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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