Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats: Sports Tourism Looks Ahead | Sports Destination Management

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats: Sports Tourism Looks Ahead


“To be a champion, I think you have to see the big picture. It’s not about winning and losing; it’s about everyday hard work and about thriving on a challenge.”
— Summer Sanders, Olympic medalist in swimming

In an industry of those whose job it is to recruit, host, sanction and orchestrate sports events, that statement rings true on every level. And as we prepare to honor our 2018 Champions of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism, it is appropriate that we examine our industry as a whole: its strengths, the possible threats it faces and the forces that shape it.

The Economy Keeps Growing: This year, the winners of our awards contributed an astounding $773,264,000 to the communities that hosted them. By using more refined market size categories than previous years, we can see better the type of impact they had on those cities. Without a doubt, the sports tourism economy is thriving, and even judging from external indicators — such as the number of events being submitted for publication on the Event News section of Sports Destination Management’s website for 2019 and beyond — that figure is on track to grow for years to come.

But it’s not just SDM’s statistics that point to a sports tourism economy that continues to grow. The 2017 State of the Industry Report compiled by the National Association of Sports Commissions tracked visitor spending at sports events nationwide at $11.40 billion, an increase of nine percent from the $10.47 billion reported in 2016. Since 2013, visitor spending in sports events and tourism has increased by 37 percent, signaling the continued strength of our industry overall.

Not surprisingly, many factors are contributing to this increase, and taken together, they help us chart a course both now and in years to come.

As Americans work longer hours, they are increasingly protective of their spare time and of the need to use it wisely. They also wish to create positive experiences the whole family can enjoy – not just a spectator experience where one group simply looks on from the stands. The “sports-cation” trend we’ve been seeing for years — with families bookending vacations around tournaments — is showing no signs of slowing down. Sports commissions and convention and visitors’ bureaus have robust websites listing a variety of diversions, from museums to mini-golf, from waterparks to outlet shopping, all with the goal of keeping families in town.

At the same time, we’re seeing the rise of independent adult athlete travel spending — which seems to take two distinct forms. Sports tour companies are springing up to arrange travel for individuals who want experiential trips, including marathons that run through vineyards and bicycle tours that take in scenic areas to allow participants to enjoy fall foliage. But also, increasing numbers of competitive older athletes are registering in multi-sport events such as senior and master’s games. (According to the National Senior Games Association, many athletes are women who were denied the ability to compete in sports prior to the advent of Title IX.) The Census Bureau tells us there are 90.7 million Americans who comprise this spending demographic, making it worthy of our attention as an industry.

This year alone, plenty of studies have been released pinpointing trends and changes in sports, travel and the interrelated spending. While many of these trends were tracked by independent surveys, examples from our Champions list are incontrovertible evidence of their presence.

The Great Outdoors: This year, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) State of the Industry Report found enormous growth in the outdoor sports sector. Our Champions list of winners bears that out, with some of the highest-grossing sports events representing events like bass fishing tournaments, marathons and championships in Ultimate and golf.

Bringing an influx of participants into the outdoors is obviously working. There will never be a lack of viewers watching, for example, the outdoor television networks, but there is now evidence that more people are trying such activities for themselves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation found more than 46 million licensed anglers are generating over $48 billion in retail sales with a $115 billion impact on the nation’s economy. Sites like have been used to successfully welcome in new participants and make it easy to find fishing areas, get licenses and identify fish, giving us good reason to expect continued growth.

And the more user-friendly a sport becomes, the more it earns. For example, our Champions that are marathons also offer other events, including 5Ks, kids’ fun runs, relays and other lower-stress options, all with the intention of bringing in not just hardcore athletes, but bucket-listers and those who may be dipping their toe into the waters for the first time.

Something else that may be driving outdoor sports participation is the fact that while many traditional sports, even at the beginner level, incur user fees, a multitude of outdoor pursuits, including road and trail running, bicycling and fishing, often do not. In addition, park facilities for tennis, pickleball, basketball and other sports also often are free (at least when programming is not in effect). And once an individual becomes enamored of a sport, he or she is more likely to move up to the “pay-to-play” levels.

Multi-Purpose Facilities: Throughout the industry, more event directors appear to be seeking out and selecting facilities that are set up to host more than one type of event. This year’s list of winners includes large-scale events in the indoor market, including volleyball and basketball, held in convention centers and multi-use fieldhouses.

SDM is also seeing an increase in news from cities around the country who are breaking ground on new venues designed to host a variety of sports. These include multi-field complexes that could hold anything from soccer to quidditch, and flexible aquatics facilities built to accommodate swimming (with movable bulkheads to bring in both long- and short-course events), diving, and often, water polo and synchronized swimming as well.

