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What is sports tourism and why it is so big?

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Sports tourism is BIG business. We all know that sport tourism involves sporting activity, that much is pretty obvious, but there is much more than a game of sport involved in the multi million Dollar global industry. In this article I will explain what sports tourism is, I will tell you about the different types of sports tourism and I will discuss the benefits of sports tourism.

What is sports tourism?

Sports tourism is the act of travelling from one locality to another, with the intention of being in some way involved with a sporting activity or event.

Many people believe that sports tourism relates only to watching a sporting event. However, this is not correct. The sports industry is much more than this.

Sports tourism encompasses travelling for your own sporting purposes, such as a yoga teacher training course, a badminton competition or to learn to surf. Sports tourism includes attending sporting events such as a Formula One race or a Premiership football match. Sports tourism includes nostalgic visits to places of historical importance, such as the Olympic stadium in Barcelona or to see memorabilia related to your favourite sporting hero, such as the museum at the Maracana football stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

There are, in fact, four main types of sport tourism. These types are known as:

  • Sport Event Tourism
  • Active Sport Tourism
  • Nostalgia Sport Tourism
  • Passive sports tourism

While sports tourism has not always been extremely popular, during the recent decade the amount of people attending out of area sporting events has drastically increased. People are now traveling far and wide just to attend their favorite events, and it is no wonder as to what has encouraged the sudden spike in popularity.

Types of Water Transport

Sports tourism definitions

Sport tourism is a relatively new concept, although it has been around for a long time.

There are many academic studies which delve into the concept of sports tourism, particularly sports tourism that involves large sporting events, such as the football World Cup or the Olympic Games. Some scholars and sports tourism stakeholders have attempted to define the term sports tourism.

According to Neirotti (2003), sports tourism can be broadly described as;

‘Including travel away from one’s primary residence to participate in sports activity, for recreation or competition purposes, travel to observe sport at grassroots or elite level, and travel to visit a sports attraction such as a sports museum, for instance’.

Weed and Bull (2004), provide a conceptualisation of the sports tourism phenomenon as;

‘A social, economic and cultural phenomenon arising from the unique interaction of activity, people and place’’.

Gammon and Robinson (2003) state that sports and tourism is;

‘Not just about the management and operation of mega events; it also concerns offering consumer-specific sports and tourism-related services and experiences to the sports tourist.’

What is sports tourism?
This infographic was created by one of my travel and tourism work experience students.

Gammon and Robinson (2003) further argue that the sports tourism industry cannot be defined easily and that there should be different definitions according to the type of sports tourism that is being discussed. They visualise this in the model below.

Gammon and Robinson’s (2003) consumer classification of sport and tourism

Sports tourism statistics

Today, sport is regarded as the world’s largest social phenomenon. And, tourism is predicted to become the world’s biggest industry early in the next century. So it doesn’t take a genius to work out that sports tourism is pretty big business!

The sports tourism industry has grown considerably in recent years. In 2016 the sports tourism industry was worth $1.41 trillion and this figure is expected to increase to approximately $5.72 trillion by 2021. This is a whopping 41% growth in only four years!

**Studying sports tourism? I recommend- Sports Tourism: Participants, Policy and Providers**

The sports tourism industry makes up a significant part off the overall tourism industry. Some people claim that this figure is as high as 25%, meaning that a quarter of all tourism in the world is sports related!

The importance of sports tourism is further emphasised by the media statements from the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which in 2004, announced their commitment to reinforce their partnerships on collaboration in the sports and tourism domain. They stated that; 

‘Tourism and sport are interrelated and complementary… both are powerful forces for development, stimulating investment in infrastructure projects such as airports, roads, stadiums, sporting complexes and restaurant-projects that can be enjoyed by the local population as well as tourists who come to use them.

This demonstrates that sports tourism has a wider economic and social impact than simply the sporting occasion itself. It provides social and economic opportunities for the local population, as well as visitors to the area.

The different types of sport tourism

Sport tourism can be segregated into four main types: sport event tourism, nostalgia sports tourism, active sports tourism and passive sports tourism. Below I have provided a short explanation of what each type of tourism is, along with some examples.

