Belt Promotion Fees? Earned Vs. Bought

What Is The Price Of A BJJ Belt Promotion?

I promised myself i would wait to publish this blog post. To be quite honest it was intended to be my first and i pushed it aside for a number of reasons. After reading a recent blog post on another site i figured i would go ahead and “send it” as it is now commonly said. So here goes! (Drawing in a loooooooooong breath)

This is certainly going to ruffle a few feathers and will likely create some apprehensions in the mind of some of my high ranking business owning counterparts in the bjj community but what the hell…i’m entitled to an opinion too right? Right! Unless i’m completely off base here and am totally unfamiliar with what was supposed to be the original intent of martial arts, i see an issue with belt promotion fees. Lets set the record straight here, I am diametrically opposed to the practice of charging ANY fee for the promotion of a martial arts student, for reasons i will eventually detail in this article, but we will get to that in a moment. I will first stamp my disclaimer on this article and say; i am 100% for free enterprise and if a business owner elects to set certain practices as their preferred standards of business, they are completely entitled to do so. They are also directly responsible for the success or failure of their own business and the decisions they make or fail to make, are their sole responsibility. The opinions reflected here are not intended to call out any particular individual or to bash any persons way of doing business, nor will i name anyone or any place of business. The opinions reflected here are completely my own, as im entitled to have them and i accept responsibility for the success or failure of my own business based on my decisions or lack thereof. Further, i understand that all businesses are in differing financial situations and therefore must adopt different practices. Lastly, the intent of  this article is to simply present a point of view that i feel can be intensely but respectfully debated and ultimately left up to a student to decide what type of academy they wish to attend. 

Historically, martial arts were based on a system of respect, honor, achievement and reward. Rewards systems were implemented formally in the art of Judo sometime around the 1930’s. Prior to this, progress in the arts were as unique and secretive the histories that each held and was typically observed by awarding licenses or secretive scrolls. Kyu and Dan ranks would begin seeing use to make a distinction between student ranks and black belts of differing experience and skill respectively.  Some martial arts scholars and historians have theorized that the colored belt ranking system that we know and use for many martial arts today were brought about to symbolize attained enlightenment and not just progress in the art. With this enlightenment came the code of honor, the reward in achievement in the art and ultimately what some would call the philosophy of “Bushido”. Achievement in martial arts was an experience that each martial artist was entitled to have with his master, teacher or whatever other label an instructor may have carried. The honor in achievement was experienced when a student felt the pride, honor and approval of his master for his sacrifice and performance. This was one of the most sacred rights that each master or instructor held over each of his pupils. As a professor in the art of BJJ i have always held my right to promote my students and share in that experience with them as one of my most prized.

How does money affect achievement and reward in martial arts? A cursory look at most martial arts schools today will prove that charging a fee for stripes and belts at every level has now become very common. As martial arts schools commercialize, there is an arbitrarily diverse section of the martial arts industry that has decided that too much money is being left on the table to not charge for promotions.

Consider for a moment:

Gym A has 100 students (nice round number)

Gym A specializes in discipline B and discipline B has 12 kids belts that have 6 degrees each

Gym A charges $25 for each degree and $75 for each belt

12 (belts) x $75 = $900/student

6 degrees / belt x 12 belts = 72 degrees x 12 belts @ $25 each = $1800

$1800(total stripe charge through all 12 belts) + $900( total number of belts) = $2700/student

Stick with me here…..it gets interesting from here out!!

Gym A  100 students x($2700) = $270,000

$270,000 in promotion fees alone! This is of course predicated on the chance that each of the students go through the entire ranking system, which rarely happens. These are factual numbers that can’t be argued and this is the very real dilemma that every martial arts gym owner must face and make a decision on before opening its doors. In my opinion it tells a very important story about each school. Now in total fairness, there is the direct antithesis of the above hypothetical. The gym that charges no fees for promotions. The argument that could be made is that the aforementioned are leaving a ton of profit on the table and are consequently making their own existence tougher. They are in a sense purposely not doing what businesses do and thats capitalize on the opportunity to make money. Is that not what businesses are supposed to do? Sure! Herein lies the conundrum. The very nature of business is to make money. Albeit in an ethical and moreover, legal manner. The nature of martial arts is to spread the martial art. Albeit in an ethical and moreover, legal manner.  Mixing the two is bound to muttle the waters significantly. Commercialization of the martial arts industry is now a reality and with more and more national martial arts franchises, it couldnt be more obvious that its a massively lucrative industry. $4 billion dollars worth to be exact. It is not surprising that there are some real movers and shakers trying to carve out their pieces of the profit. Why? Its simple business and anyone with an blurry business eye at best can see that kids are where the money is. Parents will spend obscene amounts of money on their kids activities, often without question or even a reasonable attempt at research. Many times, this blind loyalty to a system, process, standard or community norm lead to participation in activities that are coached by a completely unqualified person. Yet they pay! All that considered, its not at all surprising that parents will pay exorbitant fees for martial arts participation. The question is where does business stop and tradition begin? In my experience, most martial arts organizations are heavily slanted toward the former of the two. The result is often a loss of pride in the privilege of achievement in the martial art and a feeling of resentment on the part of the parent or athlete that eventually realizes that they have been monetarily taken advantage of. An even more intriguing aspect of this is the perception by other practitioners in the community that a particular person bought a belt with currency as opposed to having earned it. This is largely the consequence of choosing a particular instructor or academy that has a reputation for what i call the 3 b’s “business before bushido” and unfortunately students are often ignorant of this fact and dont find out until after they have invested a significant amount of time.

I will conclude with an explanation of my position on the above topic. I do not agree with the financing of achievement in martial arts. Across the board, and not relative to any discipline, i feel it cheapens the art and robs the instructor and student of a sacred bond that is only found along the path of a martial artist or warrior. I personally elect to NEVER charge for a rank or promotion. I base that largely on the preceding statement, but additionally, i dont ever want one of my students to hear that it is anyone elses perception that they bought their rank simply because i am known for this business practice. The right to promote my students is immeasurable and i take great pride in doing so. There are other ways to monetize a martial arts academy. I feel that adding additional services, programs and fees are totally applicable, much in the same way a large fitness chain operates. There are options to buy the lowest level membership with the least amount of privileges and there are gold, premium or platinum memberships that give additional perks or privileges. The key is that they are all totally optional and not a requirement. Think about it for a moment. Many of these schools are taking the one thing that students desire most (symbolic achievement) as they progress and they are charging a fee for it. In the governments terms its referred to as taxation, in the law enforcement community its referred to as strong arm robbery. I am now and forever will be for the sanctity of the art and the preservation of its code within reason of its binary association with business.

Coy Clements