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Sports Tourism: The Game-Changer in Acceptance of Same-Sex Marriage

30 Jun, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

A Supreme Court decision is one thing. That decision’s ability to permeate the world of sports and gain acceptance will take an effort akin to turning the proverbial battleship. But ultimately, sports tourism is going to be the engine that powers that turn.

In an article in The Atlantic, entitled, “The Sports World’s Slow Acceptance of Gay Rights,” author Matt Schiavenza recognized that despite “the toxic culture of masculinity” that still permeates many sports, the seismic shift will take place – as it always does – from the ground up.

And those who travel to play in sports events, those who travel to watch them and those who make the decisions on sites will all be the keys to effecting change.

The first illustration of that force came when CVB officials in both Indianapolis and New Orleans objected to their state governors’ attempts to legalize the ability to refuse service to same-sex couples on the basis of religious beliefs. The softening of RFRA in Indiana illustrated the power of the economics of sports tourism after multiple NGBs stated they would not hold events in an intolerant state.

But for NGBs themselves, the path to demonstrating acceptance is fraught with risk. The United States Tennis Association has been loudly self-congratulatory in this respect, having gone to the extent of developing a special mobile app for the LBGT population and trumpeting its participation in pride parades. But not all dues-paying members of USTA are similarly minded, meaning the USTA, as well as other groups that take a progressive stance, will need to be ready to shoulder the backlash from more conservative members, up to and including their resignation.

No matter where an NGB stands on social issues, though, there is no doubting the power of sports tourism. The 2015 Super Bowl in Arizona had an economic impact of almost $720 million. But even on a smaller scale, it isn’t revenue cities want to turn away; a baton-twirling championship coming to Beaumont, Texas, in July is expected to boost the local economy by $816,000.

A recent survey of event planning professionals found that in almost every case, location choices are affected by the views of the prospective host city when it comes to issues like immigration and rights for same-sex couples. Ultimately, cities that want to succeed in the sports tourism game will need to create a welcoming climate, or risk the fallout. (And it's a sure bet that the confluence of social issues and sports tourism -- and their long-range impact on one another -- will become part of the course of studies in sports event management curriculum at the college level and beyond.)

Dave Zirin, who was quoted in the article in The Atlantic, noted that while policy can be changed only at the top, its influencers will continue to be the purchasing public.

“People forget that professional sports are social institutions, and that social institutions change when people organize on a granular, grassroots level within those institutions,” he said.

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