Stephen Oliver on Martial Arts Tournaments and Other DiversionsIf competing in martial arts tournaments on the open circuit or coaching two or three key students to championship level really turns you on then by all means pursue it. Just be sure that you keep this compartmentalized as a hobby not as a part of your business enterprise.

For me I really want to compete next year – in auto racing! What’s the likely impact on my school? Well I will need $50,000 to $75,000 to pay for training, licensing, track fees, pit crews, and the car lease. On one hand maybe I’ll really have to get the gross up to support his new hobby – on the other hand it will take me away for 7 to 10 four day weekends hitting the track quite a distraction.

Will traveling that circuit – successfully or otherwise help my school? No way. Will traveling that circuit hurt my school? Absolutely! Why – dissipated time, energy, focus, and ultimately money. What’s the point? Why do I bring this up? Well frankly – your own participation in open karate tournaments is no more relevant to your martial arts school than auto racing is to mine. Exercise your hobby if you wish – but, gee don’t try to justify it as helping your profession or your school.

In addition to Intramural Tournaments that I host for my own students – that have had as many as 750 students in attendance I made a decision to promote a national level event beginning in 1989. My tournament “The Mile High Karate Classic” was a NASKA World Tour event that was by far the largest and highest quality event in this region of the country and one of the top events in the country.

That having been said I have never figured out even a single positive element to exposing your students to the open tournament circuit. Ultimately most events are so poorly run that your run of the mill student may get so annoyed by their experiences that they drop out.

Then you have your top students who start winning lots of trophies and start “getting ranked” These are the students who eventually develop a “prima dona” syndrome. Suddenly they start to think that they are doing you a favor by running around to events everywhere representing you (as if you really care what schools in competition with you think about your school!) Once they really start having success they suddenly have other instructors approaching them to “help” them reach their potential.

Ultimately many competitors end up basically as free agents. Trained in their garage by their “tournament parents,” paying other competitors up to $100 or more an hour to train them privately, while complaining that you wouldn’t spend adequate private time with them at $100 per MONTH. Allowed to continue – some of your most physically gifted students actually become bad role models for the rest of your student body.

Am I overly cynical in outlining all of these “worst case” outcomes? No I really don’t think I am. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

Next let’s consider the prospects of promoting your own event. In as objective a way as possible I’ll list the pros and cons of being a promoter:


  1. If done at a highly successful and professional level being a promoter gives you wonderful networking opportunities. Many of the top people in our industry that I’ve met came from my involvement in the circuit. Don’t discount the value of this one element.
  2. Exposing your students to Jimmy Pham, John Valera, and Mike Chat’s of the circuit. On the national circuit right now there are some really nice people and some outrageously good technicians. Exposure to these great champions can certainly have a positive impact on all of your students. (keep in mind that this applies to the traditional karate circuit, to the traditional Tae Kwon Do events, and to all of the tournament environments to some extent.)
  3. Financial rewards. I really don’t believe that many promoters make enough money to justify promoting their event based upon financial outcome. In evaluating this you really must factor in “opportunity costs” At my peak as a promoter the event could make $30,000 to $50,000 net. Although that is a significant amount of money I never figured that my income from the event by itself justified the time and effort that went into it.


  1. To run a big event well requires literally a mind-numbing number of details and activities. Big events become really complex in a hurry. Try scheduling 200+ divisions into 20 or more rings run by 150+ volunteers and then get everything to start on time – run smoothly – and end on time. It takes lots of time and effort to put all of these details together. When I did it my staff was pretty big and most of the administrative details could be delegated to paid, full-time staff members.
  2. Politics. To successfully promote an event you’ve really got to spend a lot of time getting those schools who otherwise are in competition with you to support your event. You can chew up an incredible amount of time trying to garner support from these school owners and black belts.
  3. Risk. Although a big event can make a fair amount of money – I’ve seen more of them lose A LOT of money. A big event will have a BIG budget which will get spent no matter what happens. Start with 6 foot trophies for 200 or even 300 divisions. Add in $10,000 to $15,000 in prize money. Don’t forget $2,000 to $3,000 in pipe and drape (really!) another similar amount for lights and sound. Then comp 20 to 100 room nights for your volunteers. And don’t forget anywhere from $5,000 up to even $50,000 in rental for your venue. Wait did I mention printing costs for 50,000+ flyers and the cost of postage.
  4. Time. I know promoters who attend literally 50 tournaments per year and travel across country to 12 or 15 big events. Hitting these events to politic the other promoters and school owners can start to chew up every Saturday and Sunday and kill quite a few three day weekends. You really better love attending tournaments!

To me this really was the straw that “broke the camel’s back” There really were lots of better ways to spend my weekends.

Remember when computing the net profit from any event to include opportunity costs. What negative impact has the event had on your ability to commit time, energy, and focus to your school (or to your family, hobbies, or other activities.)

With few exceptions what I’ve seen is:

When supporting events:

  1. Going to local tournaments has a negative impact on the students who attend.
  2. Supporting local tournaments takes time away from your school.
  3. Being involved in the local scene becomes political and time wasting in a hurry.
  4. Being a “Tournament School” Turns off lots of potential and current students.
  5. Creating a personal or school reputation on the local tournament scene will have no impact on your school results.
  6. Impressing your competitors (other schools in your area) has no impact on your school performance.

When competing personally:

  1. Competing personally adds NO VALUE to your school operation.
  2. Getting your “Name out there” on the circuit adds NO VALUE to your school operation.
  3. Time and effort to prepare for tournaments can become a distraction from your school.
  4. Having a Black Eye or Broken Nose really turns off intros!.
  5. Competing because it’s important to you to do so is great – just remember that it is a hobby UNRELATED to your school operation and will not contribute to your school results.

When promoting a local or regional tournament:

  1. Most promoters lose as much (or more) money from time taken away from their school as they would make promoting an event.
  2. I’ve seen more promoters LOSE a ton of money – than I’ve seen make a ton of money.
  3. Running a quality event takes LOTS of TIME.
  4. If you are not going to do a QUALITY event – don’t do one at all.
  5. To gain lots of local support you must:
  • a. Be politically active in the local community;
  • b. Go to LOTS of tournaments;
  • c. Work hard at those tournaments;
  • d. Be careful that your school is not so successful that the local guys see you as a threat.

When promoting a large national event:

  1. You will spend LOTS of time traveling to other national events.
  2. You must network – get to know other national promoters – create a positive impression.
  3. You must also spend as much or more time at local tournaments as you would if you promoted just a local event.
  4. You must have a STRONG base of your own students or of local competitors.
  5. You must recruit 100 to 200 volunteers and a minimum of 100 Black Belt Judges.
  6. You must make sure that your tournament is a Renewal Tool for your own students.
  7. You must plan to LOSE lots of money to get the event up and running.

Excerpted from “Everything I Wish I Knew When I Was 22” part of the Extraordinary Marketing Program by Stephen Oliver, MBA.

Stephen Oliver's Martial Arts Wealth Mastery on the Martial Arts Schools and Businesses Directory.
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