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The Business of Karate

by on March 12, 2010

Why is it that when “karate” and “money” come up in the same sentence, the crowds emit a look of shock and awe? Among traditionalists, its a sin to make money from offering karate classes or providing karate training or study material.

“That’s not what karate is about!”

“Karate should be shared for the greater good, not for financial gain.”

“The ancient masters didn’t make money from teaching karate!”

… wanna bet?

So many people have opined that its wrong to make money from karate. This money making takes many forms: teaching classes, selling t-shirts for events, charging for competitions, travel to venues to train or spread the art, fees for clinics, book sales, and instructional videos of kata and kumite are just a few. Should instructors and club owners dig into their own pockets for the money? Should these expenses be abolished completely?

Experts Have More Fun

Master Gichin Funakoshi traveled a lot to spread the word and the art of karate, all the while having a wife and children at home that needed feeding. He would charge families, organizations, and clubs for every hour that he taught karate. Perhaps all payment was not in the form are cold cash, but in-kind services are payment too. Having expenses covered is not unlike being paid and spending the money on those expenses yourself. Like all other business ventures, a portion of Funakoshi’s money went into travel expenses, a portion to feed him, a portion for facility use perhaps, and yes… a portion went back to his family.

Like master Funakoshi, many other martial artists have written books and published their works. Have they given it away or sold it at cost? No. They want to make some money. And there’s no reason not to.

Here’s a sample list of some of karate’s big names from different organizations and styles:

  • Masatoshi Nakayama
  • Hirokazu Kanazawa
  • Tsutomu Oshima
  • Hidetaka Nishiyama
  • Hironori Otsuka
  • Yutaka Yaguchi
  • Teruyuki Okazaki

And here’s a sample list of some people who have and continue to make money from the sale of DVDs, books, and other materials:

  • Masatoshi Nakayama
  • Hirokazu Kanazawa
  • Tsutomu Oshima
  • Hidetaka Nishiyama
  • Hironori Otsuka
  • Yutaka Yaguchi
  • Teruyuki Okazaki

Its completely natural. Making money to support yourself, your family, and your organization is the only way to progress the organization. Would anyone expect school teachers to work for free? Olympic coaches? No. The point some people make is that these people are doing it as a job, and karate practicitioners are doing it as a hobby.

Not true.

For many olympians and teachers, it starts as a hobby, something they love. Hockey players start because they love the game. Some get real good at it and go on to make loads of cash. They get older, and start coaching and still make loads of cash. Some fly around the country teaching 8-15 year olds in hockey camps and charge the parents a premium so that their child can train with the best. How is karate any different? Why would you expect masters to put aside their lives and do without the riches the world brings just to teach you for free?

There’s nothing wrong with making money from teaching karate, selling books, or other revenue generators. There’s no basis for requiring that in order to be a “true” or “pure” karate club you have to offer classes at bare minimum and give away all your materials for free. Not all the funds raised from the sale of karate books, DVDs, posters, figurines or whatnot have to go into the pocket books of the instructor. Much of it can go directly back into the club.

On the other end of the spectrum, I would also disagree with clubs make huge amounts of money which DO go to getting the instructor a cottage at the lake and a cadillac in the driveway. My view on this is consistent with my view on executives in other businesses (albeit on a larger scale) getting paid 10′s of millions of dollars while their customers pay huge bills. But I’m not getting into business morals here. I think there is a medium. A karate organization doesn’t have to be a cash cow and it doesn’t have to be operating out of a shed.

Uses of Revenue

Not all money made through a karate club is going to go to feeding the instructors children or paying down the mortgage on their cottage.

You’ll see this with any reputable organization. Take the ISKF for example.

Masters Okazaki and Yaguchi travel around the globe charging clubs for their time. The fees are distributed among those attending to the point where it often amounts to $40-60 per person. Some of this money goes into travel, accommodations, back to the ISKF headquarters in Philly, and some directly to the instructors. Why? They have mouths to feed too and teaching karate is their full time job. We regard them as experts in the field and so we have to be willing to pay for it. I have no reservations paying the clinic fees because I see that caliber of instruction and can feel the results that come out of it. These renowned masters don’t live in mansions and don’t live in slums.

