How to Start a Mixed Martial Arts Gym (stuff to get right)

How to Start a Mixed Martial Arts Gym (stuff to get right)

There’s never been a better time to get into -- or invest in -- mixed martial arts. 

MMA’s popularity has skyrocketed in the last ten years, turning into the world’s third most popular sport behind soccer and basketball. Thanks to events like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), One Championship, and the pop culture veneration of figures like Conor McGregor, it looks like MMA is here to stay as a major cultural force.

This popularity is a veritable goldmine for potential gym owners. Maybe you want to start your first MMA-focused gym from scratch. Maybe you’ve got an existing gym you want to pivot into the MMA space. Whichever one you are, there’s a long but rewarding road ahead of you.

It’s going to take a lot of hard work, and no small amount of planning, to get this right. Luckily, we at Wodify have a helpful primer to help you get started.

Pick the right gym management software

This is Step #1.

MMA gyms aren’t easy businesses to run. You have to market. You have to sell. You have to clean. You might even have to run classes. 

Perhaps one of the best initial investments you can make in your business is gym management software

Gym management software can help you set up recurring invoices, manage clients, create class schedules, track attendance, and even send digital waivers (important for MMA gyms). 

It can be a true Swiss army knife for gym owners, and it could significantly reduce the amount of time that you need to spend working on administrative tasks, giving you more time to focus on running classes and bringing in new customers.

We have gym management software to show you, and we can walk you through how it works if you’d like.

Understanding the business model

For MMA gyms, these are generally the primary revenue channels:

  • Membership fees (example)
  • Private lessons (example)
  • Summer camps and seminars
  • Merchandise and gear sales (example)

For most gyms, the biggest chunk of revenue comes from membership fees. In this space, membership fees might be as low as $75/mo or as high as $200/mo (using examples of a range of gyms from MMA Guru)

Tracey Heinz at RDX Sports lays it out in this example (she’s talking about Crossfit gyms, but the math still applies): “If membership at your gym is $1,000 per year [($85/mo)], you only need 100 members to turn over $100,000 in annual revenue. But adding just one new member every week puts annual revenues at $152,000. Adding two new members per week puts it at $204,000.” 

In the simplest terms, the success of an MMA gym is often just a game of getting people through the door and getting them to sign up. 

Of course, there are expenses to consider: rent, equipment, coaches, insurance, and so on. Additionally, not everyone who signs up stays; Noobgains notes that about half of people who sign up for a gym membership leave within six months.

So, really, starting and running an MMA gym can be a bit of a balancing act; you’ve got to get people in the door and get them to stay (more on this in the marketing section), and you’ve got to balance that with customer churn and expenses.

Hire the right coaches

For MMA gyms, often, the coaches are the product (or a big part of it, anyway). 

And if you’re looking to gain new customers, it’s important to keep in mind that people may prioritize MMA gyms with quality instructors.

One option, of course, is for you to be the coach. MMA gyms are often run by owner-operators, and for an MMA gym, the “operator” part of that usually includes teaching classes. 

But even if you’re coaching some classes, it could be good to pick up a few spare hands who either know more than you or who are specialists in specific parts of MMA. Coaches might be people like this:

  • People who have competed a lot in MMA 
  • Specialists striking coaches (boxing, muay thai, etc.)
  • Specialist grappling coaches (wrestling, jiu jitsu, etc.)
  • Long-time students who are both skilled and know the students

Plenty of MMA schools build class schedules around their coaches. At the American Top Team gym in Fort Lauderdale, for example, most of the coaches have MMA experience, but for the most part, classes are taught by people with specialist backgrounds. 

As a gym owner, this could even be part of your business strategy. You could recruit a long-time amateur boxer with a strong boxing track record and add boxing classes to your offering, for example. The MMA Guru notes that the quality of instruction can impact how much you’re able to charge (e.g. a jiu jitsu school with a black belt instructor may be able to charge more than a gym without one).

A few other considerations here: pay and health insurance.

It’s not uncommon for coaches to work part-time in small MMA gyms, since a particular class pay only be held a handful of times per week. If you’re looking to hire a full-time coach, the median salary (for fitness instructors in general, according to Salary.com) is between $21,464 and $74,931 per year. And of course, because of the nature of the work, instructors may want health insurance benefits.

The basics: location, licenses, equipment and gear

Starting a small business is never easy; starting a mixed martial arts gym, even less so. You’ve got to be practical and tactical in the same breath, which starts with finding the right location

Find a location in your city that complies with local zoning requirements (i.e. in a commercially-zoned area), 

You must also find a building that has the right amount of open space to host mixed martial arts classes. (Or you could build your own, but if you’re just starting out, it’s way easier to just occupy an existing space.)

