How Destinations are Harnessing the Power of Sport

30th November 2019

I was part of a panel at World Travel Market a couple of weeks back, on the subject of  Powering Peoples Passions. How Destinations are Harnessing the Power of Sport.

On the panel were Chris Meyer (Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority) and Akito Tadokoro (Tokyo CVB). The session was presented by Discovery Channel and moderated by Mike Rich, their Head of Sports Marketing Solutions.


We were asked to ponder 4 questions (please see below) and I’d like to share outputs from the panel, alongside insights from research done in preparation. This research refers primarily to MDSG partners in the US, including Travel Texas and cities in the state – AustinDallasFort WorthHoustonSan Antonio and Arlington.

I thought it interesting to open the discussion with a quote from Nelson Mandela:

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire… Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

Although the challenges Mandela faced were considerable, he understood the power of sport to connect people. Destinations can use the strength of this connection to attract people and engage with them when they visit.

I also discussed some bespoke research we produced with Channel 4, that assessed the impact of US culture on visitation. We found that an interest in US sports was a major driver for travel, and with this knowledge we launched our Americanophile strategy – with creatives targeted around NFL games on UK TV – Take A Time Out in Texas. An example here, in the Super Bowl.

Here are the 4 questions we discussed –

1)     What value does sport bring to a destination?

For Austin, Texas, the addition of motorsports and especially F1, hosted at Circuit of The Americas, attracts a new demographic –  luxury, higher-end, International and with more opportunity for corporate incentives.

A perspective from Fort Worth is that sports, specifically collegiate, youth and amateur sports, represent an important opportunity for economic development. The city is home to professional rodeo as well as NASCAR and IndyCar racing. With the new Dickies Arena, it is booking nationally visible college basketball and national championships in gymnastics and other Olympic sports.

Arlington (lies between the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth) is the location for the AT&T stadium (Dallas Cowboys) and Globe Life Field (Texas Rangers, baseball team). For Arlington, sport drives sales tax, car rental tax, hotel occupancy tax and direct spend in restaurants and retail spaces. It helps create jobs, keep taxes low and helps build and maintain a quality of life for local taxpayers, while creating memorable experiences for visitors.

In Dallas, sport is part of the fabric of the city and its diverse population is passionate about a wide range of sports. The goal is to make the city known around the world through sport and the 2026 World Cup will help in these efforts.

It was interesting to hear that the tourism sector employs 40% of the total workforce in Las Vegas and is therefore important to support visitation and drive growth in this area. The recent success of ice hockey team the Golden Knights and the movement of the Raiders NFL Football team to Las Vegas, are exciting developments for the city.

With regards to Tokyo, and Japan, on the back of a very successful Rugby World Cup it is expected that the 2020 Olympics will encourage 437 trillion engagements leading up to and around the event. Following these high-profile global events, travellers exposed to the destination story will hopefully consider it as a future destination.

Finally, a good example of the potential impact of sports on a city, is here – This is how much money Houston could gain by hosting World Series (spoiler alert – it’s a lot!). Houston hosts a number of major sports teams including the Texans (American Football) and the Astros (baseball), recent winners of the World Series. Another major Texan city, San Antonio, boasts basketball team the Spurs, who have won the NBA Championships 5 times. All of these teams and their venues are a big draw for visitors.

2)     How does sport form part of a long-lasting and sustainable promotion strategy?

Certain sports provide opportunity for longer lasting associations. Fort Worth has found that some tournaments are often awarded in multiple years. For example, the city is hosting the college women’s gymnastics championships through 2022, a four-year deal. In the same vein, the US Grand Prix in Austin was initially awarded for a tenure of 10 years.

Interestingly, youth sports tend to be more recession-proof as families are even more dedicated to their children than their favourite teams!

Arlington, observes that sports are pretty close to being recession proof. During the recession of 2008, sports became an industry driver for economies all over the U.S. People who are passionate about a particular team will find a way to travel to an event where they are featured.

Dallas sees major sporting events as a boom for the destination, augmented by the publicity and media value that comes with it.

3)     The importance of investing in infrastructure and facilities to become a leading sports destination. 

Infrastructure is key in sports tourism. Without the venue, it doesn’t matter how great your hotels are or how fun your restaurants can be. If the venue offering is right, this will at least get your destination on the shopping list for an event.

Some cities use a private-public partnership approach to funding. A good example of this is the new half-billion-dollar Dickies Arena, in Fort Worth. Building new venues, will also bring in additional events that require these type of facilities. FC Soccer Stadium and Circuit of The Americas (COTA) in Austin, are good examples of this.

In the US, cities are supported at State level too, when competing to host major sporting events. The winning of the Formula One contract in Austin is one example of this type of collaboration. The US Grand Prix is very high profile and the event, and sports personalities endorsing the city – ensures considerable awareness and gravitas.

4)     How do destinations ensure that they create a lasting legacy from short-term events?

A destination’s target is to become well-known for sports and hosting sporting events. ‘Trust’ is key. The event owner has to believe that their event is going to be a success. By creating an environment of trust, a city can string together a sequence of successful events.

The city of Dallas looks to create a legacy program that will live on beyond the event, as community initiatives play a large role. For example, the 2017 NCAA Women’s Final Four had a ‘Dream Court Dedication’ where a basketball court was donated to a City of Dallas park. There is also a partnership with the Mexico National Soccer Team, to create a bilingual reading program for elementary school students.

Finally, the panel discussed how success could be measured. Discussed metrics included : combining data from a variety of KPI’s – including economic impact, social media engagements and survey analyses.

Sport is an interest area with unique appeal that can provide powerful connections. At its heart is the human condition – specifically, the traits of ‘self-identification’ ‘self-esteem’ and a ‘sense of belonging’. The result and opportunity for destinations, is to leverage the greater value of focusing on ‘fans’, rather than ‘customers.’

Nick Hammond. Director @ MDSG . 28th Nov 2019.