. Mike Massie on March 4, 2009 at 3:53 pm


    I love that: “nowhere ==> now here”!

    That’s awesome, thanks for sharing it and I’m glad to hear you’re doing well in your school.

    – Mike

  18. Mike Massie on March 4, 2009 at 4:01 pm


    That’s why I like to hear feedback from you guys about what is REALLY going on in different parts of the country.

    Personally, I have yet to see a drop off in children’s martial arts… in fact, I think it’s just the opposite.

    However, I thought maybe it was just our school, since I’d heard some school owners complaining about parents pulling out their kids recently.

    I’m glad you spoke up and shared what is going on in your school.

    Still, I think that if a school is not offering fitness classes, some sort of grappling (even if it’s just doing ne-waza in your BBC classes), or adding an MMA program, that you’re missing out on expanding your base.

    By the way, one instructor who is a valued SAMAS member emailed me recently, and he commented that he thought MMA and BJJ went against what the martial arts are about.

    I disagree – I’ve seen just as many knuckle-headed TMA schools as I have MMA. Just because someone bows and calls the instructor “sensei”, it doesn’t mean they are any more well-mannered than a school that doesn’t.

    In fact, I’m off to take a class at a friend’s school today – an MMA school – and his students are the nicest and most well-mannered group I’ve seen.

    I just thought I’d mention that, because I don’t want you guys thinking I want you to rip the heart out of budo just to make a buck.

    I just don’t want to see any schools close for lack of a willingness to try something new – but doing something new doesn’t mean you have to throw out your core art.

    – Mike

  19. Brent on March 4, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    Hi Mike,

    I thought I would toss in my views… I am willing to bet that families are more likely to cut the adult spending before the kids. At least with most of the families I know.
    But these days there is a huge market of single or childless adults. So, I would guess a good add-on program (fitness, MMA, etc) would be a potential gold mine. But now, here is my question… (maybe good fodder for a future article..hint hint..haha)
    How would a traditional martial arts teacher become qualified to teach such a class? Most of the good teachers I know won’t just pass themselves off a sbeing qualified without having done the work…
    So, what kind of fitness class, etc, could we add?

  20. Brent on March 4, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    Oh sorry..I forgot to add that here in Tokyo we haven’t seen as much of a drop in attendance due to the economy.
    But new enrollments have been dropping for kids for sure (English classes and karate).

  21. Mike Massie on March 4, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    Heck yes, Brent, that’s a darned good question – and thanks for having the guts to ask it.

    Here’s what I’m seeing most instructors do:

    1. Hire an outside instructor – someone you can trust that will sign a non-compete.


    2. Get trained to do it yourself.

    And, I have to tell you – all the guys who are bitching and whining about “unqualified instructors and MMA newbies are teaching, wah, wah, wah” FORGET or IGNORE the FACT that before we had a slew of qualified BJJ black belts in every major city, unless you lived on the West Coast the only instructors you had to train with were folks who learned through:

    a) Videos
    b) Seminars
    c) Private lessons

    And, many of those guys turned out to become excellent black belt instructors.

    So, I don’t see anything wrong with taking a “jump start” workshop or (and I use the word with much hesitation) “certification” and starting a study group for your students as an adjunct to your main style, as long as you don’t misrepresent yourself as a qualified instructor.

    However, your best route is to train with someone else, maybe someone you’ve hired to teach in your own school, until you ARE qualified (most would say that’s about a purple belt rank in BJJ).

    Just my two cents, but as in all things, the bottom line is you have to do what you think is right for you and your school.

  22. Kevin Deaver on March 7, 2009 at 3:13 am

    Dear Mike
    I am blessed to be doing so well, not only did the organization I work for (Parks and Rec. Dept) raise prices, but enrollement is up even with adults attending with their children………
    Couldn’t be more happy. Advertising for me is taken care of with the City, so I do some of what is in your manual, but really get free leads from not only my website, but the Cities website as well as my local Chamber of Commerce……..

  23. Mike Massie on March 7, 2009 at 7:36 am

    That’s good to hear, Kevin.

    Glad things are still going well for you since I got your last update!

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