Popularity can be a double edged sword. Back in the mid 20th century when eastern martial arts were making their way over to the USA, guys like Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee made martial arts very popular. Kids were asking their parents to sign them up for Karate (and other martial arts) classes. Over the course of less than 50 years, a black belt went from meaning that a person was genuinely a badass to meaning very little at all, as demonstrated in the early days of the UFC and MMA. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu could very well be on that path.
Popularity of a sport or art can be a very good thing. It means a larger talent pool, it means more money to those who excel at that sport, but it can also mean a large scale watering down. There has been recent discussion about “junior black belts” awarded to children who have been training for a while. There has also been talk about celebrities training but never rolling and climbing through the ranks. These elements will help increase the popularity of the art but they also will ensure a steady decrease in the quality of its practitioners.
The value of a black belt is really what it symbolizes, which is a level of competence that signifies mastery. Now that mastery can always be improved upon, but if a black belt can readily be discredited then it is truly of no value.
Greed can be a powerful motivator, and many people have an impatient and shortsighted view of BJJ. I’d rather be a blue belt forever than be awarded a black belt when I’m not at the black belt level, but many people feel that time put in regardless of the quality of that time should translate to promotion. The cost of popularity is that people will be attracted to BJJ who are not in it for the intrinsic value of it but rather the glamour and bragging rights.
To add onto the danger of greed, look at what happened to Judo as a sport when it became and Olympic sport, the rule set became convoluted, and there is now a lot of tension within the Judo community as a result of different rules that have been put in place. Judo is still an amazing sport, but there has without a doubt been a degree of watering down.
Another major aspect that makes BJJ so special is the accessibility of the highest level practitioners. I’ve had chances to roll with some of the best grapplers on earth, and if BJJ becomes more popular the accessibility of these people will go down. If thousands of people clamor to train at Marcelo Garcia’s academy every day, the chances of regular Joe Schmo’s like me is going to go down to nothing and that is kind of sad.
Popularity is always a risky factor that should be approached carefully. On the one hand increased proliferation will mean better and more opportunities. On the other it can result in a watering down effect and less accessibility to top level instructors and competitors.