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Pack your jerseys. The era of ‘sports tourism’ is here

Pack your jerseys. The era of ‘sports tourism’ is here


Start your engines. From Formula One races to the Summer Olympic Games, traveling to attend major sporting events is on the rise.

Sports tourism, as it’s called, is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the travel industry, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.  

The market is massive, and only stands to grow, said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, professor and director at George Washington University’s Sport Management Program.

“The sport tourism market will continue as long as new opportunities to play and compete exist,” she said. “The numbers are all over the place, so it is hard to get a good figure. The biggest takeaway is that it is huge and growing.”

Sport tourists spend money “by staying in hotel rooms, eating at restaurants, filling up gas tanks, shopping in local stores and visiting other tourism attractions,” noted Delpy Neirotti.

More professional teams are playing in international locations, and their fans are following them, said Delpy Neirotti. This can bring attention to destinations through social media and word of mouth, she said.

“The Padres played in Mexico City and had a huge fan base there — same for NFL in Germany or MLB in London,” she said. “It gives people or fans the reason to plan a trip and travel.”

England fans celebrate in Brisbane, Australia at the FIFA Women’s World Cup on Aug. 07, 2023.

Justin Setterfield | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

For some countries, these events are an opportunity to raise their international standing.

“Saudi Arabia — like China, Qatar and many others — are using sport to introduce their country — to not only attendees but all those watching the broadcast or stream,” she told CNBC Travel.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, is investing heavily in sports, most notably in soccer and golf, recruiting high-profile athletes like Cristiano Ronaldo and Dustin Johnson to the kingdom. 

Critics argue that Saudi Arabia is doubling down on sports to curry global favor and rehabilitate its global image — a practice dubbed “sportswashing” which Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman embraced during an interview with Fox News in September.  

A play for low season

A major goal of sports tourism is to increase travel, especially in slow or shoulder periods, said Delpy Neirotti.

Lewis Hamilton interacts with fans outside the paddock during Singapore’s F1 Grand Prix on Sept. 17, 2023.

Kym Illman | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

Marking the end of summer travel, September is a classic “shoulder season” month. Yet Singapore saw hotel prices climb to $590 Singapore dollars ($440) during its annual Formula One race weekend, with most hotels exceeding 90% occupancy rates, according to hospitality and travel software company Adara – A Rate Gain Company. 

“It’s noteworthy that some hotels are able to command even higher rates, reaching as high as SG$800,” said Jay Wardle, president of Adara.

Most popular events of 2023

This year, several countries hosted large-scale sporting competitions that attracted tourists from various corners of the globe, boosting the hosts’ economies.

The ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup, held from Oct. 5 to Nov. 19, was expected to add between 180 to 220 billion Indian rupees (around $2.1 to $2.6 billion) to India’s economy, according to an analysis by The Bank of Baroda Economics Research department.

Fans of India at the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023 at Narendra Modi Stadium on Nov. 19, 2023.

Robert Cianflone | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

The 19th Asian Games held in China from Sept. 23 to Oct. 8 sold more than 3 million tickets, which generated more than 610 million yuan ($85 million) in revenue, according to Chinese media. Sales revenue of licensed merchandise brought in another $107 million, and sponsorship income from 176 companies yielded an additional $623 million, it said.

Meanwhile, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said in August that this year’s Women’s World Cup, co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, brought in more than $570 million in revenue.

Indonesia hosted a leg of this year’s MotoGP in October, while France organized the Rugby World Cup from August to September. Tennis’ Grand Slam tournaments attracted worldwide attention, as did the global Formula One races — including the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, which concluded on Nov. 18.

Companies catering to sports fans

Booking.com is joining ranks with Major League Baseball to make it easier for traveling fans to find hotels near ballparks in the United States.

Patrick Smith | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

Travel + Leisure Co. and Sports Illustrated Resorts announced plans to open a network of sports-themed resorts in American college towns. The first one is scheduled to open in Tuscaloosa, Alabama — home to the University of Alabama — in late 2025.

The travel experience booking website GetYourGuide said sports-themed bookings have increased 130% since 2019, with most booking coming from travelers in the U.K. (37%), the U.S. (20%), Germany (17%) and France (15%).

The most popular sports-related experiences this year include tours of the U.K.’s McLaren Technology Centre, Boston’s Fenway Park and New York City’s Madison Square Garden, according to the company.

Getting VIP treatment

But some sports tourists want even more.

Luxury travel company AMPM charges yearly fees of $8,000 for a “standard membership” and $30,000 for a service-intensive “elite membership.”

For the price, the company can secure members access to marquee events like New York’s Fashion Week and the U.S. Open, a company representative told CNBC Travel.  

No longer content with attending the Olympic Games, some fans want access to the Olympic Village and meet-and-greet sessions with participants.

Ryan Pierse | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

“Other sports experiences we have arranged for our members include F1 track experiences — including exclusive members-only paddocks access — NBA court-side tickets, locker room access,” said company co-founder Laurent Baud.

The company can also arrange helicopter rides and post-game field access to major sports events, she said.

Another company, GR8, also organizes once-in-a-lifetime luxury experiences for travelers. It’s already fielding requests for the 2024 Summer Olympics in France, including seats for the opening ceremony, access to the Olympic Village and meet-and-greet sessions with athletes and coaches, a company representative told CNBC Travel.

The company organizes special access to the Kentucky Derby, Grand Slam tennis tournaments and the Super Bowl, according to its website.

But it recently set its sights on another market.

“GR8 has been receiving many requests to bring sporting events to Asia with some of the most important institutions and companies over there,” said Barnabas Carrega, GR8’s CEO and co-founder, adding that those include inquiries to hold NBA All-Star games in the continent.



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