Sport Heritage Review

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Infamous Sites and the Sport Heritage Visitor

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!


  1. Marizanne says:

    I find your blog/ and your work very useful as I navigate my way through my PhD studies in anthropology at the University of the Free State, South Africa. I am currently doing research on South African rugby heritage and am writing a piece on how the representation of rugby as a form of heritage has changed, from community to corporate rugby museums. After visiting a couple of rugby museums and speaking to curators at these museums I have also become interested in why people would visit sport heritage sites. It seems that the corporate rugby museums can give you statistics in terms of how many people visited the museum, but the reasons for them visiting is unknown. As you note, not all people who go to sport heritage sites are necessarily sport fanatics, but I think an understanding of their motives can provide insight into how sport as a cultural practice can reignite memories of their past. These memories may go beyond the scope of sport per se, but sport instigates this process. I am thinking here of rugby in South Africa which has historically been associated with Afrikaner nationalism and Afrikaners. In a democratic South Africa, Afrikaners have lost political power, but rugby has remained one of the sports in which Afrikaners excel in and remains a popular cultural past time. The heritage of the game is therefore tied up with a nostalgia of the past – on both a social and political level – for the generation of Afrikaners who lived through the democratisation process of this country. Of course not only white Afrikaners follow rugby, but I think their motive for visiting rugby heritage sites may be to relive the past through rugby memories. For your interest a link to the Springbok Experience Museum in Cape Town, if you happen to travel to this side of the world.

  2. Thanks for the note and for the link – I really appreciate it. I think the rugby side of sport heritage is really fascinating! I did a paper a few years ago about tours at Twickenham that may be of interest to you:

    I think that the motivations for people to visit or experience sport heritage goes beyond fandom as well. Certainly I have spoken with many visitors who visit sport heritage sites but don’t count themselves as necessarily sport fans.

    Please let me know how your research turns out – would love to know more about it!

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