The Black Belt Scene

IN the 80's it was "Karate Kid." Before that it was David Carradine's "Kung Fu." But today it is the Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles who are sending their fans to the local martial arts school.

This rough and tumble world of martial arts schools and studios -- dojos to the initiated -- is one of the most fragmented segments of the highly fragmented health and fitness industry. Exactly how large it is remains open to debate.

Nicholas Cokinos, chairman of the Educational Funding Company, a Bethesda, Md.-based management and billing company that handles the finances of 500 martial arts clubs in the United States and Canada, estimates that the martial arts industry produces annual revenues -- mostly from monthly fees for instruction -- of between $720 million and $900 million.

But Fred Villari, president of Fred Villari Studios in Dedham, Mass., the country's largest chain with 123 franchise studios, estimates that the market is much larger. "The market for equipment alone is $2 billion," Mr. Villari said. He said the industry earns about $2 billion a year from lessons, though there is no way to verify his calculations.

Estimates also vary when it comes to the number of schools. Mr. Villari says about 4,000. But Peak Performance, a market research newsletter for health and athletic clubs published in Bellevue, Wash., estimates that there are 7,000. That number, the newsletter says, represents growth of 11 percent in the last two years, while the overall health club market has remained flat. The 7,000 schools include Y.M.C.A.'s that offer martial arts classes. Warring Styles Few Rules Govern A Splintered Sport

The martial arts label is broadly applied and includes more than a dozen different disciplines or "forms," including karate, judo, taekwondo and kung fu, all of which trace their origins to Asia. Anyone can rent a room in a strip shopping center or an urban store front and hang a martial arts studio shingle. There are no formal industry associations and few formal sanctioning bodies to monitor or govern the field.

Few schools teach pure forms, preferring instead to teach a mix of the traditional martial arts. As a result, there are no longer any hard and fast definitions of a fighting style; nor are there any restrictions on opening a school, putting on a tournament or awarding the various belts that signify an individual's accomplishments.

"Any promoter can have an event and call it a world championship," said Michael James, publisher of Black Belt, the largest martial arts magazine.

Practitioners of one form commonly deride the others. There is the soft style versus the hard, and hybrids with official sounding names like Jeet Kune Do, Wing Chun or Hapkido. Many were created by black belt instructors seeking their own fame and a piece of the action.

"How does a customer know what they are going to get when they look for a school?" said Mr. James. "That's a question we've been asking for 30 years." Paying to Learn Fees for Classes And for Each Belt

Even small studios can turn a tidy sum. According to Mr. Cokinos, the schools generate an average of $15,000 in revenues monthly from student fees that range from $55 to $65. Children's fees are generally $40 to $45 per month. The schools often sell equipment; uniforms sell for about $18, while head, hand and foot gear can cost as much as $40.

Martial arts schools also charge testing fees of up to $25 each time a student tries to qualify for a higher belt. While students in Japan, Korea or Taiwan are usually classified as white or black belts (novice or expert), in the United States each belt comes with a testing fee, and, not surprisingly, there are a range of hues, from white to yellow to purple to black.

Mr. James estimates that there are two million to three million serious martial arts enthusiasts in the United States. Upsurges in interest often follow exposure in the media, most recently via the ubiquitous Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles. Martial arts performers like Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Von Damme and Steven Seagal have ridden their skills to movie-star cult status, and operators of dojos have happily tagged along on their coattails.


But there is disagreement on whether martial arts studios are hurt in an economic downturn. Jhoon Rhee, who runs a chain of 12 studios in the Washington area and licenses his name and fighting style to 50 studios around the country, said the recession brought a 10 percent decline in revenues last year.

Mark Grupposo, a vice president at the Fred Villari chain, said troubles with unstructured management and lack of controls forced Villari to downsize over the last two years, either closing or selling more than 75 schools to bring its total to 123.

"There were some people mismanaging a few schools and they were fired," he said. "And we sold 50 studios to someone on the West Coast. We have tightened controls and we are slowly building up again." He said the company had revenues of $12 million last year, up 20 percent from the year before. The company is privately held and does not report financial performance. The 'Karate Kids' Ninja Turtles And Some Serenity

Steven Schiff, a second-grader from Manalapan, N.J, spends three afternoons a week at Taekwondo Plus, a dojo down the street from his home. "I like the Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles and they do karate, so I decided to see what it was like," he said. "Plus, I wanted to learn to defend myself if I got into a fight."

According to Mr. Cokinos, Steven is prime material for martial arts schools: 40 percent of the students are between the ages of 7 and 14; another 25 percent are 14 to 25.

While such things as the Ninja Turtle craze have sparked adolescent interest, dojo operators and others in the industry credit growth in the last 15 years to a switch in emphasis away from violence and toward discipline and a serene outlook, appealing to parents as well as kids.

Steven, reflecting this trend, said he must show his taekwondo instructor a note from his teacher verifying his grades in order to receive stars on his white belt. And before each session, he and his karate class recite vows not to misuse their skills.

Martial arts schools also market themselves by sponsoring competitions, often with official-sounding names. The Villari chain, for example, sponsors four regional tournaments each year and a large international competition. It expects 6,000 to 7,000 spectators for the international competition in Boston in May, each paying $6 to $8 for a ticket. Competitors will pay $25 and between 1,500 and 3,000 are expected.

Mr. Grupposo said costs for the competition will be about $25,000, with profits to be parceled out to the Villari studios. "It's a great motivational event," he said. TRADITION AND COMPETITIVE PRESSURE

Without industrywide standards, the martial arts community has little control over the quality of teaching and the awarding of belts.

Some schools, for example, are trying to cut the time it takes to achieve the coveted black belt in order to retain students. "I'm trying to create the teaching skills to do a black belt in one year," said Jhoon Rhee, owner of 12 taekwondo schools in the Washington area.

Two martial arts forms, taekwondo and judo, have governing bodies because they are Olympic sports. There is no requirement that schools join, but students with an eye on major competitions must take the organizations into consideration.

Some experts consider a black belt, and advancing from a 1st- to 10th-degree black belt, a lifelong pursuit. "I've been doing martial arts for 44 years and just achieved seventh degree," said Fumio Demura, a karate legend in Los Angeles who taught Chuck Norris, the film star, and performed the karate sequences for the "Karate Kid" movies.

Mark Grupposo, vice president of Fred Villari Studios in Dedham, Mass., is a seventh-degree black belt. He said Mr. Villari (10th degree) and the school's top instructors test students themselves and award the belts.

"Our system dates from 520 A.D.," Mr. Grupposo said. "There is a time-honored system of movements and a time frame for progress. It takes three to five years to get a first-degree black belt."

Others in the industry complain that proliferation is eroding a black belt's significance. "A 10th-degree black belt is supposed to be something honorary, something mystical," said Michael James, publisher of Black Belt magazine. "There are supposed to be only three in the country, but there are hundreds."