Martial Arts Schools are Thriving in Santa Barbara (published in July of 2009 in the SB News Press)

I have studied martial arts on and off throughout my life.  When I moved to Santa Barbara from La Jolla, I was actively studying Tae Kwon Do, and wanted to continue with that discipline.  Unfortunately, as happens to many of us, I got busy and never found a new school.  Recently, after a friend began studying Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Torrance (Jiu-Jitsu is the Portuguese transcription of the Japanese Ju Jutsu, which means “gentle skill” or “gentle art”.), at the Gracie Academy, my interest in finding a new school and continuing my training was rekindled, and I started searching for a place to train.  For those of us interested in taking martial arts, we need to understand that it is a business, and like any other, it must make a profit.

In this week’s column, I would like to take a look at the business of martial arts in Santa Barbara, and review what impact, if any, the weakness in the economy we are experiencing may be having on the martial arts schools in town.  I also want to know if the prospects for the future are better, worse, or the same as for other businesses in town.
To answer these questions, I spoke with Rodrigo Clark, owner of Gracie Barra Jiu-Jitsu (121 E. Mason Street, #A; 259-9720).  Since my friend is attending the Gracie Academy, I wanted to first understand what the connection was between the Gracie Academy and Gracie Barra.  Clark relates that the Gracie form of Jiu-Jitsu, widely known today as simply Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, started when Carlos Gracie learned martial arts from a Japanese master instructor in Brazil, and began teaching his family members, and eventually others, Jiu-Jitsu out of his garage.  Soon the business grew, and various members of the family, including his brother Helio, started schools of their own. 
The key difference between the Gracie form of Jiu-Jitsu and others is that Carlos and the Gracie family took the best features of Jiu-Jitsu and many other forms of martial arts, producing their own unique style of Jiu-Jitsu, which today is considered by many to be the pinnacle of all martial arts, both for effectiveness for self defense as well as for competition. 
Eventually, various members of the Gracie family made their way to the United States and established schools.  Helio’s family members established the Gracie Academy and Carlos Gracie, Jr. Established the Gracie Barra schools (Barra is the name of the city where the family started the first Gracie Jiu-Jitsu school.)
In speaking with Clark about martial arts as a business in Santa Barbara, he states that for the most part Jiu-Jitsu students are very dedicated and loyal, and tend to cut other expenses before they will stop taking martial arts classes, even in a weak economy as we are experiencing today.  Unlike many martial arts schools, about 80 percent of Clark’s students are adults, and only 20 percent are children.  Clark also has many college students who attend classes, so summer tends to be a slow time of year, and this summer is no exception.  With that said, he expects to see the college student portion of his total student population return to normal levels, once UCSB enters the fall session.
Many martial arts schools, and Clark’s is no exception, have offered a variety of other martial arts styles to either supplement their core style, or just to attract more students.  The recent explosion in popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA) and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (which the Gracie Family founded), has pushed the trend towards the study of multiple styles of martial arts.  Clark’s school has offered other styles in the past, but has found that the vast majority of his students prefer focusing on Jiu-Jitsu, so he has recently discontinued offering other martial arts.  This has also allowed him to cut some additional expenses for other instructors, and to actually increase his spending on instructors and advertising for Jiu-Jitsu. 
There are fourteen martial arts schools listed in the yellow pages for Santa Barbara; everything from Wu Shu, Karate, and Tae Kwon Do, to Aikido, Judo, and Tai Chi.  For a small town, this is a fairly large number.  While it would appear that competition could be pretty fierce, Clark advises that each style is so unique, that practitioners tend to stick with their style of choice.  So, it seems there is room for many schools, especially in a town with a large college population as we have in Santa Barbara.
There is another Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school in town (Paragon), but even within the same style, as Clark points out, the way in which the martial art is taught can be distinct.  While some schools may concentrate on self defense, self confidence, character, etc, others may have a focus on competition.  From a business standpoint, each school must identify their niche, and work to attract students interested in the School’s methods of teaching.
Looking ahead, Clark is optimistic, with plans in the works to move to a larger location, to be announced within a week or so.  He feels that the economy will improve, but even if it does not, he has not experienced any significant drop-off in business, other than the seasonality discussed above with college students, and does not think a weak economy will stop those students serious about martial arts and especially Jiu-Jitsu from taking classes. 
Clark has not had to lowered prices, and offers both month-to-month, as well as one-year plans, with prices starting around $100 per month for unlimited access to classes, which is a very competitive rate as compared with many other schools.  He offers classes during the day on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, as well as night classes and weekend classes, and has plans to offer even more classes, especially for children. 
It is a good idea to do some research to find the school that feels right, and that offers classes at your level of ability.  Clark offers the first class free, and advises that anyone considering taking martial arts should take a class to see if the school and instructors are right for them. 
Having studied several styles of martial arts throughout my life, I can say that it is a great experience, whether you are young or old, and it is not just about fighting or competing.  Martial arts can help a child with low self esteem, and can also offer some great health benefits as well, like  improved flexibility and balance, better blood circulation, cardio fitness, and strength.
It appears that the business of martial arts is doing quite well in the face of a pretty severe recession, and that things will likely only improve for our martial arts schools, as the economy turns from recession to recovery, hopefully later this year.  For those Santa Barbara residents interested in martial arts for recreation, fitness, self-defense, self confidence, peace of mind, or simply camaraderie, there are many great choices available right here in town, each offering a unique combination of great benefits.  If you are interested, go take a class and see if you like it.  It might change your life and become a life-long passion and pursuit.

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