Intervention on the sidelines: The martial arts hard sell [Family and parenting]

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Gossip on the sidelines of the soccer field is never in short supply. My parenthood philosophy up to this point has been of the “fake it till you make it” variety, but since officially joining the soccer-mom brigade, a world of insight has opened up to me—most recently the hard-sell tactics and steep pricing for karate lessons at some local martial arts academies.

With only four short weeks left in last year’s soccer season, I consulted the gurus of motherhood about martial arts in Louisville. Ever since my son watched the remake of Karate Kid last summer, he has been begging me to enroll him in something karate-esque. So I asked the sideline moms, “Have you heard anything about Hwang’s?” Its studios are alluring and I’ve seen quite a few of its bumper stickers in the carpool line at the middle school where I teach. Hwang’s Martial Arts (four area locations) was in fact the only martial arts studio I’d paid attention to. At the mere mention of Hwang’s though, the other soccer moms surrounded me and conducted an intervention worthy of Dr. Phil.

Amanda, a soft-spoken mother of an active boy, was drawn to martial arts for the discipline and physical outlet it offered her son. (She asked that I only use only her first name.) She signed up for the two-week trial of four classes advertised on Hwang’s website ($29.95 for the month of October) and was impressed. Her son received a free uniform and trophy, stood with perfect posture in his white karate gi and responded to adults with “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am.” He listened attentively and broke a “bad habit” board that symbolized the end of biting his fingernails — and, most important, he beamed with pride at his physical prowess. Then came the third class, during which the instructor asked Amanda to sit down in his office and the hard sell began.

“They passed me a figure that was in the thousands — $5,000 (for an entire black belt program) — way too much for our budget. I was shocked,” Amanda said with wide eyes on the sideline. “We expected the sales pitch part, but to have our child standing at attention in uniform with a trophy, beaming with pride…it put us in a compromised situation. You’re proud of your child, but when you’re not financially ready and have no idea of the cost until the moment…well, there’s no other word for it besides feeling manipulated.”

She did not return for the fourth class.

Hwang’s website did not quote or even mention pricing beyond the introductory $29.95 (currently it advertises a $15 quick-start program), nor did Grandmaster Jung Oh Hwang when questioned in a phone interview. After I asked point blank how much lessons would be for my son to continue after the initial trial, he simply said, “Come in tonight or tomorrow; I want to see how much he likes it.”

Hwang was eager to share that there are four convenient locations, that Hwang’s is rated in the top 10 martial arts studios in the nation (citing no source and no mention of this distinction was found on Hwang’s website) and that, “martial arts benefits 6-year-olds’ discipline and self-esteem,” but he refused to enlighten me on the actual price.

Hwang’s practice of not sharing the full price tag is a common one locally, according to Rob Setree, manager of Louisville Martial Arts Academy (3600 Chamberlain Lane). Most local martial arts studio websites withhold mention of pricing and contracts, which Setree attributed to marketing strategy. “Before people realize how much they enjoy martial arts, sometimes they’re turned off by what the lessons may cost them,” he said. “I want to make sure I can at least explain the pricing structure.”

While LMAA’s prices are available at its front desk, Setree would only share them with me off the record. Both the costs and commitments were fixed. Setree said LMAA’s contracts were on a month-to-month basis, making it easier for a family to quit in the event a child loses interest. Hwang's, on the other hand, enrolls students under contracts for the long haul, with most around a three-year range. “In this three-year period, the focus is obtaining black-belt, not on the actual teaching…This is typical of a ‘black-belt factory’ that thrives as a marketing machine,” said Setree. 

An important element of Hwang’s hard sell is the time commitment, which is difficult to measure for a 6-year-old whose enthusiasm is likely to wax and wane unpredictably. Once your child is salivating at the realization of his or her own strength and allure in the uniform (and for heaven’s sake he’s just broken a board with his bare hands), Hwang’s entices families with the prospect of their child becoming a black belt. At the third introductory class meeting Grandmaster Hwang or a member of his sales team sits the family down and reveals the $5,000 cost to complete the black-belt program.

