Contact Sports Businesses Adjust to Life with COVID-19

Jun 10, 2020

Avery Richard has had to rethink how to have a business built around sparring and grappling now that the coronavirus has changed the game. But martial arts are also about fitness, and that's led to some new ideas.
Credit Scott Morgan / South Carolina Public Radio

How does a gym for a high-contact sport like mixed martial arts or boxing go about its business when there’s a virus in the air that demands we stay far apart?

The short answer: Carefully.

“We have a beautiful space outdoors so we can definitely do our kickboxing classes six feet apart,” said Avery Richard, co-owner of Indian Land MMA. “We’re limiting the size of the classes, we’re limiting the contact, we offer classes that we have no contact at all. As far as the jiu-jitsu side goes, someone’s going to have one partner and that’s pretty much going to be their partner the entire week.”

Indian Land MMA is a small business that just recently had moved into a new space in a strip mall in a growing, affluent area just outside of Fort Mill. It’s also one link in a small chain of MMA gyms that stretch into North Carolina.

But Indian Land MMA is the luckiest one of the three, and Richard is the first to admit that.

“We’re just thankful to be open,” he says. “We have a few sister gyms … in North Carolina. One of them closed down permanently. Another gym [is] really struggling. So we’re super-thankful that South Carolina allowed us to open back up.”

The reopening has gone so-so. On the downside, Richard’s gym has had to contend with an extended closure, just like so many other businesses. And as South Carolina reopened, restaurants and bars were the first to come back, but gyms and martial arts studios had to wait a costly turn.

Richard said he and other gym owners – who kept in frequent contact with each other during quarantine – were frustrated by the delay. He said that gym owners could figure out ways to safely let people back in and that it felt as if state health officials didn’t trust them to figure it out.

There’s also the irony, he said, of having kept closed places that are designed to optimize health – a valuable commodity during a public health crisis.

On the upside, Richard said, the members of his gym largely held on. They kept their memberships and have come back to modified schedules. Some practice with masks, others don’t, but measures are taken to make sure everyone feels safe.

He’s also realized that the innovations and adaptations Indian Land MMA has been forced to make didn’t need to wait for a pandemic.

“What’s funny about this whole thing is, it made us realize we could have had outdoor classes this whole time and had some extra classes,” he said.

Over at the Rock Hill Boxing Club, director and head coach Alonzo Lumpkin says he hopes to be by June 15 – a date that can’t come fast enough.

“A lot of people want to come out,” Lumpkin says. “Guys ready to get those frustrations out from being

Alonzo Lumpkin says he's as ready as everyone else to get back to work at the Rock Hill Boxing Club.
Credit Scott Morgan / South Carolina Public Radio

penned up in the house; a lot of kids have not been in school and they’re ready to get out and play.”

The difference between the Rock Hill Boxing Club and gyms like Indian Land MMA is that the former is not a business built to make a profit. It’s a city-run gym that serves as a community center mainly benefitting Rock Hill’s African-American youth.  (Click here for more about the gym’s effort to build a stronger community.)

For a lot of kids in particular, Lumpkin said, it’s their only outlet when school is not in session. The gym is a place where kids (and adults) learn structure and discipline and find healthy ways to vent their frustrations.

“That’s the main thing that the gym provides for pretty much everybody,” he said. “That release of stress, that release of built-up tension.”

Like Richard, Lumpkin has had to think of how to run a place built around direct personal contact when there’s a virus in the air. Especially one that’s so disproportionately affected African-Americans. For the most part, he’s taking it slow and methodical.

“My main thing is to try to get some kind of a momentum going so everybody can start getting back to somewhat of a normal routine,” he said. “It’s still not going to be normal and we won’t be sparring. We’re still going to avoid the one on one contact. I don’t want to have guys getting in contact with one another that maybe is a carrier of the virus. Safety is first.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan.