By Sarah Lobban
In July 2018, Century Martial Arts and Gameness, the Dallas, Texas-based martial arts company renowned for its high-quality Brazilian jiu-jitsu gis, announced they had formed a joint venture. Beyond benefitting the companies, the new partnership will predictably have a positive impact on both their customer bases.
“Gameness is one of the largest jiu-jitsu brands in the world,” explains Kris Horner, owner of Gameness for the past eight years. “It’s also one of the oldest jiu-jitsu brands in the world.”
To fully appreciate what it means for Gameness to have reached the level of success it has today, you have to understand the evolution of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) within the United States. It didn’t always have the status it does today. In fact, before the 1980s, the sport was virtually unknown.
Rorion Gracie, son of the legendary Helio Gracie, one of BJJ’s founders, brought the art to the U.S. in 1978. Despite Rorion’s expertise and the quality of education he offered, he struggled to make BJJ catch on. Part of the problem was the fact that, at the time, Americans associated martial arts with what they saw in Bruce Lee films. That is, striking, kicking and weapons. Since BJJ has none of these things, it went largely overlooked.
Because BJJ was still overshadowed by arts like karate, would-be BJJ students had a hard time finding the necessary uniforms. (If you’ve ever tried grappling in a karate gi, you know it makes a terrible substitute).
This was before online retail became common. So, the average student couldn’t simply turn to the internet to get what he/she needed. Most people relied on their martial arts instructors to supply them with gear and uniforms — and their instructors were in the same gi-less boat.
Gameness was founded in Nashville, TN to fill that product void.
“The founder saw a need in the market for quality products that gym owners could provide for their students,” explains Horner, who bought the company and brought it to Dallas, Texas, in 2010. “As a gym owner himself, he was having a hard time doing that, and knew others would be as well. So, he created Gameness.”
A Focus on Customers
As the first U.S. jiu-jitsu gi brand, Gameness quickly assumed responsibility for helping the sport grow. The company played a key role pitching in to help at tournaments, and today still supports the competitive BJJ community, at both a local level and through the Gameness ProTeam.
It also gave BJJ gym owners, who had once struggled to find any uniforms, a wealth of options to choose from.
“Gameness was one of the first companies to really pioneer low-volume, high-quality custom products,” Horner says. “We brought some new technologies to the market. We also created a sublimated patch program that’s expanded into screen printing, and further expanded into fully customized rash guards.”
In doing so, Gameness gave gym owners — including local and single-school operations — a way to offer branded products in their own gyms. This allowed them to better establish their businesses, and to draw more students through their doors and into jiu-jitsu and the martial arts.
As it became obvious that jiu-jitsu was a growing industry, competitors began to pop up. However, Gameness stayed at the head of the pack thanks to a simple, twofold strategy. One: Deliver high-quality, affordable products that school owners could readily sell to their students. Two: In every action, put the customers first.
“We pride ourselves on world-class customer service,” Horner explains. “If you hang out in the Gameness hallways for very long, you’ll hear someone talking about customer service, which is really the test in everything we do. If we’re trying to make a decision about what to do regarding a person or practice, the question we ask is, ‘What will improve our customers’ experience?’”
The Road to Success
This customer-first strategy has made Gameness a well-loved name in the BJJ world. Look for information on Gameness online. Whether you turn to blogs, review forums or martial arts chat sites, you’ll find them cited. You’ll get a clear picture of a company that’s popular and admired by everyone from beginning students to pros to school owners.
It also won the respect of another martial arts company: Century Martial Arts, located just three hours north of Gameness in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Century and Gameness were never direct competitors. Although Century carries some BJJ gis and belts, its main market is traditional martial arts schools. More importantly, Gameness’ story and values resonated with Century founder and CEO Mike Dillard.
Like Gameness, Century had started small, when one enterprising person noticed a need in the market. As it grew, Dillard was mindful of Century’s original mission to help spread martial arts and support school owners. He kept customer service as a top priority — and recognized other companies that did the same.
“We saw when Brazilian jiu-jitsu first started exploding in popularity in the United States,” Dillard remembers. “Several companies had entered the market. We watched this as it grew. It became apparent to us that Gameness was going to be one of the winners. They established a reputation for service and quality, and those are key elements in our business.”
Kris Horner adds, “I think there’s a lot of mutual respect [between Century and Gameness]. Everyone works very hard to serve our customers.”
If you’re a Gameness fan and you’re wondering what this news means for your favorite gi brand, don’t worry! The Gameness team will remain the same, and their headquarters will remain in Dallas.
Both Horner and Dillard are keen to stress that the partnership was made by mutual decision. In fact, it was Gameness who came to Century with the idea.
“During [a martial arts seminar] in Dallas, Kris and I were both there,” Dillard recalls. “He approached me and broached the idea that we might do some kind of merger. His sincerity and his intelligence [stood out], and he seemed like a good guy. I thought, ‘This is someone we can work with.’”
The further talk of joining the companies progressed, the more it seemed like the partnership was meant to be.
“I realized that Century absolutely has the culture of high integrity, and taking care of their customers and employees,” says Horner. “That aligned itself really nicely with the environment that we have at Gameness.
“We both try to work hard and have fun. We take our job and our customer service very seriously. We’re very passionate about those things. We have an environment where everyone works hard together and enjoys the martial arts along the way.”
Speaking of enjoying the martial arts: Part of the reason the decision to merge was so easy is that Gameness and Century share very common cultures. Of course, both have the commitment to customer service, but it goes beyond that. The companies don’t just make martial arts gear, but are actively involved in the martial arts community.
“Most of our employees train [in Brazilian jiu-jitsu or other arts],” Horner says. “It’s not uncommon for employees to be scheduling training sessions together before or after work or during their lunch breaks. That helps a lot when it comes to getting to know the customers. It also helps us understand the needs of the gym owners.
“We’re also conveniently located in Dallas, where we’re surrounded by a lot of high-quality athletes, including members of the Gameness ProTeam, on a regular basis. We’re very close to those athletes, which is helpful in terms of product development.”
Likewise, Century has fostered a “by-martial-artists, for-martial-artists” mindset since day one. So, any new projects taken as a joint Century-Gameness venture won’t just stem from business collaboration. It would derive from more martial artists getting together and sharing ideas.
A Win for the Customers
As you would expect, when two customer-service-oriented companies team up, the result is improved benefits for both of their customer bases. Although the partnership is still relatively new, Horner and Dillard are already looking ahead to find new ways to bring the best of both worlds to their customers.
“[As a company], we think about, ‘How can we deliver even more value to our customers?’” explains Horner. “How can we give them sort of a ‘bigger bag of tricks?’ In visiting with Century, we discovered their ability to embroider, their ability to do screen printing, and a lot of customization assets that they had. It would take us years to acquire the equipment and the expertise to be able to do those things. So, that was very compelling for us.”
And then, of course, there’s the Martial Arts Industry Association (MAIA), Century’s consulting branch. MAIA provides advice and guidance for martial arts school owners. Many schools have used tools and resources from MAIA to successfully expand their businesses, increase student retention and improve their numbers. However, MAIA’s clients are mostly traditional martial arts schools.
This is not by design. There simply isn’t as much knowledge of Century or MAIA in the jiu-jitsu community. However, in Horner’s opinion there’s no reason MAIA can’t work just as well for jiu-jitsu schools.
“There’s a different curriculum [in a BJJ gym]. But how you serve the customers, how you do student retention, how you bring people in the doors, is the same,” adds Dillard. “In a martial arts school, the best thing that can happen is to create a community environment. Brazilian jiu-jitsu has always had that.
“Brazilian jiu-jitsu gyms produce some great MMA fighters, but that’s not all they do. They produce great younger people with all the same tenets — respect, courtesy, perseverance — as any martial art. I think [these schools] are a match for MAIA. If we can get a few more BJJ schools to try it, I think it’ll spread. We can really help them, and that helps everybody.”
“The same techniques [other MAIA schools use] can absolutely be applied to jiu-jitsu,” he states. “They have a lot of value. But the jiu-jitsu community isn’t necessarily aware of all the amazing things Century has done for martial arts as a whole. I think Gameness can help shed some light on those resources.”
Century customers, on the other hand, will gain more exposure to Gameness and all it has to offer. Retail customers, who may train in traditional martial arts as well as jiu-jitsu, will now have a single channel to all the gear they need for their training.
School owners who shop with Century and already offer Brazilian jiu-jitsu will be able to expand their programs with all the custom options Gameness brings. Even non-BJJ schools, who might not be interested in Gameness’ gi uniforms, can benefit from offering fully customized rash guards!
And, of course, the biggest benefit may simply be the one found in the old axiom, “Two heads are better than one.”
“We think that by putting the two companies together, we can exchange best business practices,” explains Dillard. “There’s no doubt we can learn something from Kris, and I hope he learns a thing or two from us.”
Sarah Lobban is the Associate Publications Editor for the Martial Arts Industry Association. She can be reached at [email protected]
Through the newly enhanced MAIA website, you can access nearly any piece of information, from A to Z, about what you want to help grow your school.
Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.
Fill in your information below and we'll get started on a growth plan for your school.