Rather than pointing to a problem with purpose-built venues, this trend shows event planners are often seeking out more space because although their events have expanded, they want to keep everything under one roof. In addition to requiring facilities for parking, concessions, meetings, warm-ups, spectator areas, rest rooms and lockers, many events are now adding expos and trade shows that appeal to both spectators and to athletes. These create the potential for more revenue from the event and also boost the area economy by giving local brick-and-mortar sporting goods stores the chance to showcase relevant products to a wider audience than they might typically have. In addition, event owners and rights holders often seek out convention centers because in many cities, these venues are connected by skywalks to hotels and parking garages, providing better ease of access.

Occasionally, trends appear unrelated until we examine them further. For instance, the NASC report reveals a strong presence of community wellness programs (in fact, 42 percent of respondents to its survey noted they were involved with at least one of these programs). Many of the multi-purpose facilities we’ve mentioned host everything from water exercise classes to boot camp fitness programs, something with the potential to feed into registration of public sports events. Importantly, when event owners and rights holders find a facility with strong community buy-in, they often find a ready-made source of volunteers for events, something that can further affect their venue selection.

Demographic-Driven Events: While sports are, and should always be, the common denominator that brings together many different demographics, some of our events this year were those rooted in historic traditions dating back to a time when not all athletes enjoyed the ability to compete on the same playing field. Two honorees this year, large-scale events in football and basketball, are a reminder of the heritage of athletic conferences and associations that were once forced into existence by racial segregation; now, free from that stigma, they celebrate their heritage and enjoy community support that transcends all barriers.

Another demographic of note this year was seen in the presence of two winning events for women. One of these sports is distance running. It may be almost inconceivable to runners today that women were not officially allowed to run the Boson Marathon until 1972 (and women’s marathon as a whole didn’t even make it into the Olympics until 1984). Another women’s event, this one in wrestling, began as a tournament for high school girls and has grown in scope to take in collegiate women’s wrestling as well.

Whether current politics plays a role in the economic strength of these events is unknown. It will be interesting to examine their participation and spending trends in the years ahead.

Threats to the Industry: With all the strengths enjoyed by events and the sports tourism industry, what could affect it negatively? Household income, for one. Going back to the SFIA report, we can see that while sports spending is on the rise, not everyone can afford to enroll their children in events — particularly when it comes to the time and money needed for “travel” teams.

In addition, the SFIA identifies a trend over the last few years to more “casual” sports participation, at the expense of the “core,” or frequent, participants, which have declined on average about two percent since 2012. Long-term, these two trends — how income affects participation, and the decline in core sports participants — bear watching for the sports tourism industry.

Also, municipal budgets have been slashed, meaning the end of many public recreational programs that once provided a competitive outlet for youth athletes, particularly those in low-income areas. A recent National Recreation and Parks Association found that 93 percent of Americans look to local government to increase free or low-cost after-school activities for children. (For that reason, SFIA is championing the Personal Health Investment Today, or PHIT, Act, which if passed, would make activity-related expenses tax-deductible and therefore, more affordable, boosting the industry.)

Another threat to the industry, though perhaps not as a direct menace, is that of tariffs on Chinese-made products. The list of proposed products for tariffs includes many sporting goods across various disciplines. One theory promulgated by the sporting goods industry is that such fees will push the price of equipment out of reach for many parents who are “on the bubble” when it comes to spending, and who may try to influence their children into other activities as a result.

Other threats to event spending are legal, ethics and human rights violations that have appeared in the news, including recruitment issues for colleges, and sex and child abuse scandals that have been reported in a number of high-profile sports, as well as the rising awareness of health issues such as concussion and heatstroke.

So with these threats, what keeps us optimistic about our industry’s future? Setting aside all the positive economic indicators (which are considerable), we look to the national governing bodies and industry councils, many of whom have created new initiatives to bring in beginners. We previously mentioned the fishing industry’s efforts; other high-profile campaigns include USA Triathlon’s #Time ToTri initiative and the golf industry’s #InviteHer campaign, both designed to welcome in new athletes.

We also have plenty of new growth – with more on the horizon – in emerging sports. Lacrosse and cheer (neither of which broke into the National Federation of State High School Association’s top 10 list until just recently) and pickleball (growing exponentially across the U.S.) all feature in our Champions list. Future years may bring flag football, drone racing, eSports or something else entirely as our award winners continue to challenge us to rethink what sports events are and what they can accomplish.

SDM congratulates all the winners of its 2018 awards and thanks them for their contributions to not only our industry, but also to our economy as a whole. SDM

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