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USTA Now Offers a Same-Sex Couples Tournament; Will Other Groups?

23 Mar, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Sports Tourism May Be a Driver in Moving Issue Forward

Last year, even before the Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality, a trial balloon floated through one of the more conservative country-club sports in the US: tennis. It was the first same-gender couples doubles tournament, and the United States Tennis Association took a fairly big leap of faith by offering it.

The leap turned out to be a giant step forward, as this year, the March tournament in Palm Springs will now become a USTA National Championship event, and will become an annual part of the USTA’s adult competition tennis calendar moving forward.  St. Louis, Missouri; Kansas City, Missouri; Oak Lawn, Illinois; and West Hollywood, California, will also host local same-gender tennis couples doubles events in 2016.

The tournament was hailed as groundbreaking, opening the door to new play opportunities for same-gender spouses, those in civil unions, domestic partners, and spousal equivalents, making the USTA’s popular adult competition more diverse and inclusive.  It’s all a part of the bigger picture in which sports is moving into acceptance of same-sex couples and unions.

Of course, the ability for same-gender unions to permeate the world of sports and gain acceptance will take an effort akin to turning the proverbial battleship. But ultimately, sports events, and the tourism they bring, are going to be the engines that power 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 overt illustration of that force came last year, 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.

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.)

The hospitality industry has long been a source of support for gay rights; most recently, Starwood Hotels & Resorts sent a letter to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, urging him to reject a bill that would allow discrimination against gay and lesbian people. And in fact, the travel profession began offering designated destination wedding packages for same-sex couples almost immediately upon the high court’s decision. Transgender Vacations, a Miami-based company, has launched to sell travel to transgender people and their friends and families. According to a report in Travel Weekly, the new company has partnered with British travel firm Focus Diva, a division of Focus Travel Group, to offer global services.

But for NGBs themselves, the path to demonstrating acceptance is fraught with risk. USTA has gone to the extent of developing a special mobile app for the LBGT population and announcing 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.

As society becomes more open and accepting, however, sports is showing its diversity. Some sports, such as  polo, bowling, volleyball and more, as well as multi-sport events, have specific organizations and events for gay and lesbian athletes. And as sports commissions and CVBs continue to pursue their business and create a supportive environment, growth will also continue.

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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