It’s a question that has plagued promotors and athletes for years: How do you make jiu-jitsu a mainstream sport to watch?
It seems like the fastest way to generate revenue within the martial art — transform jiu-jitsu into a palatable viewing experience even for non-practitioners. Turn it into a “spectator sport,” something that you might see on a secondary ESPN channel, and this should help get BJJ athletes paid more while also increasing the number of people signing up in their own local gyms. Promotors have toyed with different rulesets, MMA-style production, and bringing famous UFC and Bellator athletes into the game, and while there’s no denying that the experimentation has paid off in terms of making grappling more spectator-friendly, it’s worth questioning who the spectators are.
One of jiu-jitsu’s greatest roadblocks in the process of evolving into a “spectator sport” is that it’s extremely technical. And, let’s face it, so is just about every other sport when practiced at the professional level. The difference, though, is that many other sports require only a basic level of understanding to be enjoyed from the outside. You don’t have to play basketball to understand that success means getting the ball into your opponent’s net, and the finer details could easily be explained and clarified by a friend in five minutes. I’m sure an experienced basketball player could verbally rip me apart for the assertion that basketball is easy to understand and explain, and there are surely a million little details that I, a not-basketball-player, do not know about or appreciate, but then, that also applies to countless basketball fans who still follow the sport.
Let’s contrast this with jiu-jitsu, in which it usually takes a minimum of a year for practitioners to earn their blue belt, indicating that they have some semblance of an idea of what’s going on. Sometimes being on the bottom means you’re in danger, other times it means you’re in control. You can get points for a takedown (unless the other person actually pulled guard and it wasn’t a takedown), and while some submissions are obvious in their efficiency, many others don’t look like they’d work at all… and, of course, there are far too many types of submissions to keep track of, even if you’ve been training for years.
If you need evidence of just how technical jiu-jitsu is, just go to your average bar during a UFC fight. Even if you’ve only been training BJJ a few weeks and don’t know much of anything, you’ll still be able to appreciate the display of technique when a fight gets taken to the ground. You know that one fighter isn’t just lying on top of the other — he’s working on a kimura and shifting his weight just right to open up the submission while trying to stop his opponent from escaping. Of course, the dude with the beer belly and “Tapout” shirt doesn’t know about any of that, and that’s why he’s shouting out the battle cry of the keyboard warrior: “Stand them up!”
MMA is the closest thing we have to a universally entertaining way to watch jiu-jitsu. The untrained can enjoy some kicky-punchy and understand that you can wrap your arms around a person’s throat and choke them out. But take away the striking, and you’re left with just groundwork… and as we know, people are often bored by what they don’t understand.
I think we’re looking at the “how to make jiu-jitsu more mainstream” question all wrong. With a few exceptions, most people who don’t train aren’t going to watch jiu-jitsu. Honestly, there are plenty of people who do train and still don’t enjoy watching jiu-jitsu events. Still, though, there are plenty of promotions who view building an audience as a quick fix (good ruleset + big names + flashy production = $$$) instead of a slow build with a great deal of focus on getting people interested in training.
There are a few promotions that do a great job with this, and one promotor who has openly discussed their goal of growing the jiu-jitsu community is Fight 2 Win’s Seth Daniels. I’ll admit that I’m slightly biased here, having competed for F2W and having covered the promotion for years now, but the events are designed about as well as possible for non-BJJ people who show up to support their weird friends who never stop posting about their weird pajama hobby. The ruleset is simple: submit your opponent, or the referee will decide who tried harder to get the job done. After the allotted time, the match is done. There are no complex point systems, no overtime, just “kill or be killed” with pretty lights and music.
Is this something that people will attend or stream even if they’ve never trained and have no personal connection to anyone involved? Eh, maybe in small numbers. But at the very least, if you go to watch your friend or family member compete, you can somewhat understand what’s going on. Daniels has repeatedly stated that his goal with F2W is to get people to go home excited about what they saw and then sign up for jiu-jitsu (or judo) classes as a result, and I think his approach has the best chance of accomplishing just that.
The rest of us, though, should also be working on a grassroots level to get more people on the mats if we want to make big money through the art. And to be fair, lots of us are doing that already. We invite our friends to come try a class with us, act welcomingly to new visitors to the gym, and of course, endlessly promote our love for it on every social media platform available. Even celebrities (for as much as people like to complain about them ‘watering down BJJ,’ which is bizarre to me) are doing their part, sharing moments in their jiu-jitsu journeys with their millions of followers.
I don’t pretend to know what a solution might be for making jiu-jitsu more alluring to watch for the average Joe or Jane sitting on their couch without ever having done an armbar. I don’t know if there is a solution that doesn’t already exist in the form of MMA. Combat Jiu-Jitsu, while a fun novelty subset of BJJ, is still too ground-based for “outsiders,” and the UFC is already inspiring plenty of new practitioners to train jiu-jitsu after they decide they want to do something like MMA, but without getting hit in the face.
What I do know is that watching jiu-jitsu is far more enjoyable when you understand what’s happening, and the best way to understand what’s happening is to start training. Any discussion about how to make jiu-jitsu a spectator sport needs to raise the question of how to get more people training. The more people we have on the inside, the more viewers will be paying attention to events in person or on a live stream. Maybe then, jiu-jitsu will have a chance at appearing on “normal” television like other seemingly out-of-place activities like bowling or poker — games that have a television audience because, hey, a lot of people know how to play them and can therefore relate to what’s going on.
We may assert that “jiu-jitsu is for everyone,” but we have to accept that watching jiu-jitsu definitely isn’t. And for now, that’s just fine.