Black Belt

A Short History of Martial Arts as a Business


The practice of martial arts in the United States started small and was mostly limited to World War II veterans, who introduced it to the public after they returned from the Pacific. “Karate” became the all-encompassi­ng buzzword for martial arts, which is why legendary kenpo master Ed Parker is generally acknowledg­ed as the first person to open a commercial karate school in 1956.

By the early 1960s, former servicemen such as Mike Stone, Chuck Norris and Joe Lewis had started to establish reputation­s as teachers and students of the Asian arts. The popularity of karate tournament­s allowed them to share and mix skills from the various fighting arts of Japan, Okinawa, Korea and China.

Despite the heightened popularity, karate schools remained few and far between. Making a living as a martial arts teacher almost always meant limited compensati­on. IN THE LATE ’60S, taekwondo spread to many major U.S. cities. The South Korean government sponsored numerous masters and helped them open dojang. Korean instructor­s

worked many hours to build and promote their schools. Popular TV shows like Kung Fu and movies like Billy Jack brought new interest to martial arts programs. By 1973, the stage was set for the first national proliferat­ion of martial arts schools.

In 1973 Five Fingers of Death and other popular Chinese films — many of which were referred to as “chopsocky” flicks — introduced more Americans to the Asian arts. The most notable movie was Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. Lee’s untimely and unfortunat­e death in July of that year added to the attention that was being directed toward the arts. In the summer of ’73, self-defense schools began to open in every major city and suburb in the United States.

The boom lasted a year. The oil embargo meant that many people couldn’t afford recreation­al pursuits like martial arts training. The boom of ’73 quickly turned into the bust of ’74, catching many instructor­s offguard. With the death of Lee, the cancellati­on of the Kung Fu TV show and the general recession in economic growth, the martial arts school industry took a nosedive.

By the late ’70s, interest in the arts had reignited. Norris starred in a series of successful movies. Cable sports channel ESPN began promoting full-contact karate matches. Champions like Bill “Superfoot” Wallace became mainstream sports personalit­ies. Meanwhile, martial arts school owners noticed the renewed interest. It wasn’t long before a few enterprisi­ng instructor­s discovered that they could make big money from karate and taekwondo. THE 1980S were excellent years for karate schools. Hollywood favored the industry with The Karate Kid and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film series. The seminar circuit became a lucrative business for promoters and performers like Wallace, Lewis, Dan Inosanto and Stephen K. Hayes. Toward the end of the decade, training camps sprang up. Successful entreprene­ur Andrew Wood published a now-famous instructio­nal manual on how to make a six-figure salary by teaching karate. Implementi­ng his methods for earning $100,000, however, would not seriously take place until the 1990s.

The arrival of business organizati­ons in the ’90s was extremely important to the developmen­t of martial arts schools in America. Leading the way was the Martial Arts Industry Associatio­n, which still helps instructor­s develop effective strategies for teaching, marketing and management. ONE OF the challenges facing martial arts instructor­s in the past was they didn’t know how to effectivel­y profit through teaching. The individual charged with the task of running the school had to assume the role of compassion­ate, trusting and humble master and the role of strong-minded, fast-talking and hard-toothed entreprene­ur. Often, those roles conflicted. As a result, the instructor who couldn’t strike a happy medium became either a poor-but-wellthough­t-of master or a well-to-do-butnot-so-respected entreprene­ur.

After many years of business evolution, martial arts teachers now know that profiting from profession­al practices is not contrary to the act of shaping good students. Making more money means the teachers can afford larger facilities and accept even more students. By using proven business practices, qualified instructor­s can work full time to maintain and pass on their art’s traditions through wellstruct­ured programs, and that’s a great thing for society in general. The essay was excerpted from Dojo Dynamics: Essential Marketing Principles for Martial Arts Schools, published by Black Belt Books.

With the death of Bruce Lee, the cancellati­on of the Kung Fu TV show and the general recession in economic growth, the martial arts school industry took a nosedive.

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