Do we actually know why people visit sport heritage sites?
This seems like a bit of an obvious question, and perhaps one that has been answered (or, at least, assumed) by marketers, managers, and academics alike. But, I got to thinking about it the other day that, perhaps, as researchers we’ve rather guessed at the reasons why someone might go to a stadium, or hall of fame, or heritage sporting event (though, perhaps the reasons for each are different). As a colleague mentioned to me this weekend, perhaps sport heritage research needs to come up with a visitor typology (add that topic to an ever-growing list of potential dissertation topics for a future graduate student). However, one thing I – and others who research this topic – have noticed is that not everyone who visits a sport heritage site is a die-hard, super-keen fan.
Sean Gammon at the University of Central Lancashire raised the observation in his excellent chapter “‘Sporting’ new attractions? The commodification of the sleeping stadium” that people on, say, a stadium tour aren’t always major supporters – if fans at all:
…stadia tours will often comprise of highly identified fans, who display a degree of veneration towards many of the tour highlights, as well as the less-attached visitors whose interests are far more casual, and ephemeral at best. (p. 125)
In terms of visitors to stadia, and certainly this has been my observation as well, that many people go to them – and perhaps go on a tour, but on many occasions go just to be near the venue. Or, as Gammon again contends:
…the stadium has grown in importance, from an often aesthetically indifferent utilitarian structure into an iconic symbol of a place, team, sport and/or event. (p.116)
This idea that some sport heritage sites are infamous – that they are famous for being famous – is perhaps an obvious one, though I think it is frequently overlooked in understanding sport heritage. If we are to understand heritage sport tourism as, in part, a kind of heritage tourism, then it stands to reason that some visitors will go to sport heritage sites simply because they are interesting, or representative of a particular culture, or because they are famous and it is something that “you do” when on vacation. Indeed, visitors to Rome need not be entrenched in the classical history in order to want to visit Pantheon, just as visitors to Paris need not have a background – or any knowledge, really – in the history of the French monarchy to want to visit Versailles. Perhaps sport sites will attract more knowledgable visitors, as sport is such a global phenomenon and a knowledge of sport is perhaps easier to acquire than a knowledge of the writings of Marcus Aurelius, but is it that far-fetched to have visitors want to go to Old Trafford without being fans of Manchester United, or Yankee Stadium without being New York Yankees fans, or the museum at Camp Nou without being hardcore Barcelona supporters? I suppose the other aspect is that, if we have some knowledge that not every sport heritage visitor is necessarily a massive sporting fan, might there be a case for adjusting how a site is interpreted? Could we appeal both to the hardcore fan, who might be looking to venerate and nostalgize, as well as the casual or non-fan who might see the site as representative of a place, or a city, or a culture? Might this transition also provide for broader narratives, where sport is explored both in terms of achievement as well as a social process? This is also not to place visitors in a binary relationship – sports fans may also desire critical narratives, and non-sports fans could be attracted to the spectacle, drama, and pageantry of the sporting past. Still, in my experience, there is much work to be done in exploring this aspect of sport heritage, as we probably don’t yet know why people visit these sites and what they are looking to experience.
PS – I was going to write a post yesterday about an anniversary of sorts. When writing a cheque for my son’s daycare fees, I noticed that the date was October 20. On that date in 1991, my hockey career (such as it was) abruptly ended, which sent me into a tailspin for a few years. Perhaps one day I’ll write about this event and what it meant in my life in more detail, but for now I was thrilled to see this story yesterday about the mask of Edmonton Oilers goaltender Ben Scrivens supporting mental health awareness. Good on ya, Ben!