BJJ and Women: Lack of Women in Tournaments

I want more women to compete. I want more women at tournaments. The frustrating thing about tournaments for me specifically is: paying and not having a clue if I’ll be getting even a single match. It’s is a waste of money. Sure, it helps with my training, but the reality is: I don’t want to simply pay extra for training.

Gracie Mag had an article recently about why tournament providers should want women at their tournaments. Mundials Motivation #6: More females to improve quality of Jiu Jitsu competitions.

we’re coaxing the women to come out on the mats. The competitions are growing with numbers spilling over into higher ranks as the years go on and dedicated athletes remain with the art. A part of that succession involves a fraction of persistent women. […] Get the females on the mat to prove the evolution of women in Jiu-Jitsu.

So let’s brainstorm how to get more women to sign up for tournaments, this is exactly what you should be reading. Rather than say why an idea CAN’T work, add more ideas to the pot. Nothing kills brainstorming faster than yeah buts.

[In some cases,] treating everyone the same can place people with particular needs and circumstances at a disadvantage and is likely to considered discriminatory. Sometimes we do need to treat people differently to create a ‘level playing field’ and enable them to participate on equal terms with everyone else. – Equality and Diversity

The problem: Not enough women entering in BJJ tournaments.

I'm the ONLY woman! Therefore I'm Queen of Grappling, right?

I’m the ONLY woman! Therefore I’m Queen of Grappling, right?

Not a solution: Do what you’ve been doing. Treat women exactly like the men. Women sign up for the tournament, just like the men. If no one is there, they take their highlander medal and move along, just like the men. No prizes are received if no matches occur. No money is refunded due to no matches. This is not a solution because it’s not currently working.

Thoughts from a Tournament Organizer

Sean Maghami, from Dream Jiu Jitsu, recently posted this in a women’s grappling group:

1. It is the job of the organizer to promote the tournament, not the competitors. If an event fails to attract competitors, it’s their fault. If the brackets are always small, competitors should blame the promoter, not each other. The first 3 tournaments I organized brought in 1-3 girls. The 4th event was my first women’s tournament and 120 women registered. It was no gi, with no age brackets – meaning a 15 year-old could be matched up with a 35 year-old. Despite those circumstances, it was and still is the biggest women’s tournament in history. It was a miracle.

2. Every tournament is a business and needs to be run like one in order to be successful. The next question is: how does this business support women? When an event offers free entry, that’s one way they show their support. I think it’s pretty unimaginative, but that’s another story. Here’s another example: This year the Gracie Nationals and Gracie Worlds (Rose Gracie’s sub-only tournaments) decided to discontinue their female divisions because of consistent low turnout. Women protested and it reopened. But nothing changed – the price, the weight classes (only 3 offered), etc remained the same. The turnout was low again.

3. The biggest markets are adult men and kids. The smallest market is women. Most men who train jiu jitsu do not compete, just like most women who train jiu jitsu do not compete. No one is looked down upon, it’s just different priorities. Women have a right to be selective about which tournaments they attend, since attendance is a way of supporting a business. One of the reasons the Women’s Grappling Network was created was because women in the sport are scattered and nearly alienated from each other. Every girl who competes in my tournament gets added to the network; it makes communication between women easier and hopefully they’ll continue supporting Dream Jiu Jitsu.

If we want more women to participate in tournaments, then what can be done? I came up with several possible ideas. Maybe not perfect, but they’re better than keeping the status quo.

Perhaps Dr Horrible has our solutions. The world is a mess. He just wants to rule it.

Perhaps Dr Horrible has our solutions. The world is a mess. He just wants to rule it.

Possible idea #1: Women have free entry at tournaments

With no entrance fees, women don’t have to worry about wasting money on possibly not having anyone to compete against. Literally nothing to lose except time.

Possible idea #2: Women who enter get the big prizes

If only one woman enters, give her all the prizes. That way there is a perk; she hasn’t wasted her money, and she knows that she gets some loot. She’ll likely sign up for more loot in the future, but then other women will catch on and it will no longer be guaranteed.

Possible idea #3: Women pre-register and pay after closing

If you’re having people pay during the registration period, simply have women sign up for their categories, then pay IF another woman enters.

Possible idea #4: Have real time information about registrants

A woman signs up, broadcast it. Tweet it. Facebook it. Hey, we have a woman here, so other ladies, SIGN UP! Make that information available. I signed up for the Asia Open and could immediately look on the IBJJF website to find a list of athletes by division. Right now there are 3 including me in my division: Female/Blue/Master/Middle.

Possible idea #5: Provide some thread or message board for women

If you’re interested in signing up, please also leave a message on this thread to let other women know! Or you can ask who will be entering. Get in touch with other women about this event in real time!

Possible idea #6: Do what you can to get women a match

If two women sign up, and one signs up for gi and one signs up for nogi, talk to them. Find out if one would like to switch categories. Same if the women are in different weight categories. Only have 3 women sign up? Do some round robin/absolute situation.

