Sport Tourism: The Rules of the Game

Sport Tourism: The Rules of the Game – sport-related leisure travel

Heather J. Gibson

Sport tourism is an area of study that has become increasingly pervasive over the past five years. Before 1998, a literature search using the term sport tourism yielded few citations. This is not to say that articles on the topic did not exist, but the term sport tourism has only recently been widely adopted to describe sport-related leisure travel. Nonetheless, inconsistencies still exist in the usage of the term, from tourism sport (Kurtzman & Zauhar, 1995) to sports tourism (Redmond, 1991). This lack of consistency can be attributed to many causes. Until recently, few scholars adopted an international focus to their work. Some of the first work on sport tourism had a European focus (De Knop, 1987 & 1990; Glyptis, 1991; Redmond, 1991) and was rarely referenced by other sport tourism scholars. Also, an “artificial academic divide” (Gibson, 1998a, p. 46) persists between scholars in such fields as sport management and tourism management. This divide has often meant that scholars who do not read across disciplines have missed work published in journals not in their respective field. As more sophisticated ways of searching for literature emerge, such incognizance will hopefully be avoided in the future.

Another issue that arises from the fields of sport studies and tourism studies is the ongoing debate regarding the definitions of sport and tourism. In the September 1998 issue of Parks & Recreation, I suggested that sport tourism might be defined as “leisure-based travel that takes individuals temporarily outside of their home communities to play, watch physical activities or venerate attractions associated with these activities” (p. 110). As such, sport tourism encompasses three macro behaviors: participating (active sport tourism), watching (event sport tourism), and visiting or venerating famous sports-related attractions (nostalgia sport tourism). This article will review the major works in each of these three areas and suggest some ideas for future research and practical application by recreation practitioners.

Active Sport Tourism

In 1986, at one of the first conferences addressing sport tourism, held at the Wingate Institute in Israel, DeKnop presented one of the most influential works on the active sport tourist (1987), which he later refined in 1990. De Knop identified three types of active sport vacations: the pure sport holiday, where the primary purpose is to take part in sports such as skiing or golf; the vacation, in which sport is not the primary purpose but individuals make use of the sports facilities in their vacation locale; and the private sporting holiday, where people take part in informal “pick-up” games such as beach volleyball.

This research is important because it introduced the idea that not all sport tourists are the same in terms of their commitment to the sport and the type of facilities that they require. The recognition that sport tourists differ in their motivations suggests that motivation theory might help future researchers to gain a better understanding of the constructs underlying the choice of an active sport vacation. Also, for the practitioner, this work identifies three market segments, each of which has different needs including type of facility, challenge (e.g., degree of difficulty of a golf course or ski slope), and pricing structure.

Other influential works on the active sport tourist originated in Europe. Glyptis (1991) and Jackson (Glyptis & Jackson, 1993) wrote of the growing use of sports facilities by tourists, concerning themselves particularly with the lack of coordination between tourist agencies and sports agencies in the provision and policy-making of sport facilities in vacation destinations. This coordination is still an important aspect of meeting the needs of the active sport tourist. Indeed, Weed and Bull (1997), in a more recent review of the policies of local tourism and sport agencies, found that despite Glyptis’ recommendations, there was still a lack of cooperation between these public agencies throughout most of England.

Meanwhile in the United States, as part of their work on tourist role preference, Gibson and Yiannakis (1992, 1994) identified the “sportlover,” or the person we would now recognize as the active sport tourist, as an individual who likes to remain active and engage in his or her favorite sports while on vacation. Gibson and Yiannakis grounded their work in life-span theory and adopted a gender perspective to better understand patterns of preference for sporting vacations among men and women throughout adult life.

First, with a sample of 617 people, 297 of whom labeled themselves sport tourists, they found that while there is a negative relationship between age and choice of active sport tourism for both men and women, a sizable proportion of older adults still engages in active sport tourism while on vacation (Gibson & Yiannakis, 1992). These patterns were further investigated with a sample of 1,277 New Englanders, 621 of whom reported being active sport tourists (Gibson & Yiannakis, 1994; Gibson, Attle & Yiannakis, 1998).

Consistent with the results of other studies, most sport tourists tend to be between the ages of 18 and 44, male, and relatively affluent. Again, as with the first sample (Gibson & Yiannakis, 1992), a notable group of men and women in late adulthood chose to be active sport tourists. This information can be readily demonstrated by the winter-month use of golf courses in the southeastern United States by “snowbirds.” For recreation agencies in these areas, winter-month use by retirees is of prime importance. For leisure education practitioners, such activity patterns not only dispel stereotypes attributed to older adults but also support the idea of teaching sport skills that can be practiced throughout a person’s life.