Sport event tourism

Sports event tourism is tourism which centres around a sporting event. Sporting events can be of any size and importance, however it tends to be the major sporting events which gain the most gravitas.

Hallmark events, such as the Olympics or football World Cup, are important centres for sport event tourism, bringing millions of tourists to the host destination.

Smaller events, such as the Henley Regatta in the United Kingdom or a national tennis competition also clarify as sport event tourism.

An often overlooked example of sport event tourism are amateur sporting events. Events such as regional school competitions, youth sporting leagues and non-profit community based sport events are just a few examples.


Wimbledon, also known as ‘The Championships’ is the oldest tennis tournament in the world. A prestigious sporting event, Wimbledon is often associated with the upper class, where spectators sip sparkling wine and Pimms whilst dressed in their best frocks.

Knowing very little about tennis, I attending Wimbledon a couple of years ago just to experience this famous event, which is an integral part off British heritage!

Dating back to 1877, Wimbledon has been held at the All England Club in Wimbledon, on the outskirts of London, each year. The tennis is played on outdoor grass courts, which is unlike tennis matches played in many other parts of the world.

Wimbledon is one of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments, the others being the Australian Open, the French Open and the US Open.

The tournament takes place in late June/early July each year.

silhouette of man playing golf during sunset

Football World Cup

The football World Cup, known officially as the FIFA World Cup, is an international football tournament held every four years.

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is the sport’s global governing body. The football consists of mens only teams and boats the most skilled footballers in the world.

Teams must first pass the qualification phase, which takes place over the preceding three years. After this, 32 teams, including the automatically qualifying host nation, compete in the tournament. The World Cup tournament generally lasts about one month.

Six nations Rugby Championship

The Six Nations Championship is an annual international rugby union competition that takes place. It involves what are considered to be the six best nations in terms of rugby in Europe The six nations are:

The Six Nations tournament begins on the first weekend in February each year and finishes with ‘Super Saturday’ on the second or third Saturday in March.

Each team is required to play every other team once (making a total of 15 matches). Each team will play one match at home and one match away from home.

I attended a six nations match once and whilst I’m really not into rugby (surprise!), I really enjoyed the sophisticated and supportive atmosphere at the venue.

The Olympics

Inspired by the ancient Greeks, the modern Olympic Games have been running since 1896. But, in fact, the games have been played in some form or another since long before this date.

The Olympics is perhaps the most famous and the most popular international sporting event. It features both summer and winter sports competitions which take place every four years. Like many other major sporting events, the Olympics are held in a different location each time.

The Olympics involves thousands of athletes from around the world who compete in a range of different sports, from trampolining to running. Over 200 nations participate in the event.

The Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is the annual championship of the National Football League (NFL). Based in the Unites States of America, this is the most popular sport tourism event of the year.

Some interesting facts include The Super Bowl being the second-largest day for food consumption in the USA (after Thanksgiving) and the Super Bowl being the most-watched American television broadcast of the year.

Nostalgia sports tourism

Nostalgia sport tourism involves travelling to famous sport-related tourist attractions.

Nostalgia sports tourism may celebrate sports of the past or the present. It may include visiting museums or exhibitions, visiting sporting hall of fames or visiting sporting venues.

The nostalgia sports tourist does not need to be actively participating in sport or to be spectating. They may simply want to learn more or to reminisce.

Here are some examples of popular nostalgia sport tourism attractions.

Calgary Olympic Park

We visited Calgary Olympic Park on travels through Canada with a baby and loved it!

WinSport’s Canada Olympic Park (COP), (formerly known as Paskapoo Ski Hill) was one of the venues used in the 1988 Winter Olympics. Nowadays, it is open to the general public and iw well known for its ski jumping, bobsleigh and luge.

Whilst we did learn a little bit about the Olympics on our visit here, we actually sent more time on the luge ride than anything else because it was so much fun!

Sports tourism

Maracana Football Stadium, Rio de Janiero

The Maracana is a famous football stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The stadium is rich in history and was once the largest stadium in the world.

The stadium was opened in 1950 to host the FIFA World Cup. The venue has seen attendances of 150,000 or more at 26 occasions. Over time terraces were replaced with seating, and after the renovation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the Maracana’s original capacity was reduced to 78,838.

