Last Updated on May 1, 2021

What is sports tourism explained and defined

Sports tourism is the act of travelling for the sake of either participating or viewing sports, and the management and marketing of sports to attract tourism for commercial means.

Dr Paul Symonds

Many definitions fail to give consideration to the perspective being looked at in sports tourism. These definitions fail to include, for example, how the term is viewed from the perspective of a destination, a marketing company, an airline and so on.

Sports tourism, in other words, refers not only to the sports tourist, but also the industry that provides and facilitates this form of tourism.

Sports tourism can have an incredibly wide impact on so many stakeholders in sports and in tourism and this is all discussed below, as we analyse what sports tourism is.

Sports Tourism Examples

There are numerous sports tourism examples but let me give you a few:

  • Spectator: Travelling across the USA to attend the Super Bowl
  • Participant: Travelling to take part in the Honolulu Marathon
  • Destination: Creating the infrastructure and marketing yourself as a destination in order to be awarded the Olympic Games.
  • Spectator: Going from the UK to Barcelona to watch an FC Barcelona game at the Nou Camp Stadium.
  • Tourist: Travelling to Japan to see the Baseball Hall of Fame in Tokyo
  • Participant: Going on a cycling holiday in France with friends
  • Organisation: A local tourism board helping to market the Sydney Marathon, in Australia.
  • Services: An airline laying on special extra flights to transport fans to an international football (soccer) game such as for the Champions League Final.

Sports Tourism Ontology

Depending on the perspective you have, sports tourism and its importance can mean different things.

We can use the term ‘Sports tourism ontology’ to express our outlook (viewpoint or perspective) and to define what sports tourism is for different stakeholders.

Sports tourism stakeholders diagram

As you can see in the diagram above and from the sports tourism examples we listed in the bullet list above, sports tourism can be viewed from differing perspectives.

What Different Types of Sports Tourism Tourists are there?

Types of sports tourism diagram

When it comes to defining exactly what a sports tourist (rather than tourism is), there are various definitions that exist and these definitions are often debated by academics.

Some of the main ways of classifying sports tourist though are as follows.

1. Active Sports Tourism

This refers to those who travel and stay away overnight and who participate in sports themselves.

Examples of this are people who travel from:

  • The UK to take part in the New York Marathon
  • Australia to Spain for a golfing holiday
  • China to Spain for a sports fishing holiday

2. Sports Events Tourism

Rather than travelling for actively participating and taking part in sporting activities, sports event tourism refers to when you travel in order to watch a sporting event.

Examples of this include travelling to watch the:

  • Kentucky Derby
  • Ryder Cup
  • World Snooker Championships
  • Brazilian F1 Grand Prix
  • French Open Tennis tournament

3. Nostalgia Sports Tourism

This form of tourism refers to travelling to famous sports-related attractions including Hall of Fames, famous stadia, and sporting museums.

Some great examples include the:

Case Study: Barcelona 1992 Olympics and Sports Tourism

Let’s take the example of the city of Barcelona in Spain.

Barcelona held the 1992 Summer Olympics but to do this, the city of Barcelona spent a reported USD$7 billion in order to win the right to stage the games (Time Magazine, 2016).

The city invested massive amounts of money to completely regenerate two miles of industrial area that is now the beach area and the city used sports tourism as the vehicle to completely market, rebrand and reposition Barcelona.

The 6-year renovation project started in 1986 and needed to be finished (and it was) ready for the 1992 Olympics.

The Olympics, as one of the world’s most important sporting events, was used by the city of Barcelona as a springboard to attract investment, attract tourists, to brand the city, and to make the city well-known worldwide.

So, from the perspective of the decision-makers of the city of Barcelona in the 1980s, sports tourism can be defined as a vehicle for urban regeneration and destination marketing combined.

Sports tourism in another sense, in respect of the Barcelona 1992 Olympics, is represented by all of the tourists who visited the city during the Olympics to see the events and to be in the city to absorb the atmosphere.

Likewise, those who have since visited Barcelona and gone on the Olympics Stadium Tour, for example, can be classified as sports tourists.

It is worth also considering the massive entourage of TV crews and other media outlets who attend an event such as the 1992 Olympics.

Whilst these media personnel are there for the sake of work, outside of work hours these staff, in essence, often become sporting tourists as they go sightseeing in the city and use the restaurants, visit the museums and so on.

By default, these people who are in the city to temporarily work, become a part of the sports tourism phenomena in the city during the event.

