Sports Tourism – a Burgeoning Trend for Economic Development

Wed, 2016-08-10


Sports Tourism – a Burgeoning Trend for Economic Development

When Scot and Kathleen Frew of McLean, Virginia pack their sons, Quin and Rowan, into the family SUV on Saturday mornings, they’re not just shuffling their 14- and 12-year-old kids off to their respective youth sports activities … they are actually participating in a massive and rapidly growing movement that fuels economic development in cities, towns and rural communities all across the United States.

It’s a concept known as sports tourism.

Whether it’s traveling from Fairfax into Loudoun County, Virginia where their McLean Youth soccer team competes as part of the Suburban Friendship League or embarking on a cross-country jaunt to California for the boys to participate in a National Junior Olympics water polo tournament, the Frews are contributing their fair share to what is now a $9 billion-plus industry.

"Youth sports tourism wasn't even a category four years ago, and now it's the fastest-growing segment in travel," says Dave Hollander, professor at New York University's Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports.

"You've got millions of kids involved, parents spending thousands of dollars, and cities building facilities to host events and chase tourism dollars," he says. "It's just huge."

In its most fundamental form, sports tourism is defined as traveling to a location away from home for a sporting event in which you are either observing or participating, says Heather J. Gibson, Professor of Tourism, Recreation and Sport Management at the University of Florida.  Traditionally, sports tourism falls within one of three categories: spectator sport tourism, celebrity/nostalgia sport tourism and active sport tourism.

“Spectator sport events tourism refers to the travelers who visit a city to watch high-profile sporting events ranging from regular season pro league and college games to nationally or internationally-acclaimed events like the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup while celebrity and nostalgia sport tourism refers to fantasy camps and sports conventions,” Gibson says.  “Active sport tourism refers to travelers who participate in the sporting events.”

And according to Gibson, all three genre elements are exploding at an exponential rate within an industry that is essentially recession-proof.  “While the United States continually experiences economic ups and downs, the sports event industry remains steady, if not better than normal,” she says.  Even though economic impact typically refers to heads-in-(hotel)-beds and butts-in-(restaurant)-seats, lasting economic benefits from major sporting events may ultimately come from new infrastructure, new sports venue construction, land regeneration and repeat business.

Regardless of whether a family travels to support their child athlete, to catch their hometown team in action or to watch grandad to participate in the National Senior Games, quite often, participant-oriented sports tourism turns into a “mini-vacation.” In 2014, The George Washington University Sports Management program concluded that visitor spending for the sports travel industry has increased three percent from 2013 reaching a total of $8.96 billion. Another study from the University of Florida discovered that nearly 60 percent of the parents included in the visitor spending expenditure return to the city for vacation and 74 percent of these parents recommend the location to others.

While every national sports governing body from basketball and soccer to hockey and football actively discourages parents from adopting a “my kid will one day play in the – insert desired pro league here – philosophy,” there’s no question that participation in youth sports serves as a viable resume builder and, in the case of certain sports, as a possible vehicle toward college scholarships.  As such, the allure of youth sports travel is as much a part of personal growth as it is a potential positive step toward supporting their young athletes’ futures, a scenario which only serves to contribute to the viability of sports tourism.

And despite the many studies that verify how year-‘round youth participation in several sports are optimal for individual development, recent trends have shown a major uptick in families encouraging their children to participate and specialize in a particular sport. Parents are beginning to steer their children toward such ‘niche sports’ as gymnastics, cheerleading, swimming, ice hockey, field hockey, lacrosse and rugby.  And to fuel that participation, mom and dad are now investing more money into their children’s athletic development, training and competitions; all of which continues to fuel the industry.

Members of the West Chester University women’s club ice hockey team dine at a Northern Virginia restaurant while in town for the American Collegiate Hockey Association National Championship Tournament.

Available across virtually every sport in the spectrum, fantasy sports camps typically run from three to eight days, with prices ranging from $1,000 on the low end to $20,000 for the truly elite experience. Price tags often correlate with the fame quotient of the athletes involved, as well as the high-end perks, the ultimate attraction of which is the opportunity to compete with and against and schmooze with your sports heroes, receive state-of-the-art instruction and walk away with a variety of mementoes and swag which often includes video highlight reels, personalized uniforms and trading cards – not to mention plenty of selfies and autographs.

Yet while the up-front dollars typically go directly to the camp operators (and indirectly to the participating athletes), the time and money spend on lodging as well as the unique opportunity to share dinner and drinks with your heroes serves to support the local economy while creating personal memories that last a lifetime.

And then, of course, there’s the spectator sports element.  Who among us has not travelled – at least once in our lifetimes – to an away stadium or arena to watch our favorite team compete in another city?  Along the way, we’re fueling up in gas stations, sampling the regional cuisine, purchasing sundries at convenient stores and sleeping in local hotels. 

Consider, for a moment, the impact of an event as seemingly obscure as the Forrest Wood Bass Fishing Cup in Columbia/Lake Murry South Carolina, winner of the 2015 Sports Destination Management Economic Impact Award for Sports Tourism.  A four-day competition, the event drew 43,000 spectators, employed the services of 12 different infrastructure service providers, engaged 40 local barbecue chefs, generated more than 9,900 hotel room nights and created total economic impact figures of more than $25 million.

And that’s just one event, in one city, once a year. 

Multiple that by thousands, and the evidence is clear – sports tourism is powerful, impactful and here to stay.

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