Has the Ontario jiu-jitsu tournament scene reached a saturation point? I believe it has.
Before I start, I should give a bit of a (quick and hopefully mostly painless) geography (and Ontario BJJ tournament) primer to those of you who are not from Ontario/Quebec/Canada. Those of you who are familiar can skip down.
This is also a topic that we discuss in Episode 3 of the Just The Gi Top Podcast, coming this Sunday. Subscribe to the YouTube channel or the RSS feed (audio-only will be available and we will be listed on iTunes as well)
The “Quebec Windsor Corridor” is home to over half the residents of Canada (over 18 million as of the 2001 Census). It is about a 10 hour drive from one extreme end to the other, and houses the largest BJJ scene in Canada. The biggest hub for jiu-jitsu is Toronto, with places like Montreal, Ottawa, and London as growing markets. I’m going to focus on the Toronto area specifically, since that’s where most of the action happens.
There are a ton of tournaments in Ontario, with three main players:
- The Ontario Grappling Alliance (OGA), which hosts a wide variety of tournaments such as Grappler’s Quest, FIVE Grappling, the UFC Fan Expo, FILA Qualifiers, and the IBJJF Toronto Open
- The Ontario Jiu-Jitsu Association (OJA), which hosts tournaments from their member clubs, such as the Ascension Open, Niagara Open, Ontario Open, and Provincials (more on Provincials later)
- Grappling Industries, an up-and-coming organization that is about to put on their third Toronto show of the year this weekend, with a fourth scheduled for September
From the start of 2013 to my injury on May 16, I had already competed in 7 tournaments, and that’s not even doing every tournament that came up! If I was interested in travelling to Montreal, I could have competed in at least 3 or 4 more. I don’t want to get mired too much in the details and differences between the competing organizations, but just understand this. There are a LOT of tournaments in the Toronto area. A person could theoretically compete three or possibly four times a month, every month, just hitting tournaments within a 3 hour drive. That is a ton; certainly more than most people are willing to compete. Constant competing (I did 12 tourneys in 2012) is hard on the body, and it is hard on the wallet unless you’re sponsored.
While all of this choice is great for consumers (since we get to vote with our wallets), a downside has been emerging recently as more and more shows jockey for our hard-earned dollars.
Registration numbers are going down.
It hasn’t been a hard fall-off, but even I’ve seen it in the last year. At last count, (I keep track) there were at least 20 tournaments scheduled for the Greater Toronto Area alone in 2013, and that doesn’t include in-club or small local tournaments. I’m just talking about shows put on by the big three above. Most people I know don’t do 20 tourneys a year, they do three or four.
So where does the tournament scene go from here? Do we just keep jamming more and more tourneys into the calendar and say “survival of the fittest”? Or do tournament promoters need to start looking at fundamental changes to the way they organize and run shows?
Here are my thoughts on the matter.
Fewer, bigger tournaments in major centres
I don’t think Toronto can support 20+ tournaments a year and expect each to have 300+ registrants. What I would like to see is fewer tournaments in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), but make them bigger. Tournaments work on economies of scale. There are fixed costs, like venues, and others that scale like the cost of trophies/medals. I understand I am grossly oversimplifying the complexities of running a tournament here, but the issue with running a tournament with IBJJF divisions and 150 competitors is that many brackets end up with only a couple of people in them. You bump that number up to 300 and suddenly you have good, competitive divisions. The only way I see to meet this consistently is to have fewer well-promoted, well-presented events that aim to attract 400+ unique competitors.
Mix up the formats
By and large, most tournaments follow an IBJJF (or IBJJF’ish) scoring system. Patricia over at Confessions of a BJJ Tournament Addict has a handy-dandy list for comparison purposes. It’s what we’re all used to, but it’s like a menu with pasta and 10 different kinds of tomato sauce. I mean, each may have its own nuances, but for the most part they’re primarily the same thing.
The great thing is that we’re already starting to see some changes. The OJA ran a submission-only tournament last weekend. It was not well-attended by Toronto jiu-jitsu tournament standards, attracting fewer than 100 competitors if my count is correct. Don’t take this to mean that it was a bad tournament – by all accounts it was well run and had lots of exciting matches. My point is this – with a totally different format tourney like submission-only, you are catering to a niche market (people who like sub-only formats) within a niche market (people who compete) within a niche market (people who train BJJ).
Promoters, throw more tournaments like this. Don’t expect to get 300 people to sign up for it, though. Be realistic with your expectations. It may mean that there are no Masters divisions. It may mean that you don’t use IBJJF-standard weight classes. Tournaments like these attract two types of people – tournament diehards that compete in everything, and people who want to try something different. It might attract people who aren’t looking for a standard points tournament and get them interested in the competition scene.
Build a true Provincial championship (with qualifiers)
One thing that has always struck me as odd about BJJ tournaments is that they’re almost all open. I can sit at home and not compete in any tournaments all year, then show up for the world championships as long as I pay the registration fee. It’s counter-intuitive (to me at least).
Do you know what separates tournaments like ADCC from the rest? Amongst other things, it’s prestige and exclusivity.
I know we have competing organizations, but somebody (I’m looking at you, OJA) should make the “Provincial Championships” a true provincial championship. Don’t make it open. Track point earnings for competitors for the tournaments throughout the year and only people who have accumulated X points are eligible to compete at Provincials. It will mean smaller tournaments, but I feel it will drive up registration at the “feeder” tournaments as people want qualify to compete in a (true) Provincial championship. Try it.
Build the emerging markets
This is where I see the biggest potential opportunity for tournament promoters. Build the emerging markets. Places like Windsor, London, Kitchener/Waterloo, Barrie, Peterborough, and a ton of cities that I don’t even know about. Places where BJJ is growing quickly. Don’t expect to put on huge tournaments. Start small in these areas to foster the growth of a true LOCAL jiu-jitsu tournament scene and watch it grow.
London (where I live) is a relatively small city with about 350,000 residents, and yet we have five very active jiu-jitsu clubs that regularly send competitors up to five hours away to compete. We are starting to see small local tournaments pop up. Promoters need to foster this growth – it is planting the seeds for the larger tournaments of the future as the scene continues to flourish in these areas. If 30 competitors from the city of London are willing to drive two hours to Brampton to compete, imagine how many would jump at the opportunity if the tournament was only 20-30 minutes away?
The OJA is throwing the first (I believe) Northern Ontario Open in Sudbury, Ontario (with about 160,000 residents) mid August. This is exactly what we need to see more of. I don’t expect it to be a huge tournament. Let’s be honest, you almost never see Toronto clubs sending sizable numbers of competitors outside of the GTA (why would they when they have two tournaments a month in town?), so don’t expect them to show up in droves. What you WILL see, however are people who wouldn’t normally make a 4 hour drive from Sudbury south to Toronto actually participating in competition where they may not have had the interest or the opportunity before.
I understand that people are competing for business here. Getting opposing companies to work together for the benefit of their customers is highly unlikely, but there are still steps to take to continue to grow the sport in Ontario, while providing a future benefit as the scene grows.
What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Am I just imagining the decline in registrations? Let me know below!