Black Belts Compete for Free: Considering a Tiered System of Tournament Fees

I have always (perhaps naively) thought it strange that black belts have to pay the same registration fee for a tournament that a white belt does. Some tournaments proudly announce at times that black belts get to compete for free, but that’s a rarity. This post ponders the idea of charging different registration fees to different people, inspired by the 3,500 pages of the U.S. tax code. I say that half-jokingly, but the criticism of a tiered system is the same as that of a tax code: once you start trying to charge people a “fair amount”, everyone starts complaining that their rate is not fair.

First, I would very loosely classify tournaments into four tiers:

  1. Super Big (divisions of 100+): Grand Slam IBJJF tournaments (Worlds, Europeans, Pans, Brasileros).
  2. Big (divisions of 30+): Some of the bigger IBJJF Open tournaments, Abu Dhabi Pro Trials, No Gi Pans, No Gi Worlds.
  3. Medium (divisions of 10+): Grapplers Quest, NAGA, US Grappling, some of the smaller IBJJF open tournaments.
  4. Small (divisions of 4+): Local tournaments designed to attract anyone willing to travel 1-2 hours to the tournaments site.

The division size estimates are based on the blue belt middleweight division, since that is where most of my recent competition experience is from. It is usually the biggest division of the tournament but there are many white, blue, and purple belt divisions that are of similar size.

I think that for (1) super big and (2) big tournaments, the pricing structure is not getting in the way. You can complain about it not being fair, but purple, brown, and black belts are still showing up. In fact, I believe that the registration fee is not even a major factor in their decision, since hotel and transportation cost far more.

The problem of price starts rearing its ugly head in the small to medium size tournament (#3 and #4 above). It’s common to see divisions of two, one, or zero purple belts in the adult middleweight division here. And often the only brown and black belts are the ones refereeing or running the tournament. Though I have doubts, I wonder if decreasing the price for the higher ranks will encourage them to jump in. Here’s an idea:

  • Purple belts get 25% off
  • Brown belts get 50% off
  • Black belts are 100% free.

Another good idea (thanks to Mike) is to give a refund to the first place in every division. I think that most people go into a tournament believing they can win 1st place, which would make this refund a powerful incentive.

Or in another crazy idea, perhaps you can get $10 for every submission win. Nothing makes a tournament more exciting and move faster along than a quick submission win.

I think these financial incentives are irrational from the perspective of the competitor, given that you really still have to pay for transportation, food, etc. But the incentives might work via the fact that they are there at all in the same way that a “BIG SALE: 50% off” sign works at a clothing store.

Then again, I wonder if, for a local tournament, attracting more competitors suffers from a steep law of diminishing returns. Sometimes it feels like they are content with the number they have. With more competitors come more problems and DELAYS. By the way, IBJJF has done a good job at getting a handle on this, moving to multiple-day events when necessary.

This post was motivated by the fact that I was going to compete at a local tournament tomorrow. However, there’s only one person in my gi and no-gi divisions. Hard to justify $100 and a day of transportation and waiting for that, when I can get a good training session for free in just one hour.

Sometimes I feel like there’s a cruel law in the universe that the closer a tournament is to Philadelphia, the exponentially fewer competitors it will have.

0 thoughts on “Black Belts Compete for Free: Considering a Tiered System of Tournament Fees

  1. dolph

    Welcome to being a purple belt, my friend ! I competed eight times this year and only had one competitor in my division at 3 tournaments, and two of the tournaments were madison bracketed (thus guaranteeing me 3 – 4 matches, but against much heavier guys). The higher in rank, the fewer competitors you will have at local/regional tournaments.

    1. Lex Post author

      I’m still hopefully that the middleweight adult division will be good for purple belt. Local tournaments aren’t too great, but “regional” ones like the IBJJF opens seem to be solid at 20-30 competitors in my division. I don’t know where the disconnect is between those and the small local tourneys.


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