Thursday, January 19, 2017

The State of the (Filipino) Martial Arts Industry - My Two Cents

My friends +Kai Morgan and +Brian Johns both wrote excellent, thought-provoking pieces on the state of the martial arts industry, with Brian's focus on our little corner of it (the Filipino Martial Arts).

You can read Kai's piece HERE and Brian's HERE.

I've been thinking hard about Kai's piece ever since she wrote it - about my own future in the martial arts, where the "industry" (and it is an industry, friends, like it or not) is going, and what I hope to accomplish in the long term.

Brian's post digs deeper into the subject, down into the details, and goes along with what I am also seeing in my own research and my own experience.

So what's to be done about this issue of declining interest in the traditional martial arts?  Does this mean we have to teach MMA?  Does this mean that the traditional martial arts are dying off and irrelevant?

I don't think MMA will drive out traditional arts, but we do have to re-think how we present what we do and what we know to modern audiences.

That means looking at everything we do with a critical eye and deciding if we want to do a martial art that is growing and changing to meet modern needs, or we are doing a historical preservation of a no-longer-relevant martial art system.

It might mean that we have to chuck out some things we've come to believe are important - cultural things we do, the way that we were taught our art, and some of the trappings - the "brand", if you will.

Oh yes, I went there.

Before you recoil at this idea...

Do you think that Samurai, back in the day, didn't learn and innovate to changes on the battlefield when new things were introduced and conditions changed?  Do you imagine that sumo is the same today as it was 100 years ago (or any fighting sport for that matter that's been around for a while)?

Of course they changed.  We can, and do, and should also, unless our purpose is preservation.  Nothing wrong with preservation but keep in mind that it appeals to a very tiny fraction of the small percentage of people in the world interested in the martial arts in the first place.

So let's assume for now that you want your martial art system to stay alive and relevant to modern times, and is not a preservation.

I know, I know, tradition!  What your teacher taught you!  Lineage!  Learning a foreign language! It just isn't "martial arts" without all those things!  You're watering down your art without that stuff, right?

Weeellll... maybe.  And maybe not.

How is MMA and its "feeder" arts - typically Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and other closely related systems such as western boxing and catch wrestling - seen by people outside of the martial arts world?

Well, there's two camps. There's the people who think it's one step away from the old Gladiator days and is nothing but a dumb and brutal combat sport. And there's the perception that MMA fighters are the most effective, fit, and pressure-tested martial artists on the planet.

Combine that second perception with very good marketing and you get why MMA is blowing traditional arts out of the water.

Boom.

If you teach traditional arts, I challenge you, as a thought exercise, to consider how you'd present what you do and know in a modern context.  Would you ditch the gi and belts (not required - BJJ is popular and has those, y'know) and the foreign words?  Are you up-to-date on the latest in best practice for fitness and health in your exercise-oriented warm-ups?  Do you spar enough and apply enough pressure testing to what you do?  Do you hit the bags often enough?

Just think about that, and see what you could do to shift the perception of that your traditional martial art system is only good for teaching kids focus and discipline and irrelevant to people over the age of 16.

So let's shift to my corner of the martial arts world, the Filipino Martial Arts.  I've written about this before (Filipino Martial Arts - Why We Don't Make the List) and I agree with much of Brian's diagnosis.  We are TERRIBLE at marketing ourselves, many of us have no idea how to run a school outside of a small training group no bigger than what we'd do in a park and we do a bad job in communicating that FMA's are fine for kids (yes, kids can learn sticks really well - they take to it naturally and they're fun).

We've been experimenting and honestly, we haven't hit upon our home run yet.  We shifted away from the sticks-and-knives traditional marketing approach of FMA's and instead we're branded as "Filipino Karate" for our kids program (we still use sticks but it isn't every class), and a self-defense oriented adults program based on +W. Hock Hochheim Combatives  "Force Necessary".  We haven't seen a big difference in that change, just yet, but now that we are past the holidays we have a small uptick in our attendance.

I think that aiming at a niche market will be the way to go.  We also tend to draw adults in their late 30's and older here in our neck of the woods. Some have martial arts experience, some don't.

Perhaps, at least in North America, that's our sweet spot in terms of age?  People who don't want to or can't compete at a high level in things like BJJ or Muay Thai or MMA, but still want to learn something perceived as effective, which is where we definitely have an advantage?

Maybe.  I'm interested in what other FMA folks have to say on this.

I do know this FMA's are going to go by the wayside, at least in North America, if we don't do something about it, and soon.