Nowadays, it is popular to take a tour to visit the Maracana stadium, like I did when I travelled to Buenos Aires with my friend who is football mad!

Barcelona Olympic Park

The Olympic Village, known in Spanish as La Vila Olímpica del Poblenou is an area in the Sant Martí district of Barcelona, Spain.

The Barcelona Olympic Village was built in the late 1980s and early 1990s in preparation for the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, which were held in Barcelona.

Nowadays, visiting the Barcelona Olympic Village is a popular sports tourism activity undertaken by many tourists visiting Barcelona.

Active sports tourism

Active sports tourism is when a person travels to actively participate in their chosen sport, or when they travel for other reasons, but taking part in sport is an important part of their tourism experience.

Active sports tourists can be segregated into three classifications: The amateur sports tourist; the hobbyist sports tourist and the professional sports tourist.

I would say that I would generally come under the first category. I am an amateur (at best!) at every sport I try my hand at. But, I still like to give it a go! I’ve attempted skiing in Argentina, kayaking in Vietnam and surfing in Costa Rica, to name but a few.

My husband, on the other hand, is usually either a hobbyist sports tourist or a professional sports tourist. He plays for badminton and football teams and loves playing a large number of sports in his free time. He is also a former athlete, having competed for Britain as a trampoline gymnast. As part of this role he travelled around the workload for professional sporting competitions. This qualified him as a professional sports tourist.

There are a large number of active sports that a tourist may choose to get involved with around the world. Here are a few that I have experienced on my travels. But there are sooo many other sports that you can get involved in as a sports tourist!

  • Diving in the Galapagos
  • Swimming at the Great Barrier Reef
  • Playing tennis in Morocco
  • Learning archery in Spain
  • Going running in France
  • Cycling in Amsterdam
  • Taking yoga classes in Bali
  • Learning tai chi in China
  • Kayaking in Vietnam
  • Sailing in Australia
  • Skiing in Argentina
  • Surfing in Costa Rica
  • Playing baseball in Boston
  • Hand gliding in Rio de Janeiro
  • Fishing in The Gambia
  • Climbing in Thailand
  • Horse riding in Equador
  • Walking in Jeju

Here are a few active sports tourism examples:

Tough Mudder race, London

Did I ever tell you that I completed a Tough Mudder Race? This was a BIG achievement!

Tough Mudder is an endurance event. It is a an obstacle course, originally designed for army training. It is a test of the mind and body.

The race is usually between 10-12 miles in length. It includes a number of obstacles, many of which involve mud! The obstacles often play on common human fears, such as fire, water, electricity and heights.

**Buy now: Sport and Tourism – a recommended textbook for sports studies students!**

Common obstacles include:

  • Arctic Enema – Participants plunge into a tank filled with ice water, where they must swim under the water and past an obstacle to the other side.
  • Electroshock Therapy – This is where participants will run through a pit of mud where electric wires sway in the air. Participants will often get small electric shocks.
  • Funky Monkey – Monkey bars over a pit of cold water. The bars are covered with a mixture of butter and mud.
  • The birthing canal- A small, confined space that the participant must crawl through. The upper layer is filled with water so it feels like you are being compressed as you crawl through the tunnel.

Of course, you will need to travel to a Tough Mudder venue to be classified a sports tourism, but many people do!

Martial arts holidays, South Korea

Many people choose to travel to South Korea for martial arts holidays and Taekwondo-themed events. These might be amateur sports tourists, hobbyist sports tourists or professional sports tourists, depending on the level of involvement and activity type.

Surfing holidays, Portugal

Portugal is a popular destination for surf holidays. You can go it alone, if you have the skills and ‘know-how’, or you can book a tour. There are a number of tour operator who offer specialised surfing holidays for all levels of sports tourists, ranging from beginner to advanced.

Golf tours, Florida

There are several golfing hotspots around the world. One of the most popular places to travel to for a golfing holiday is Florida. With its year-round pleasant weather and large open spaces, Florida welcomes golf tourists from all over the world to play on their first-class golf courses.

Yoga retreats, Bali

There are many parts of Asia that are known for the popularity of yoga. However, done attracts so many tourists as Bali. Bali is famous the world over for offering top quality yoga retreats and yoga teacher training courses.

