COVID-19 has been one of the most consequential global event in decades. The fallout from the virus has infiltrated nearly every aspect of life leading to businesses small and large alike shutting down for an indefinite amount of time. The jiu jitsu community has for obvious reasons not been immune to the widespread economic shuttering. BJJ to those who don’t practice requires lots of physicality, making it an easy way to spread the coronavirus. Gyms were amongst the first institutions that were mandated closed during this outbreak. We take a deep dive in this piece into how COVID-19 has affected the jiu jitsu community.
How Has Coronavirus Affected BJJ Gyms?
It is obvious at this point COVID has been shuttering down gyms putting intense strain on gym owners. To get an understanding of how deep the impact is, we turn to Google Trends.
The chart paints a very clear picture, BJJ and its mother art, Judo, both have seen massive declines in interest since the middle of March.
The trend is not as obvious with Judo, but for BJJ, interest has dropped to levels normally found during the holiday season. Generally every year interest in jiu jitsu bottoms out around Thanksgiving time. In the case of COVID-19, interest in jiu jitsu has dropped even lower than around that time.
In Brazil, the birthplace of the sport, there is a similar downward trend for the sport’s popularity. This is actually interesting considering the country’s president’s reluctance to adhere to medical professionals strong urging to keep people inside. According to the Guardian, 60% of Brazilians are staying home despite Jair Bolsonaro’s defiance. This trend with jiu jitsu is a strong indicator they are listening to the medical professionals.
BJJ is not alone in this plight however. Far from it. Probably an obvious fact, but good to see in data that other martial arts are also seeing historically low interest in this time. Muay Thai, judo, karate, MMA and tae kwon do have all seen the same decline in search interest as BJJ. What is interesting is when the decline in search interest happened. In Muay Thai the drop happened a few days earlier than for BJJ or Judo.
When Will BJJ Gyms Reopen?
To clarify, I am not a medical professional and cannot say definitively when people may safely go back to training. This is an unprecedented event, at least in our time, and there is no reliable data on when people generally resume normal life after an event such as this. We may be able to speculate based on what the professionals are saying though.
Most professionals seem to think the economy can begin reopening in late-May and early-June. Though this may be an average. Some places that are harder hit may take longer to open up. Even when they do open up, it doesn’t mean you get to run back to class necessarily. This Politico article thinks opening up the economy will be a step-by-step process with some returning back to normal before others.
With optimistic outcomes, we may be able to get back to training in our gym late-June or mid-summer. Again, that is just speculation and requires people adhering to practices such as social distancing now. It also depends on where you live. Hard-hit places like New York may take even longer. Things like competitions which require large gatherings may take even longer to resume .
Experts seem to agree full normalcy probably won’t return until there is a vaccine in place – which may take up to 18-months to create. Another possibility that can open up things faster is if there is quick testing for people with antibodies to the virus. 1/4 of people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic and don’t even know they have it. The amount of people who may have this immunity won’t be known until they can test them, but could help speed up reintegration and normalcy.
COVID-19 Affects on Jiu Jitsu by State
As of writing this, COVID-19 has not evenly impacted the US. The hotspots of the outbreak have generally been NYC, New Jersey, Florida, Michigan, Seattle and to a lesser extent Florida. While medical and public health officials have strongly urged everyone to shelter in place – some states have been slower to react and there are still a few who do not have stay-at-home orders in place. We were interested to see if this is impacting the interest of jiu jitsu in different states.
Here is a full breakdown of popularity of BJJ by state. The data also compares to that state’s relative BJJ popularity for 2019.
|Region||Popularity 2019||Popularity March to April 2020||Difference||Date of Stay-At-Home Order|
|Rhode Island||49||43||-6||March 28th|
|New Jersey||50||46||-4||March 21st|
|West Virginia||27||28||1||March 24th|
|New Mexico||33||35||2||March 24th|
|New Hampshire||48||58||10||March 27th|
|North Carolina||32||43||11||March 30th|
|New York||44||56||12||March 22nd|
|District of Columbia||40||60||20||Late-March|
The popularity columns signify the popularity of BJJ in each state relative to that state’s overall searches therefore the data takes into account a states overall population size. If a state increased their overall share of BJJ popularity compared to popularity in 2019, it means people are searching for BJJ around the same amount, and other states are seeing declines. Overall there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between when a state issues their stay-at-home order and if search interest declined in that state for jiu jitsu.
Long-Term Effects on the Sport
For jiu jitsu, this outbreak came at an especially unfortunate time. For nearly a decade, BJJ has seen increasing popularity in search. Every year more people overall are searching for BJJ and BJJ gyms to try it out. The COVID outbreak has brought the relative popularity of the sport to its lowest level since 2008 – a very different time for the sport’s development in the U.S.
How might this impact the future? It’s difficult to say. Like I said before, this is an unprecedented event and theres no gooddata to understand how a pandemic or disruptive societal force will impact people’s interest in the sport going forward.
Even in 2009 with the Swine Flu outbreak, interest in jiu jitsu wasn’t nearly as impacted as it is today. The Swine Flu peaked in April of 2009 and as you can see in the chart to the right, there is no real decline in interest in the sport as we are seeing now during coronavirus.
If there are effects on the sport, it may be the economic impact that has longer lasting repercussions. Some experts think unemployment can reach as high as 32% when this is all said and done. 32% is even higher than the peak of the great depression. That many people out of work may prevent people from paying their gym dues. Economists most optimistic predictions are that the economy starts to grow again in late Q3 of 2020, which would be the fall.
One potentially positive fact in this is that during the Great Recession in 2009, there wasn’t much impact in people’s interest in jiu jitsu despite a high unemployment rate. Perhaps people will be able to train once it is deemed safe and still feel comfortable paying for their membership.
A Shift to Online Learning
One of the biggest shifts in BJJ that may happen is the embracing of online learning. One of the adages of the sport is that you have to train on the mats. Videos are great for reinforcing concepts, but you need to train in person. This virus may represent a shift in that old adage. One interesting data point is the surge in traffic to BJJFanatics in the past month. The company is well known in the community for having instructional videos taught by the very best in the sport. It is a leap to say this represents a shift in the sport. But it could mean a future where video learning is more embraced.