Money plays a small but important role in martial arts competition. Should it play a larger role?
Money & Martial Arts Competition – Episode 115
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What is up, everyone? It’s time for another episode of whistlekick Martial Arts Radio, and here we are with episode 115. This episode is about the role money plays and doesn’t play, in martial arts competition.
I’m whistlekick’s founder but I’m better known as your host, Jeremy Lesniak. whistlekick, if you don’t know, makes the absolute best sparring gear, apparel, and accessories for practitioners and fans of traditional martial arts. I’d like to welcome the new listeners and thank everyone that’s come back again.
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We’ve talked on this show about competition and its role in martial arts. We ask our guests about their competitive experience and we’ve even done full episodes on martial arts tournaments.
One of the things I’ve seen lately on social media revolves around criticism of the way money is handed out at competitions. Some are calling for equal payouts for men’s and women’s divisions. Others are calling for parity between the adult and senior divisions.
Money is, of course, important. While I would agree with the adage, “money doesn’t buy happiness,” it’s hard to be happy when you don’t have any. Let’s explore the ties between money and competitive martial arts.
History of Money in Martial Arts
Martial arts, for the majority of us, is a passion. You likely know instructors that teach for little to no money. Even many of those that do often put some of their own money towards rent or other expenses for operating their school. This isn’t a judgment one way or the other, simply an observation.
People tend to have very strong feelings about money, and that’s not just limited to martial arts. People also tend to have strong feelings about martial arts. It’s no surprise, then, that the idea of martial arts as a profession would get some folks amped up.
Historically, martial arts hasn’t been a major commercial enterprise. Whether we’re talking ancient temples or fishing villages, monks or family instructors, there wasn’t a lot of money available. So it makes sense that money and martial arts weren’t strongly tied. The importance was to teach – to pass on the knowledge, not to earn a living from it.
We all know the cliché of the martial arts student trading their time for lessons. It was at the heart of The Karate Kid, but all of that excludes competition. There’s a big difference in the way the world is today versus then, a difference in the way martial arts is approached as a traditional lifestyle versus a competitive endeavor. That’s not saying one is bad, or one is better. But if you’re goal is to succeed in competition, your training will be a bit different, and likely greater, than if your goal is to learn and enjoy classes.
Even today many martial artists have pushed back against the commercial elements of the world as they try to take hold. Billing services, consulting and other professional elements that are common in every other industry are scorned by so many martial artists and even martial arts instructors. Including martial arts instructors that are losing money at their school.
Since that’s a bit outside what we’re talking about today, I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.
Benefits of Money in Competitive Martial Arts
When we see money pop up in a martial arts event – and let’s be clear, we’re talking about a traditional martial arts event, a tournament, not boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, or MMA – we see relatively small cash prizes. Even the largest events pay out tens of thousands of dollars. Realistically, the most any one person could take home from those events is $20,000, and that’s for the largest events and winning everything they can.
That money can go a long way towards encouraging others to compete for hopes of winning. The best competitors will likely stick around longer because they’re likely to win some money. For these top-tier competitors, they’re usually not covering all of their expenses as they’re sponsored. Other than an admittedly large time investment, there’s not a lot of risk for them.
That keeps people attending events and helps promoters bring in more money.
Downside of Money in Martial Arts Competition
On the other side, money has been shown to corrupt things. The quest for money has been criticized as long as money has existed. Some promoters refused to give away cash at their events because they say it attracts a negative element.
People compete in martial arts events for different reasons. Some do it for fun, some to learn, some because they’re trying to prove something to themselves. There are a variety of good reasons to compete, again, we’ve talked about many of them on this show. Money is a whole different reason.
If you’ve been to a tournament, you’ve likely seen some sore losers. Some people that felt they were wronged and thus cheated out of a score or a trophy. It’s only natural that such reactions increase when competitors feel that money was taken from them. The larger the figure, the more likely it is to happen.
Money is important to people. People kill for money. The larger the payouts, the more challenging it becomes to manage all of the expectations of those competing for it.
Martial Arts Needs More Money to Grow
And that’s exactly why we need more and larger cash payouts at events. I’m not calling for promoters to hand over all of their profits. I’m also not saying all events should pay the winners. I’m saying that if we look at ways to increase payouts to winners, we will simultaneously be laying the ground work to grow martial arts overall.
On episode 113 we talked about Olympic Karate being included as a demonstration sport for Tokyo, Japan in 2020. Exposure is clearly a benefit to martial arts. Is there anyone that doesn’t believe that the martial arts movies of the 60s and 70s helped grow martial arts in the US, and the world?
