From high school football tournaments to the World Cup, sports travel is a major driver of local and national economies in the United States and around the world. Passionate sports fans who love to travel after staying close to home during COVID-19 are investing big bucks to be part of the action.
An industry report released in May by the Sports Event & Tourism Association (Sports ETA) found that sports-related travel for amateur and collegiate athletes has recovered from pandemic lows faster than leisure travel as consumers return to booking travel. The data shows that in 2021 this sector saw huge gains of $39.7 billion in direct economic impact. The survey, conducted by Tourism Economics and sponsored by Northstar Meetings Group, found that more than 175 million people traveled for amateur or college sports in 2021, up 82 percent from the 96 million in 2020.
“In the United States, we’ve seen incredible growth, particularly in youth and amateur sports, which for years has been described as almost recession-proof – even during the worst of the economic downturn,” said Jason Gewirtz, editor and publisher of Sports travel magazine.
“And there’s a built-in fandom with the fans of a college team, especially when you went to college. Most people are willing to travel or return to campus for a game.”
Gewirtz notes that when people started thinking about gatherings again, some of the first things to come back were outdoor youth sports tournaments. “Parents have been more than happy to spend money to follow their kids to championship games,” he adds.
“We’ve seen convention centers in big cities across the country, whose first events back then weren’t conventions or meetings, but volleyball tournaments. Indoor sports tournaments sometimes attracted tens of thousands of people. We heard reports from cities whose entire hotel inventory was only filled with youth sports,” says Gewirtz.
“It has given the sports tourism industry a lot of confidence and I think many destinations have recognized the importance of sport as a driver of travel in terms of filling hotel rooms and boosting the local economy.”
Alan Kidd, President and CEO of Sports ETA, adds that thanks to some of the CARES funds that communities have received, the development and construction of youth sports facilities across America has accelerated over the past year.
“An enormous amount of inventory has been put online, which has created jobs and opportunities. Then, as states started to open up and 2021 rolled through, we saw a real rebound in the second half of the year,” says Kidd.
“The expansion of travel teams for youth tournaments in every single sport has exceeded all forecasts and we now predict that 2022 will exceed our 2019 benchmark numbers, signifying an extremely rapid reallocation of capital back into the sport. And with the expansion of some television rights to amateurs, colleges and professionals, you’ll have more and more sporting visibility across the country.”
Travel consultants say the sports tourism market is booming
Avid football, F1, golf and basketball fans flock to destinations far and wide to immerse themselves in sporting events, says Anbritt Stengele, founder and president of Chicago-based Sports Traveler, which specializes in event tickets, hotel rooms and VIP Travel Packages specializes in sold out sporting events worldwide.
“Sports travelers are the most passionate of all travellers. It doesn’t matter where the event is held or how much the event costs; They want to see their team play and that shows in the recovery we’re seeing,” says Stengele.
“Since the stadiums opened, we have seen an enormous increase in the number of people who want to experience sport live. The pandemic has reminded everyone that we are not here forever and you want to see it all while you can.”
More and more customers are investing in bucket-list trips like the Kentucky Derby, Indy 500 and the Masters, adds Duane Penner, vice president of sales for Roadtrips, which focuses on booking luxury sports travel to major international events.
“Our love of travel and passion for sports are a pretty good combination when it comes to creating memories. Being able to go to Augusta National is on every golf lover’s bucket list,” he says.
Changing patterns and trends reflected in sports-related bookings
In terms of length of stay, additional activities before and after the event, and total spend, Stengele’s team sees more customers eager to enjoy experiences beyond the game or race itself.
“People want to be immersed in everything that happens on game weekend. For example, we’ve added a Packer Heritage Tour to our Green Bay Packers packages to see where the original Packers used to play, go behind the scenes at the stadium, into the Hall of Fame and on the field at Lambeau Field.” She says.
“Fifteen years ago we hosted a tailgate party and now we have a tour guide with a cheesehead who takes a tour of Green Bay after the event to see everything the city has to offer.”
Travelers arrive early to take part in a Friday night dinner, spend Saturday with other fans and enjoy the game day celebrations on Sunday. Multi-day trips are also now more common with the Kentucky Derby.
“We do tours of horse farms to see the horse industry and we do a bourbon tasting,” says Stengele.
While attending a prestigious international sporting event, travelers often extend their trip to explore that part of the world afterwards, Penner notes.
“Almost everyone adds. People who went to the Olympics or World Cup in an exotic location like Rio can then head to Corcovado and on the way back to the Amazon. The sporting event is really the impetus to experience a new destination,” says Penner.
“Monaco – a great destination any time of year – is off the charts during the Grand Prix with the glamour, thrills and excitement. And once in the south of France many of our clients will add a river cruise or spend a week in Provence or the Cinque Terre in Italy. It’s a product that more travel agents should have as it’s a new, incremental business and it often adds other nearby events or travel experiences.”
The popularity of luxury sports tourism is also illustrated by NBA Experiences’ latest promotion: tailor-made packages for the league’s first games in the United Arab Emirates, taking place in early October. Fans worldwide can book tailored experiences including behind-the-scenes tours, meals with legendary athletes, on-pitch photos and desert safari tours.
Consultants are seeing an increasing number of clients requesting travel insurance for sports-related trips
“I’ve been doing this for 22 years and can’t remember having as many conversations about travel insurance as in the last two; people are buying it more than ever,” notes Stengele.
While travel insurance was once considered an afterthought; now it’s becoming essential for people, she adds.
“Customers are constantly asking for it at the point of sale and adding it to their booking. These are huge investment trips. When people have their money saved to go to the Masters or the Derby, they want to make sure it’s covered if something happens and they can’t make it.”
There is no doubt that having insurance cover for unexpected events brings peace of mind and a degree of security to the travel experience.
Penner adds that luxury sports travel clientele tend to be older and more affluent, with many buying packages to major events two or three years in advance to secure their spot.
“More and more people are asking about travel insurance. You don’t want to have to use it all the time, but it sure is important when you need it,” he says.