Running A Club Like a Business

If you plan on starting a karate club, plan to run it as a business. Failure to see the value in operating as a business is going to quickly result in one of two outcomes: the club flops and you go back to your office job, or you end up with 5-10 of your closest friends in your garage or basement training in real, traditional karate because you didn’t want to charge anyone for it. If this is the outcome you want, fine. But identify this first and avoid the trouble of bringing discount karate to the masses.

This business doesn’t have to carry a 6-figure bank account balance, but it should be sufficient to grow your club or subsidize your members. Pay for their travel to clinics and tournaments, buy books for them, get better equipment, or better yet, save up for a downpayment on your own facility.

If the intention is to run the club as a not-for-profit, that’s also fine. Remember that NFPs are also businesses, though. You start modest, grow your numbers, grow your revenues, and reinvest your revenues back into the club by way of the facilities or the students. Keeping your revenues and expenses balanced prevent you from growing a huge bank account as well as ensure the continuity of the business… I mean, *ahem*, club.

Money doesn’t have to be a dirty work when we’re discussing karate. If you feel your instructors or the heads of your organization are making too much money from teaching karate or sales of items, move to another club or organization. But don’t expect that club to be a whole lot different. We can be realistic and practical when we think about karate. It can be a way of life while you still make money.

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5 Comments
  1. Hloni permalink

    Hi,

    I have a close friend who is very gifted in karate and has a Black belt. He is currently a Sensei in his club as well but I don’t see him getting the rewards and recognition he deserves. I want to help him establish a career in Karate but I am not sure as to how I should go about it. Is there any advice that you are willing to offer me?

  2. Establishing a career in karate, and getting rewards and recognition are two very different things.

    What sorts of rewards are you referring to?

    If its personal, warm and fuzzy rewards, I don’t know if there is a way to guarantee he will get it. To get this sort of satisfaction comes from a genuine desire to share karate. Recognition cannot be forced and will come only through long years of substantial achievement. Starting clubs, enriching lives, winning tournaments, and producing great students might some day lead to recognition.

    If its monetary rewards, there are business models he can follow to have his club bring in more revenue. Setting membership fees is the most touchy area. Fees cannot be too high as to drive away potential clients and cannot be too low that people undervalue the material they are learning. Other ways to bring in money include holding special clinics and tournaments. Clinics can be offered to black-belts only, for example, where they get to train at a higher intensity than during classes with all belt levels. Tournaments are an easy way to bring in money since the only substantial expenses are the facilities rental, when applicable, and the medals if they are given.

    But if its a career he wants, your friend will have to invest heavily, perhaps his time initially and money later, into marketing. The only way to sustain a career of teaching will be to have (a) a large membership or (b) a small wealthy membership. Wealthy folks don’t typically care for karate training so that leaves option (a). Marketing the club and marketing himself will bring people in, and then a fee structure needs to be worked out which is not too high and not too low.

  3. David Oakley permalink

    I agree there is nothing wrong with making money out of karate. But the chances are if you’re making money you have had to dilute your system or style to put bums on seats so to speak. If you’re making money training and fighting and I say fighting as you should! You’re lucky.
    Karate has become a joke to most people because of the McDojos watering down karate, how these people sleep and hold their head up in the martial arts world is beyond me.
    To stop the rot setting in to your dojo, my advice is to take no student under 14 years of age. Train as you are meant to train and sparring should be HARD.
    A student’s character should be tested on their first lesson, 50% of my first time students don’t come back, and that’s fine with me. If they want to keep fit and not fight play tennis instead.
    When I started training with the Japanese they made a lot of money but at the same time they did not give you an inch and trained you into the ground, but my character and a lot of other people who had character kept coming back those you could not take it went and did something else, probably started a McDojo.

    Rant over 

  4. vaughn x permalink

    so what’s wrong with making money on karate? a dojo is still school. take a look at JKA, Japan Karate Association, it’s the most splintered club & yet it’s still there. do you think, it would have survived through the years if not for the money they have generated from their students? they charge their students & train them the old fashioned way.

  5. vaughn x,

    I was not stating that there was anything wrong with making money on teaching karate. Quite the contrary, I suggested running the club as a business.

    Personally, I would encourage clubs to run as a non-profit. That doesn’t mean the instructors can’t get paid. I just mean that registration is set in such a way, and expenses are controlled in such a way, that the instructors get paid a salary but there is no excessive income in the club. This keeps membership fees down.

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