Possible idea #7: Give them their money back

Or give them some kind of “next tournament is FREE” pass. I want a match, not simply to help fund a tournament. I’d like to compete, not be a benefactor.

Possible idea #8: Fewer brackets

This could be official or not official. If enough women sign up, we will divide by level or by weight or both. Or perhaps post the brackets with the caveat The weight/level categories may change, given the number of entrants. They did this with the women’s divisions in the mundials. 2012 featured the first women’s black belts only division. In one tournament they only had “women” as a division. In another, there was only above or below a certain weight, then further divided by belt.

Possible idea #9: Guaranteed number of rounds

Let’s imagine you have 3 women in a bracket, which happened in my last tournament. I only got one fight. My entry fee was $80. I got one nogi fight, and one gi fight. So each was $40. It makes it better worth it if I have the opportunity to fight more than one time.

Note on wording

The Scotia No Gi Cup 2013 on September 14  had this on their website:

Due to low numbers in previous events we have combined the womens divisions into u60kg and 60kg+. These are provided free of charge so any female competitors interested please message me to enter.

In this way, they’ve identified a problem to others – low numbers – and presented a solution. Sure, people could scream “omg sexism” but by sharing this, they should scream “omg attempted solution.” For example, I think this could also work in areas where brown belts or black belts had super low turnouts as well. Korea doesn’t have very many brown belts who compete – it’s always the same faces, and not that many. – Due to low numbers in the brown belt brackets, all brown belts will have free entry.

JiuJiu’s Note: please be a “yaysayer” rather than a naysayer! How have tournaments you’ve participated in (or have seen online) handled low women turnout? What are some other possible ideas to address the problem of low turnout of women at tournaments.

  1. In our area, most of the teachers/coaches and tournament organizers all know each other, so it’s easy for one to say, “Hey, I have a 125-lb blue belt woman who’d like to do this tournament,” and put that out to his/her fellow coaches so that those coaches can approach their own students who might be interested. They all want their students to be able to compete and have matches, so they make that effort.

  2. I think having more weight classes would help. Not everyone is 5’2 and under 150. I’m 5’10.5 and curvy. It’s hard to find ladies my height/size combo that compete. (Luckily I have a great training partner who’s built like me so she helps a lot.) BUT my point is more and more “normal sized” (translation – not super athletic) women are doing bjj. That means an average 150-170 woman. When the weight classes stop at 150 and the next option is 155 and up, no one wants to be in that division. They’d worry at 165 they’d face a 200 competitor. For some reason, women’s weight classes haven’t grown along with the growing number of participants and shapes & sizes of women competing.

    • Same here. 6′ and the dreaded 180 to be faced. BRUAHAHAH. no. seriously, it’s just plain silly. i advocate for opening the men’s bracets to female competiors.
      given that most female competitors are in fact of lighter weigt, only the feather and rooster weights in men’s weight classes will be affected that much. and all the other women will get opponents in their own weight, at last.

      I liked the part about tournaments being a buisness and have to be run like a buisness. i went to tournaments where i had one opponent only. in a “mandatory” open class situation. the cost – fun or cost – fight ratio just doesn’t work out.
      I’d rather lose against some guys in my own weight class than have this mandatory open class situation, which is clearly no fun for no-one involved. Point being, i’d likely not go there again, and they have lost me as a “customer”.

  3. As a woman that has organized over 100 tournaments (literally), I can tell you which of these ideas we have tried and then scrapped. I can tell you what works for US Grappling, and why I think it works.

    In short, it comes down to creating a community. A few weeks before our events, I start tagging women in the area of the event on Facebook. They all respond with which division(s) they’re planning to enter, and what weight class they expect to enter. Then, these women friend each other and their community also grows. This community started with women’s open mats years ago, and with an internet forum just for women. In North America, we’re also lucky enough to have women’s grappling camps fairly often, where we can meet up with members of this community from different areas.

    It seems like no matter where I go nowadays, I can find a BJJ woman that I “know”, even if I haven’t actually met her in person yet. I believe that this has been the most helpful thing for getting women to turn up at our events, and we have a pretty solid turnout for white and blue belt women at almost every event now. As these women get promoted, we also start training them to become referees, which also helps. I believe we have more certified female referees than any other tournament organization, from purple to black belt.

    • This sounds great! One of my female training partners does compete a lot and she says she is Facebook friends with almost all of the local girls in her division. They often contact each other when a tournament is coming up to see who is entering.

      • Also, I should add that if US Grappling can’t make matches for you, we will absolutely refund you. We run events the way we want to be treated when we compete at event.

      • That absolutly matches my experience. i know about every female competitor in my area, and i find that rather depressing as it says a lot about the state the female competion field currently is in. 🙁 ( that is a complicated way of saying: they are just so very few, and i just feel it’s not really worth spending half a weekend and entering fee if one is pitched against one single other competitor. )

    • Clinzy! Thank you so much for posting that. If you ever want me to help promote your tournaments, I can tweet or share on Facebook or Pinterest or even post it here if you have something ready-made for sharing!