The majority of active sport tourist research has focused on people who participate in one specific sport. Nogowa, Yamguchi, and Hagi (1996) surveyed participants of a cross-country ski and walking event in Japan. Investigating the motives of these active sport tourists, they found that health and fitness and “love of the sport” were the primary reasons for participation. Nogowa et al. also made a distinction between day-trippers and sport tourists who spent at least one night away from home. The distinction, which is frequently addressed in the tourism field, is particularly pertinent to such issues as economic impact and the provision of facilities such as lodging and food.

Tabata (1992) investigated scuba-diving tourists, making a distinction between different types of divers and demanding that diving outfitters recognize the need to design a diving experience that will fit the needs and skills of the various market segments. Green and Chalip (1998), in a three-year investigation of a women’s flag football tournament in Key West, Fla., found that tournament organizers needed to listen to the experiences of the event participants. One frequent complaint from participants was that the tourney was too structured, which didn’t allow for sufficient time for informal interaction.

Perhaps tournament planners should evaluate their tournaments annually, implementing changes based upon participants’ experiences. For researchers, such studies show that identifying and understanding the active sport tourist is more complicated than it might originally appear. The seminal works investigating the active sport tourist show that these tourists are not homogenous; they differ in skill level, commitment to the sport, motivation, and sociostructural variables such as gender, age, race, and class (Gibson, 1998c).

Event Sport Tourism

While the fundamental work on active sport tourism is mainly European in origin, research on event sport tourism is well-developed in the United States. The scope of event sport tourism is extensive, and includes hallmark events, such as the Olympic Games, to youth baseball and college basketball. When a sporting event attracts out-of-town spectators, we find event sport tourists. The Olympic Games, as befitting their stature in the world sports calendar, have been studied extensively. Recent studies of event sport tourists who have attended the Olympics indicate that nothing beats the experience of “being there” (Delpy, 1997). Indeed, for many event planners, the importance of understanding the motivation of potential spectators cannot be overstated; it will have implications for programmers, marketers, and managers.

Much of the research on event sport tourists has focused on their economic impact upon a host community, although measuring spending patterns is a difficult proposition. Irwin, Wang, and Sutton (1996) found that when tourists were asked to project the amount of money they would spend during their stay, they frequently underestimated their expenditures. Faulkner and Raybould (1995) asked one group of event sport tourists to keep a diary of its expenditures, while others were asked to recall their expenditures following the event. Like Irwin et al., Faulkner and Raybould found that tourists who were asked to recall the amount of money they had spent tended to estimate conservatively. Consequently, while asking people to keep diaries is a more difficult method to implement, it may be the most accurate way of tracing event tourist expenditures in a community.

In addition to the economic impact, event planners should also be aware of other potential effects. Burgan and Mules (1992) suggest that event planners adopt a conservative estimate of the potential profit (economic impact) from the event, as the expense of organizing an event is frequently underestimated. Indeed, a growing body of research indicates that there are both positive and negative impacts on a host community, especially at the national and international levels.

Walo, Bull, and Breen (1996) found that hosting the equivalent of an NCCA-level championship for Lismore, Australia, was a morale booster for the community. Enlisting the help of community residents as volunteers and making use of existing sporting venues helped not only with the costs of hosting such an event, it gave community members a chance to be involved. But when communities are asked to heavily subsidize sports events with public tax dollars, the community might not be so enthusiastic, especially if the sports venues that are built for such events are not open for public use afterwards (Sack & Johnson, 1996; Whitson & Macintosh, 1993).

Moreover, as competition to host sporting events — especially those such as the Olympic Games — intensifies, researchers have turned their attention to the amount of public money spent on the bidding process (Getz, 1998), and the potential abuses involved (Jennings, 1996).

And while only a few recreation professionals will be involved in planning and implementing major sports events, the lesson to be learned for events large and small is that event-based sport tourism has both positive and negative impacts on a community.

Too often the economic impact of an event is overemphasized and cannot be accurately measured, while the potentially negative affect on residents’ quality of life is not even considered. As research shows, community involvement and volunteerism is an important ingredient for the success of any event.

Getz (1998) and Turco (1998) have developed two models that might help event planners conduct a comprehensive study of an event. Getz suggests that researchers and planners should consider both the supply (venue, sponsorship, and tourism services) and demand (athletes, spectators, and media) aspects of an event. By viewing all the event components as interdependent parts, the positive and negative outcomes of the event can be predicted more accurately.

Turco’s model starts with the tourists, both active and event sport, and shows how they are linked to transportation systems, communication (media, sponsorship, and reservation agents), and the sport destination, which encompasses the sport attractions, accommodation, government, and natural resources.

