Sport Heritage Review

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Tourism & Sport Heritage: Help or Hinderance?

There’s little doubt that sport heritage can play an integral role in tourism development.

Of course, sport heritage attractions and experiences that are purposely positioned to appeal to tourists are part of this. Sports halls of fame and museums, behind-the-scenes stadium tours and the like can be significant in a destinations year-round tourism. Cities like Boston and Barcelona – both not lacking in tourist attractions – cite stadiums (Fenway Park and Camp Nou, respectively) as some of the largest heritage and cultural tourism attractions in their communities.

However, just as often, attending a game live is one of the best ways to experience authentic local or national culture, traditions, and heritage. When I lived in Canada and was hosting an overseas visitor, inevitably we would end up at a hockey game. In South Carolina, I encourage visitors to come during the fall college football season – or, barring that, come during the spring or summer to experience minor league baseball in the Carolinas.

In general, this kind of heritage/cultural sport tourism is seen as beneficial for destinations, clubs, and visitors alike. For the destinations, visitors will come to watch matches in the tourism shoulder/off-season, there is the prestige of having global visitation (and, often, the revenue that comes from international visitors), and – in cities like Liverpool – additional local businesses and attractions can be created around visitors wanting to experience something of the club’s heritage year-round. For the clubs, the market for tickets and merchandise becomes global, additional off-season experiences – such as stadium tours and heritage-themed restaurants – can be created, and international competitions can be created. For supporters, seeing a match in the home of a particularly famous team can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

However, it’s not always so rosy. In the case of the Premier League in England, tourists form a significant number of ticket-buyers, often being motivated to experience the history, heritage, and traditions of English football. In fact, nearly 800,000 overseas visitors went to a football match in Britain (most of whom went to a Premiership match), with an estimated economic impact of £684m. Destination Marketing Organizations, such as Visit Britain, have sections on their webpages about attending football matches.

But, the influx of visitors have – in the view of many local supporters – driven up ticket prices, have not embraced local traditions (and, have created new ones, like half-and-half scarves) and created a much different atmosphere in the grounds (as visitors don’t know the chants and are, seemingly, just there to watch the spectacle).

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Recently, the chairman of the Football Supporters Federation claimed that clubs would “lose the atmosphere and link to the local community”, with match-going supporters replaced by “foreign tourists with half and half scarves taking selfies of being in an English ground”.

There is little doubt that tourism has probably driven up prices at heavily-subscribed sporting events like Premiership football, particularly at heritage-based clubs like Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal. While fans of other sports in other countries – like the NFL, NHL, MLB – have more opportunities to sell their tickets on the secondary market (like StubHub) and are able to finance going to some games by selling others at inflated prices, this is probably not as much of an option in the EPL – owing to both tradition (season ticket holders typically go to all games) and security at grounds. As such, there is probably a limited supply of tickets for tourists – and, perhaps, some of the “tourist tickets” are actually sold by the club at inflated prices. Few teams garner as much international interest as English football clubs, and with international travel being relatively easy and inexpensive as compared to previous generations, one can see how tickets to heavily supported clubs have gone up due to international demand and limited supply.

There is also the notion that tourism has changed the heritage and traditions of watching a football match. In this, English football – at least at certain grounds – is probably going through the changes that happen in many parts of heritage tourism. The line between “spectator” and “participant” is a challenge in many kinds of heritage tourism, as many heritage experiences are meaningful, important, and impactful because this line between spectator and participant does not exist. In this, the heritage tourist’s participation is integral to the spectacle – in fact, participation is integral to the heritage existing in the first place. As is the case in many kinds of heritage, the “outsider” coming in to ruin a local heritage can often tinged with a very reactionary form of nostalgia – and, of course, that could be happening here. The “good old days” of attending a top-tier football match in England are long gone, and perhaps tourists (or, particular kinds of tourists) are an easy and available scapegoat for broader social and cultural changes. That said, if tourists are “gazing” rather than participating (or feeling they can participate, which is a different thing altogether) and the number of “gazing” tourists are of a significant number, I can understand why local fans feel that some heritages are under threat.

Naturally, the idea of finding some sort of balance between maintaining heritage and tradition and welcoming tourists is as important in heritage sport tourism as it is in all other forms of cultural and heritage tourism. There have been some proposals to limit tickets to people with local postcodes, or have some other scheme by which local, longtime fans still have access to their home club. One thought might be for local or national destination marketing organizations to promote other sports and sporting experiences as “authentic” forms of cultural and heritage. In the case of Britain, perhaps rugby, cricket, or horse racing becomes the focus, rather than just football. Personally, attending a county cricket match seemed like a far more “authentic” sporting experience than any of the English football matches I’ve been to over the years. And, of course, local rugby teams and county cricket clubs would probably love the additional support! Easier said than done, of course, but actively promoting other important cultural/traditional sport might both ease the pressure on popular sports, help maintain some of the intangible heritage, and help spread the wealth a bit.

Ultimately, most organizations and destinations would love to have the heritage sport tourism issues of the Premier League. And, it goes without saying that the Premier League offers a unique heritage conservation issue that most sports do not have to contend with. By and large, heritage sport tourism is beneficial to destinations, clubs, and visitors alike. Few tourist experiences can rival the authenticity of watching a sporting event live in another country. However, as the Premier League example tells us, this has to be managed, lest local supporters (quite literally) revolt.


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