Passive sports tourism

Lastly, it is important to recognise that whilst sport is inherently active, not all those who participate or who are involved with the sport are themselves active. In fact, passive tourists can actually contribute more to the sport than those who are active!

A passive sports tourist is a person who is not actively participating in the sport. They are spectators or fans. Passive sports tourism involves tourists watching sport being played. This could take place at a major sporting event (qualifying this also as sports event tourism), or they could simply be supporting a family member of friend. Most passive sports tourists are fans.

Football fans- Manchester United spectators

Football, or soccer, is arguably the most well-known and popular sports in the world.

Manchester United is a particularly famous football club. It is estimated by the BBC that Manchester United has a whopping 659million football fans!

I always find is fascinating when I travel to a country that is so different and so far removed from my own, yet the locals are also quick to ask me about Manchester United!

Many sports tourists will follow Manchester United, or which ever football team is their favourite, around the world to watch their games.

Boxing fans- Anthony Joshua followers

Anthony Joshua is a British professional boxer. He has many millions of followers, both from the UK and abroad.

Anthony is a two-time unified heavyweight champion, having held the WBA (Super), IBF, WBO, and IBO titles since December 2019, and previously between 2016 and June 2019. At regional level, he held the British and Commonwealth heavyweight titles from 2014 to 2016.

Anthony Joshua participates in fights around the world and is often accompanies by his passive sports tourism supporters.

British & Irish Lions Rugby Spectators

The British & Irish Lions is a rugby union team selected from players eligible for any of the Home Nations – the national teams of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. 

If rugby is your thing and your from Britain or Ireland, then this is a pretty big deal.

The Lions have many thousands of passive sports tourism supporters who cheat them on each match.

Australian Cricket Fans

Cricket is pretty big in Australia. So big, in fact, that the Australian cricket team has an estimated 24million supporters! Many of these supporters travel with the team around the world as passive sports tourists.

Benefits of sport tourism

As with any type of tourism, there are a range of benefits and advantages of sports tourism. Whilst the most obvious is perhaps the economic advantage of tourism, there are also positive social impacts as well as environmental impacts. Below I provide some examples:

  • Sports encourages tourists to visit the area
  • Sports tourism creates economic growth through tourists booking hotel rooms, eating in restaurants and opening money in local shops
  • Sports tourism helps to create exposure and enhances a positive image for the local community
  • Many sports tourism infrastructures and facilities can also be used by members of the host community
  • The development of sports tourism helps to build a sense of community
  • Sports tourism has the potential to attract high-yield visitors and repeat visitors
  • It can provide opportunity to develop new infrastructure in the area
  • The media can help to promote the destination
  • Sports tourism can improve overall tourist numbers
  • Money made from sports tourism can be reinvested into the local economy
  • Sports tourism creates jobs for local people
  • Sports tourism which relies on the natural environment may result in better environmental management and preservation

Whilst there are many positive impacts of sports tourism, however, it is also important that there are a number of negative impacts too. Aspects such as environmental degradation when gold courses, employing foreign rather than local people for major sporting events and locals who feel that their cultural norms are being overlooked (such as not covering your shoulders in the Middle East, for example), are just a few example of negative impacts of sports tourism.

Sports tourism: Conclusion

It is clear that sports tourism is big business. Whether its events sports tourism, active sports tourism, nostalgic sports tourism or passive sports tourism, there is a huge market for tourists worldwide. However, as with any type of tourism, sports tourism must be carefully managed to ensure that it is sustainable.

Further reading on sports tourism

For more information on sports tourism, I recommend the texts below;

  • Sports Tourism: Participants, Policy and Providers– explains sports tourism as a social, economic and cultural phenomenon that stems from the unique interaction of activity, people and place.
  • Sport Tourism Development– a text book covering the growth and development of sport tourism.
  • Sport Tourism Destinations: Issues and Analysis– with contributions from international experts, this book looks at the dramatic effects sports tourism has on the economy and future of tourism destinations. 
  • Sport and Tourism– This book proposes a groundbreaking theoretical model which explores globalization, mobility and authenticity providing insight into the unique interrelationship that exists in a sport tourism context between activity, people and place.

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