According to Jamie Holzheimer, the parent of Brandon, a Hwang’s graduate, if the initial price can’t be met, Grandmaster Hwang will tailor a program that fits a family’s household income. And Hwang was adamant on the phone that the price varies based on income and development of the child’s skill level. Once a child has become a member, the focus is on discipline and earning a black belt, so cancellation of the commitment is seen as a form of weakness and failure to persevere. I found a similar message on LMAA’s FAQ: “Instructors can help, but parents must be primarily responsible for instilling a ‘no-quit’ attitude in their children. Honoring one's commitments is the very foundation of setting goals and achieving them. Quitting only leads to underperformance and failure.” But neither that site nor Hwang’s would reveal the financial repercussions for backing out of a contract.

Holzheimer, who committed her 3-year-old son to the black-belt club a few years ago at Hwang’s, gave the program high marks. “We were the founding members [first ones to join] of the HMA 4 location [4226 Shelbyville Road], so Grandmaster Hwang gave us 50 percent off. My father-in-law had recently passed away, so we were able to pay upfront. We were lucky…It is the best thing you could ever do for your kids. The whole family was involved, the focus was on respect and discipline; they truly care about kids and donate a lot to the community.”

Holzheimer said Brandon completed the program in 2-and-a-half years by going to classes twice a week. He was a black belt by age six—a task that takes mastery of form and sparing (my 6-year-old hasn’t mastered wiping himself).

Laurie-Beth Mudd also was interested in enrolling her active son in martial arts for the discipline, strength building and increased self-esteem. Mudd was looking for a short-term commitment—“something to do in the winter months” — so she researched martial arts studios around Louisville. She settled on one near her home in Crestwood, Kentucky Tae Kwon Do and Fitness (6441 W. Highway 146), because of its $34.95 introductory classes that also included a free uniform.

“The owner wouldn’t commit to a price upfront,” Mudd said. “He kept telling me it was based on pay scale and the kid’s ability. After a few classes, he sat me down in his office and told me it was going to be $170 per month unless I signed a two-year contract that would lower the price to $120 a month. At this point my son was excited about his uniform and I’m trying to figure out in my head how I can swing this for two years...I was shocked—my family is frugal and my son was only 5. I wasn’t prepared to commit and felt schemed,” Mudd said.

David Deuchars, an instructor from Kentucky Tae Kwon Do and Fitness Academy, quoted over the phone the initial trial classes at $29.95 for two weeks and $49.95 for four (each include private lessons and uniforms). After the trial, the month-to-month fee is $169, but can drop if a family signs a long-term contract. For example, a 30-month contract would cost $99 per month.

The owner of Kentucky Tae Kwon Do, Master Sean Ramey, said in an e-mail that Hwang’s has had people sign contracts for longer than the three-year maximum that Kentucky state law allows. Kentucky Tae Kwon Do’s maximum contract is 30 months. “We have several students, formally students of Hwangs, that have been misled by this scam,” said Ramey.

Tom Richards, the senior manager of public policy at the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, the fitness industry's global trade association, said that while Kentucky law does limit sports clubs' contracts to three years, the statute does not specifically include martial arts studios as sports clubs.

Katie, an always-informed and vocal soccer mom, concurred with Amanda’s story about Hwang’s. She was already privy to the Hwang’s hard sell and her son was invited by a classmate to one of Hwang’s Movie Star Birthday Parties. These events, priced at $189 for non-members on its website, offer the birthday boy or girl a free uniform and encourage the family to invite their friends to the event. “I told my family upfront we’d try it and take the uniforms, but weren’t going to join.”

Katie acknowledged that Hwang’s had given her children’s elementary school free lessons, uniforms and money for participating in its martial arts convention. “Hwang himself is a philanthropist and does a lot for the community,” she said. She described her own son listening to the instructor’s speech on heroes: He was told that Superman isn’t a true hero, that your mom and dad are for running you around town, feeding and clothing you. . . . How could you say no to that?

Many martial arts websites boast that children will gain confidence, lose weight, eliminate negative habits and attitudes and improve discipline. I believe my son may well have gained confidence and I don’t doubt he would have relished his new uniform, but having to tell him he can’t continue after he’s already sold, well, that would be a tough blow.

Photo: Courtesy Karate Kid

About Megan Seckman
I am married with two children and a middle school English teacher, so I am constantly trying to squeeze in the things I love: writing, reading, painting, yoga, cooking, and traveling.
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