When we think about sports developed in recent times, the two that come to my mind are MMA and CrossFit. It’s pretty clear that the television exposure both have garnered has helped grow the sports side of mixed martial arts and CrossFit.
Top-level MMA fighters earn millions of dollars per match and even entry level professionals in the UFC make $5,000 and up. CrossFit, while a younger sport, has seen a rapid rise in the payouts to athletes, with the top male and female winners taking home over $250,000 for winning the yearly individual titles.
And with those figures come true professional status. When someone’s job is training and competing, it gives them the freedom to do what is best for that role. Many of us know the challenge of working multiple jobs, I’ve certainly done that in the past, and it makes it hard to give any of them your best effort.
As the money grew in the UFC and CrossFit, we saw people dedicate their lives to quest for winning titles in both. The best stepped forward because now there was a chance to not only be the best but get better through the process and earn a living – in some cases a great living – doing it.
Is there anyone that thinks all of our best martial artists can be found in the current crop of competitors?
That isn’t to take anything away from the competitors. They are tremendous martial artists and incredible athletes. I admire them, heck, whistlekick sponsors some of them. There’s a lot of value in competition, that’s why we’re talking about it.
If it becomes a reasonable occurrence for top-level martial arts competitors to earn even a decent living from competition, we’ll see tremendous benefits throughout the martial arts.
Benefits of Increased Money in Competition
I’m a business owner, most of you know that. As a business owner, I’m also a big fan of free market economies. And I see the competitive martial arts landscape as a free market. An injection of money to that market will spread throughout everything we do.
More and larger payouts will attract more and better competitors. More competitors mean more profit in events, and promoters will get creative to attract the biggest and best competitors.
This creativity will lead to new formats for competition, some of which will inevitably be designed for television and for streaming on the web. It’s true, martial arts does make it onto tv once in a while, but not nearly the way other sports are watched. Why? Because the format doesn’t jive with tv.
As competitors get more tv time, there will be a push for sponsorships inside and outside of martial arts products. We’ll see personalities develop and from that, people will have favorite competitors. While many of us do now, I look forward to a day when people that don’t train in martial arts know some of the larger competitive names.
With tv exposure and sponsorships, we’ll see more people consider martial arts as an activity and a career. We’ll start to see more local and regional teams pop up. I know that Olympic Taekwondo is working on securing NCAA status for college players. From there, perhaps High School teams will follow. The same might happen with Karate after the Olympics.
People want to imitate those they look up to, we know that. And the more we have great martial artists on television and in popular culture and media, the more aspiring martial artists we’ll have.
How to Increase the Money in Martial Arts Competition
The big whole to this, the part that makes it all work, is increasing the money. How do we do that? It’s a basic question of economics.
The way most events are structured now, the schools and promoters bring competitors who pay a fee, some of them bring spectators with them and that promoter makes a profit.
At the next event, the pattern repeats and all of the promoters make a profit (hopefully) and all of the martial artists competing are paying for it.
Unfortunately, there aren’t that many of us. We need outside money. We need non-martial arts money.
And in order for that to work, tournaments need to cater not to the competitor, but the spectator. The more enjoyable an event is for the people watching, the more the money comes.
Show me any successful, professional sport where the players / competitors are the first priority? I’m not saying we stop caring about them. I’m saying that we need to build events that attract more people. Not all of them, but some.
With those spectators come more vendors, more money, bigger cash prizes and even more profit. It’s a snowball effect that no one seems to have cracked the code for. Yet.
I do believe someone will solve the problem, and it can’t happen soon enough for me.
I believe there’s benefit in competition and the more money that circulates at competitions, the more it helps both the sports side and traditional side grow. The sports side grows as the money shows up, the traditional side grows as the exposure of the sport grows. Where would recreational basketball be without the NBA? Few children, with a steadily decreasing number as they age, think they’ll ever make it as a professional athlete. But watching their favorite players makes them want to be like them – they buy their shoes and emulate their movements on the court.
One of the greatest things we can do for martial arts growth is fostering the same sort of role models. And until we bring in money from outside our relatively small, martial arts competition economy, there won’t be enough money to build up the major personalities we need for the marketing of our events.
Martial arts is exciting to watch, and with some adjustments to rules and presentation, I truly believe we could have something even larger than the UFC.
What are your thoughts? I know this can be a hot button issue for some, but we want to know what you think. Whatever your comments, let us know. You can comment on the show notes at whistlekickMartialArtsRadio.com or on social media – we’re on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest & Instagram – all with the username whistlekick.
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That’s all for today, so, until next time, Train hard, smile and have a great day.