The Decline of Martial Arts and Possible Solutions

There’s a lot of discussion out there these days about the declining state of Aikido in the United States, to varying degrees of acceptance by the general community. Some say this decline doesn’t actually exist since they feel they’re seeing growth, others believe the decline is due to competition from “fighting” arts like MMA and UFC and BJJ, and still others because the art has just run its course and is fading out of relevance.

In the last year or so, as my other half and I dove in to collect evidence and use data-backed research to get a more concrete and clear idea of what’s going on in the world of Aikido (you may have seen stuff floating around about utilizing cohort analyses and the Aikido Journal survey) in order to figure out what the issue is, if any actually exists (hint: It does.)

But it does in a way that is both surprising and… not. It’s surprising in that despite the rise of BJJ, MMA, and UFC, the martial arts industry as a whole continues to decline, and here we are, circling the drain, pointing fingers, and squabbling over a shrinking market when what we should be doing is finding solutions. Let me give some statistics to better show you what I mean.

1. In 2013 there were 20,234 schools under Karate & Other Martial Arts Schools/Martial Arts Instruction (every business should register a “use” to the government when you incorporate/open–for example, when I started any of my real estate holdings company, I had to designate it as real estate.) In January 2016 there were 15,896 schools. There is a difference of 4,338 schools. The actual final difference (when accounting for schools that could have open within that same time difference, at 100% retention) is actually a POTENTIAL loss of 13,014 schools. Read how it was calculated here:

2. In 2013-2014, the martial arts industry as a whole was growing at a rate of 6.84%, while in 2018-2019, it is growing at a rate of 3.28%. That’s HALF of the growth rate it was in just a difference of 5 years. You can get some prelim demographics, industry information, and a visual graph of what that means here:

3. The number of martial arts participants in the US grew from 2.66 million in 2010 to 3.42 million  in 2017 (I did not include 2006 – 2009 due to them changing the framework of the survey during that year causing a steep drop), which is about what IBIS World reported at 3.6% growth rate based on this chart. However, you can see a plateau from 2015 and a decline.

What we as a community have to realize is that even if BJJ and MMA are taking a larger piece of the market share, once they’ve reached saturation (which is the limit that the market will bear), they will, if there are no changes to the market at all, begin to circle the drain with us as well. Now the question is, why is this happening.

There are actually a few researchers out there that are starting to address this issue. Yong Jae Ko is a leading researcher in this field, and has produced several papers related to this very issue. They attribute this decline to a couple of things, including the changes in society since the 90’s from a focus of self-defense to self-improvement and enlightenment, on top of a lack of market research creating misguided/outdated marketing campaigns. There may be other variables that aren’t as easily understood or discretely polled, such as lack of time or finances and the changing family dynamics.

If you made it this far, the question is now–what can be done about it? These are just some suggestions. I don’t want to just sit here and complain, waiting for someone else to fix it for me, I want to put the power to change the situation in our own hands.

  1. Run analyses like a cohort (which can identify retention versus enrollment issues or a combination) on the data your individual dojo (or, if you can get your hands on it, your organization) has. You likely have more than you think.
  2. Run Markov chains on when students achieve their rank. It can be useful in predictive analytics–since how it works is that it tells you the probability of someone reaching the next state having satisfied a previous state. For example, what is the likelihood of someone who is male, between the ages of 25 – 30 years old, without prior martial arts experience, who achieved the rank of 5th kyu, likely to stick with it and make it to shodan. (A post will be up showing one we did from our student data.) Why is this important? Well, if we can find out what variable or state is having the most drop off, or a weird unprecedented probability (say, for some reason a lot of women stop at 2nd Kyu, not that this is occurring), then we can start examining the why’s, identify the problem, and come up with a solution.
  3. STOP FIGHTING AMONGST OURSELVES AND COMPETING WITH ONE ANOTHER AND START SUPPORTING THE CRAP OUT OF EACH OTHER. Excuse me, thanks for listening. This has been a short PSA about how some of us are trying so hard to build a community that builds each other up so we can come together and tackle this problem together. We’re here squabbling over a 4 billion dollar industry for all martial arts when Yoga on its own is at 9 billion or so. LIKE, WHAT IS THIS NONSENSE.
  4. Well constructed surveys on motivations, entry and exit surveys, satisfaction surveys to figure out where things are going wrong and how to better tailor our policies around creating a place that people really want to go to. The results of this will be coming out soon.
  5. Use the data provided to build marketing campaigns that will generate interest from the general public, not those who already have an interest in martial arts. This is a big one, because we shouldn’t be competing for a market of martial artists, since that will continue to shrink as people age out, get injured, have a family, but we should be thinking of how to make it so that martial arts is a normalized and common household activity–like sports is or going to the gym is.
  6. We just brainstormed this in the Aikido Networking Discord Server If you know which town your students live in, you can check median income, household size, population density, and crime rates (all of which are latent demographics that may have an impact on why someone chooses a martial art.) While individually our sample sizes are small, if you want to contribute yours so we can have a more reliable correlation (if any exists), come find us on Discord (link below.)


These are just some general ideas. On number 3, please think about joining our Aikido Dojo Networking chat server ( where people from multiple styles and affiliations come together to figure out how to best help everyone (and has spaces to bulletin your dojo and promote seminars to everyone in the group.) Sometimes, it might be difficult to get data from our top organizations, but if individual dojos come together to provide what we have (the bigger the sample, the more reliable the results), then we can provide more accurate information. Also, we all have unique skill sets and interesting perspectives–the more minds working towards this goal of building each other up, the more likely we will have adaptable solutions that could fit everyone.

Blowing out someone else’s candle does not make ours shine any brighter, but lighting someone else’s candle will help illuminate the room.