MMA gyms specifically benefit from being located in high-traffic spots in busy city centers, with plenty of walk-through traffic to entice potential new members. But that often comes with higher leases, so you might want to consider an industrial or rural location in a smaller city -- customers there are much more willing to drive to where you are. 

Once you’ve found where your gym is going to go, it’s time to figure out licensing. Licenses vary wildly between states and local municipalities, so there’s no one size fits all for an MMA gym license. 

Just check the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Local Assistance directory; they’ll get you sorted with your local assistance center, which can get you started on your paperwork.

Now that you’re licensed, begin filling your gym up with the gear you need. 

Here’s a sampling of what you’ll want to have before opening your doors up to the public:

  • Lots of cushy mats
  • Heavy punching bags
  • Boxing gloves
  • Protective head and body gear
  • Target shields
  • Grappling dummies 

For a more comprehensive list, Fight Quality has you covered. 

Once you’re zoned, licensed, and fully equipped, you’ll want to make sure you’ve set up a bank account for your business and a point of sale system. 

The POS features in Wodify Core give you an easy interface for admins, managers, and coaches to sell products to clients and guests -- as well as manage refunds and memberships. Click here to learn more. 

Marketing your MMA gym

Now that you’ve got your location and your gear, it’s time to begin marketing your gym to your target audience.

To do that successfully, you first need to understand a few things.

Understanding your target audience

First thing’s first: you need to figure out who you’re trying to reach with your ads. And that means figuring out who’s into MMA, who’s actively practicing, and who might actually pony up to join your gym.

According to a Medium post from World’s Greatest CEO Bob Ciosek, 41% of MMA fans are 25-34 years old, and 66% are male. A 2018 report from Statista indicates that there are over 977,000 participants in mixed martial arts competitions around the world aged six and above

This report from Simmons Market Research shows 18.1 million Americans practicing karate or some other form of martial arts -- 9.4 million adults, 5.5 million teenagers, and 3.2 million children. 

That same report indicates that most MMA enthusiasts are relatively high-income earners, with 28% of children in martial arts training coming from households that earn over $50,000. 

In America, this list of the best MMA gyms in the world from The MMA Guru indicates that most MMA gyms can be found in California and New York, though others can be found in places like New Mexico, Florida, and even Wisconsin. 

To sum up, it would do well for you to market to MMA enthusiasts who are either a) active adults, or b) parents of active children, who are higher-income-earning and live on the coasts.

Picking the right marketing channels

Once you know your target audience and your brand, you’re ready to begin running advertisements. There are lots of different channels to choose from and the most successful companies use several of these.

Zebra Athletics, among other gyms, have several ideas for how you should consider advertising your mixed martial arts gym:

  • Being active in local social media groups
  • Listing your business on Google My Business
  • Placing ads in local papers or magazines
  • Hosting free events or seminars
  • Free trial memberships
  • Offering discounts to new customers and establishing membership programs
  • Rolling out referral programs to incentivize current customers to bring friends
  • Putting up flyers
  • Partnering with other local businesses to run promotions

Each of these channels can be successful -- it just might benefit you most to try and test different marketing tactics just to see what works. 

Reducing customer churn

Now, getting customers in the door is one thing; keeping them is quite another. Sometimes, the best marketing you can do is keeping the members you have, which is no small feat.

Customer churn, according to Hubspot, is the percentage of customers who stop using your service or product during a particular time frame. The lower your customer churn is, the more likely you’ll build a solid baseline of customers you can rely on to keep the lights running and your gym profitable.  

For gyms specifically, here are some solid ways to reduce churn:

  • A good onboarding experience. Keep your customer at ease at the very beginning of the process, and that solid first impression may carry through to higher retention.
  • A pleasant, safe atmosphere. Your members should feel safe; gyms, especially mixed martial arts gyms, can be high-pressure environments that easily intimidate folks who are new to fitness. Make them feel welcome and taken care of.
  • Clean, streamlined facilities. One part of that feeling of ease comes from keeping a clean gym; the more attractive it looks, the more likely to draw in and keep more clients.
  • A sense of progress. One major reason members quit gyms is because they feel themselves plateauing in their progress, and give up. Build programs and incentives to keep working, and you can keep members from feeling like they’re going nowhere fast. 

Want even more help with your mixed martial arts gym marketing? Wodify gives you free resources every month with our Monthly Marketing spotlight. Click here for more information.

We can help you get set up

All of these tips should leave you better prepared to start a mixed martial arts gym. It can be difficult, but intensely rewarding, especially if you put in the work to draw in the kinds of people who will stick around and help make your gym the high-kicking psion of fitness you’d like it to be.

But don’t take our word for it. Book a free demo of Wodify today to learn exactly what we can do to help you take your MMA gym to the next level.

Ready to put what you’ve learned into practice?
Download a free PDF handbook with many of NCFIT’s gym management procedures and philosophies that you can implement in your gym today.
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