The issue of the impact of sport tourism on natural resources is becoming more pertinent as the popularity of this type of vacation increases. Several studies have documented the adverse environmental effects of golf, particularly in the use of previously undeveloped areas of land, water usage, and chemical leaching from the greens (Stoddart, 1990; Pleumaron, 1992). Ski resorts have been similarly scrutinized for draining too much water from rivers for snowmaking, developing new runs on underdeveloped mountainsides, and overuse of the land by skiers in the winter and hikers and mountain bikers in the summer (Meyer, 1993).

Indeed the environmental lobby in Norway was so influential that it managed to incorporate and enforce environmentally conscious practices for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer (Chernushenko, 1996), proving that a large-scale event can keep a “green profile.”

Nostalgia Sport Tourism

Nostalgia sport tourism is the last of the three major types of sport tourism. Traveling to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., or the new St. Augustine World Golf Village in Florida; making pilgrimages to stadia from previous Olympic Games in Montreal or Barcelona; or visiting other sports-related attractions such as sports-theme restaurants, cruises, and retail stores are all examples of nostalgia sport tourism. Nostalgia sport tourism is the least researched area of the three major types of sport tourism. To some extent this can be attributed to the relatively new development of tourist attractions such as sports-theme cruises.

Lewis and Redmond (1974) and Redmond (1981) studied the growth in sports museums, and Zelkovitz (1996) studied visitors to sports halls of fame and museums. However, as a research area, nostalgia sport tourism is wide-open and provides opportunities for some interesting studies. For example, why do people choose to spend their vacation time viewing the artifacts of past sporting achievements? And why are people increasingly attracted to sports-theme locales? Answers to these questions would greatly help practitioners who manage, or are thinking of developing, such attractions.

In conclusion, the world of sport tourism is growing both in terms of research and as a form of tourism. Traveling to watch or take part in sports events is nothing new. However, the explosive interest in this type of tourism is new, and the opportunities for entrepreneurs, recreation students entering the job market, and researchers are monumental.


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Research Into Action is published monthly by the Society of Park and Recreation Educators, National Recreation and Park Association. As an accompaniment to “Research Update,” its goal is to turn research findings into field action by highlighting management strategies. Founding editors are Dr. Ruth Russell and Dr. Daniel D. McLean, Department of Recreation and Park Administration, Indiana University.

Research Into Action: Getting into the Game


The term sport tourism has only recently been widely adopted to describe sport-related leisure travel. Several constraints that have arisen in sport tourism research are just beginning to be addressed. Much of the research is localized and not focused on an international perspective. Dividing academia and professional practice are continuing concern and ongoing debate over what sport tourism is. The literature suggests that there are three macro behaviors: participating, watching, and visiting.

Impact of this Research

The active sport tourist is involved in one of three types of vacations: the pure sport holiday, sport as a secondary purpose, and informal sports holiday. Each is characterized by type of involvement, level of involvement, skill level, commitment, and investment. The three types of active sport tourists, however, provide important market segment information to organizations that might be targeting particular types of sport tourists. A major concern for sport tourism is the reported lack of coordination between tourism agencies and sports agencies.

Most sport tourists are between the ages of 18 and 44. Seniors, however, are defying the traditional perspective of declining activity, and are continuing to participate in active sport tourism.

Event sport tourism evokes similar — yet different — motivators among participants, many of whom report that such tourism provides the opportunity to be present, and nothing is better than being at the event. Much of the work in event sport tourism is focused not on the tourist but on the economic impact. Understanding and correctly implementing the methodology of economic impact is difficult for many organizations. Those engaging in event sport tourism must realize both the positive and negative impact of such tourism on the local community. Where active community involvement has been encouraged, feedback has been positive; major tax-dollar investment has inspired negative feedback.

Nostalgia sport tourism is the least researched or understood of the three areas. Much work needs to be done here as the number of such facilities and attractions continues to grow.

How to Use this Research

As parks and recreation departments become more involved in sport tourism, they must recognize that:

* Three distinct and separate market segments exist.

* Motivation for participation varies within each market segment, and opportunities to participate, spectate, and engage in nostalgia will attract different individuals for different reasons.

* Age is becoming less important.

* Providers of sports events must listen to participants and spectators as part of an ongoing assessment program.

* The community’s perceived benefits and negative impacts of sports events must be understood and carefully weighed when such events are anticipated or planned.

Heather J. Gibson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of recreation, parks and tourism at the University of Florida.

Research Update is edited by Dr. Irma O’Dell of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and Kim L. Siegenthaler of Appalachian State University.

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