For the airlines, such events mean an opportunity to increase the number of flights to and from Barcelona, whilst often being able to raise prices and profit from sports tourism in a commercial sense.

For local transport providers such as taxi drivers, airport limousine service providers and local tourist guides, the Olympics also provided a benefit.

As you can see from this example of the Barcelona Olympics, sports tourism has a broad reach and can benefit a significant number of stakeholders.

How Sports Tourism Contributes to Economic Growth and Statistics

As we have seen from the Barcelona Olympics example above, sports tourism can have a dramatic impact economically on a city, region, country or at a venue level.

Research suggests that worldwide, by 2027, global income as a result of sports tourism will be USD$14.4 trillion dollars (so about GBP£10 trillion pounds).

This form of tourism is continually growing and being seen by stakeholders at all levels (events organisers, venue owners, local councils and governments, etc.) as being a potential opportunity to develop infrastructure and income.

The economic impact of sports travel and tourists

The reality is that measuring the economic impact and benefits of sports tourism is extremely hard, given that there are what are known as soft and hard benefits.

The expression ‘soft benefits’ refers to indirect benefits.

An example of this can be the Cricket World Cup being held in Auckland, New Zealand, and, as a result, local food vendors such as hot dog sellers benefit.

Another way of viewing soft benefits in relation to sports tourism that is also often used is to group non-major events under the umbrella of soft events.

So, travelling to Spain to play golf, go road cycling in the Alps, or going on a hiking holiday would be seen as soft events.

Events such as a formula grand prix, a major league baseball game, the Olympics (i.e. major events) would be considered ‘hard events’.

‘Hard benefits’ refer to the direct benefits.

An example of a hard benefit can be the income generated from flights laid on specifically for transporting sports fans to a specific event such as the Olympics or for a major football (soccer) tournament.

How Far Do You Have to Travel for It to Be Sports Tourism

A question that is often asked by students of sports tourism, is what constitutes tourism.

In other words, how far do you have to travel for something to be considered tourism?

If you travel to the next city to where you live for the sake of sports, are you a sports tourist?

The best way to understand whether or not a journey should be classified as for tourism is to ask whether or not the trip meets two requirements:

  • Was the trip taken outside of your local area
  • Did the trip require an overnight stay?

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNTWO) provide a definition here of tourism as:

tourist (or overnight visitor) if his/her trip includes an overnight stay, or as a same-day visitor (or excursionist) otherwise.

UNWTO (2008)

For sports tourism, thus we are looking at a trip to another place that includes an overnight stay and that is for the sake of some purpose related to or includes some relation to sports.

What Is a Sport Tourist

So a sports tourist could, for example, be someone:

  • travelling abroad to go on a walking holiday in Italy
  • heading to the ski slopes for a week of skiing in Utah
  • taking a trip for a few days to do the Wembley Stadium tour and to watch a live Premiership match

What Are the Benefits and the Importance of Sports Tourism

The value of sports tourism lies in the ability to:

  • generate significant levels of income
  • create jobs and employment locally
  • use the opportunity for destination marketing
  • use the generated income for the regeneration of an area and to improve the local infrastructure

What Are the Issues and Disadvantages?

There can also be issues that arise from sports tourism, much in the same way that other forms of tourism also can cause issues and conflicts.

As you can imagine, large numbers of people arriving in a destination for a major sports event can cause conflicts for the locals. The following can be a result of both tourism and sports tourism:

  • Overburden over the local resources including transport and resources such as water
  • Overcrowding, safety and security issues
  • Noise pollution
  • Increase in waste and litter

Unlike general tourism, in the case of sports event tourism, it can mean a significant rise in visitor numbers but for a short specific period of time.

This might, for example, be for a one-off major event such as the Super Bowl (American Football), FA Cup Final (English football), or Kentucky Derby (Horse racing).

Alternatively, the event might be for a few days, weeks or a month, such as for the Summer Olympics, Football World Cup, or the Winter Olympics.

For the one-day events, solutions can include:

  • extra policing
  • extra rubbish (garbage) collection provision,
  • provision of human helpers (for providing directions and guidance)
  • extra transportation for the event

For longer sporting events solutions can additionally include:

  • infrastructure improvements or moderations
  • strategic plan to work and coordinate planning with the locals

What Sports Tourism Tour Operators Are There?

We have written a separate post on the best sports tourism tour operators from around the world to visit major events worldwide.