  4. Hmm. I thought about this one for awhile. I do not compete and it is mainly because I have no interest. But I thought, if I were interested in competing what would I want and I agree it is mostly also about divisions. ( I am one of the tiny ones. 🙂 )I would not want to show up and have no one to compete against, even if I did get my money back. I guess we just need to increase the numbers of women who train in general and then maybe there will be more who compete too? It is a hard problem to solve for sure.

  5. Love this! I am doing a small tournamament next weekend that shows who is signed up in real time. They also allow pre-registering without paying. I love this!! I am excited to know there are two in my bracket! I know Grapplers Quest sometimes does women for free. I appreciated that. I just don’t have $100 to spend without knowing if I’ll have a match, or will be stuck going with someone way outside my weight or rank just because we are the only females.

  6. I’m one of the small ones. I don’t compete mainly because I have stage fright, but also because of the size difference. The smallest division for most of the major tournaments is light feather @ 118 lbs. I walk at 102 lbs. It’s definitely a size difference and people do cut weight to make themselves fit into that division. I’d feel cheated paying ~$100 to compete in them. IBJJF does have a female rooster weight division @ 105 lbs but it’s only for the Asia Open. I’ve emailed IBJJF on a female rooster weight for Pans and Worlds but the answer they gave me is that there’s not enough females that would reg at that weight. I would think so for the major events. There are a lot of women that size around that practice BJJ. I always see them at women’s open mats and people are always telling me about the small female practitioners at their gym. Olympic judo and wrestling have a 48kg/105 lbs division and women’s mma have the atomweight division. There is such thing as small female athletes. It’s crazy how IBJJF has so many divisions for men including masters, seniors 1 thru 4,and male rooster @ 127 lbs, but the smallest they’ll go for women is 118 lbs.

  7. I have competed in a handful of tournaments. After experiencing it several times, the high entry fee is no longer worth it for only a couple of matches. I agree with Cynthia that there needs to be another division, or two, in the heavier weight classes! At around 200lbs, it is not fair to me, nor my 170lb competitors, that we are in the same weight class. I know for a fact that other women my size, and heavier, have avoided entering tournaments for this very reason. When I was over 250lbs, there is NO WAY I would have entered a tournament. I believe combining a public sign-up sheet with more more classes, would help make all women more comfortable signing up for tournaments.

    I also find it odd that not all tournaments offer a women’s absolute division. This is a very simple way to give women more matches, without having to worry about size miss-matches!

  8. Great post! I am constantly running into the same problem, I have still never had a fair match… I’ve always been put with guys (when I was under 18) or women who were way heavier (biggest difference was 60lbs once) and sometimes even twice my age. Anyways, I love your ideas!
    I recently opened my site for women in martial arts, , and I would love to feature this article! If you could create an account and just copy and paste that would be fantastic, or I can just share the link if you’d prefer.
    Great work, love the blog!

    • Hey Quincy! Thank you so much. Because the comments section are so invaluable (including yours) I am hesitant to have the entire article featured in another spot. What is totally cool is to copy a few paragraphs and then link to the rest on my site. It doesn’t just have to be at the beginning – often bloggers will talk about the article, then quote part, then link it. Plus, by doing that, it also gives some traffic to your site from mine (people click the ping backs!).

      I was paired with a high school guy in my first tournament. I couldn’t move my arm for nearly a month. I have zero desire to “prove” myself against men in tournaments. Perhaps at a much higher level, but at blue, no thanks.

      And thank you so much for the compliment! I hope that you remain consistent in your blog and that it is successful!!

  9. I agree with everyone above. The reason I haven’t competed is because of the risk of injury – I already have a bad neck along with many other things. But there are other women at the same belt level that have bull rush theory (at a man’s strength which is why my shoulder was torn out in ‘warming up with rolling’. I’d like to compete with a technique and transitional and control competition and an overall control and feel – knowing when enough is enough.
    I just want to roll, compete and most of all learn so I can teach it back.
    Its all about what you learn and can give back!

  10. Pingback: October 12, 2013 | BJJ News

  11. I actually just did the abu dhabi east coast pro trials. turnout for blue belt women was awesome (or at least it looked it, I saw lots of fights), but for white belt – let’s just say I lost both my matches in my weight class AND absolute division, and ended up with double silver anyway. it was weird. I feel like I get ‘handed’ medals a lot because there aren’t enough women to fill out the bracket, even at big tournaments – there were supposed to be 4 women in my weight class, but only 2 of us showed up. And then only 2 stayed to do absolute.

    ah well.

    • I think that’s a bit short sighted. Personally I am not interested in fighting men at blue belt level. I could potentially see that changing at brown belt, but I still see that a 150 lb man has a distinct muscular advantage over a 150 lb woman. It creates a physical imbalance that shows up a lot at the lower levels – you don’t have the jiu jitsu skills, you compensate with strength. It’s, to me, akin to being more like an absolute match.