How Sports Tourism Has Been Impacted by the Pandemic

Major sporting events have eliminated fan attendance, causing tourism to drop

Ballparks Remain Empty On What Would Have Been Baseball's Opening Day

People sit on a hill overlooking Dodger Stadium on what was supposed to be Major League Baseball's opening day, now postponed due to the coronavirus. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

If you've tuned into watch any sporting events on TV lately, you might have caught a great game, but you also likely noticed something a bit off-kilter—like hearing the roar of a crowd when a baseball player hits a home run, despite a completely empty stadium, or seeing virtual fans on the sidelines of a basketball court. Although sporting events were temporarily paused in the early days of the pandemic, they’ve largely resumed, but typically without the crowds. And while the games can certainly go on without anyone watching them in-person, the lack of fans has decimated the sports tourism industry, affecting destinations that host tentpole sporting events, major league teams, and other sports-adjacent businesses.

“Sports have been held as recession-proof. During the 2008 recession, sports played a major role in getting tourism through to the other side,” said Sue Hollenbeck, director of sports business for Visit Oklahoma City. “But COVID-19 isn't a recession, and with everyone staying home, it doesn't matter if kids want to play or parents want them to play: there is nothing to play! This means no tax revenues for cities, convention and visitor bureaus (CVBs), and sports commissions.”

Here’s how the pandemic is impacting sports tourism across the United States.

Annual Sporting Events

For cities where sporting events have been canceled outright, the financial loss is substantial. Oklahoma City has seen not only the loss of its NBA team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, which is currently playing in a “bubble” at Walt Disney World in Florida, but also several marquee events, like the OKC Marathon and the NCAA Women's College World Series (WCWS). “The OKC Marathon was projected to have an economic impact of over $9 million for the one day race and three-day event,” said Hollenbeck. “That's $9 million that isn't being spent by visitors and locals in OKC hotels, restaurants and bars, attractions, rental cars, and locally purchased merchandise.” The cancellation of the WCWS hurt even more—that event was estimated to bring in $24 million to the city.

Other cities where marquee sporting events are still being held (whether on-time or postponed) have their own crisis to face: those events are happening without fans. The Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky, for instance, which has been pushed from May to September, originally planned to allow an audience of just 23,000 fans to watch the race in-person, only a tiny percentage of the usual 160,000-person crowd. But organizers have knocked that number down to zero after evaluating the current pandemic situation. Louisville Tourism, the city’s CVB, had previously estimated the economic impact of the Derby to be nearly $400 million—a staggering amount of money that will likely be lost due to the lack of fans visiting town.

Similarly, the Masters golf tournament, which is typically held in April in Augusta, Georgia, has been pushed to November—and will go on without any fans. “The tournament historically could be counted on to fill up metro area hotel rooms, currently 7,200,” said Eleanor Prater, marketing and communications manager of the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Augusta collects an average of $1.4 million in hotel-motel tax revenues from the month of April, which is about three times higher than the average month.”

Both Louisville and Augusta, however, are hoping visitors will come to town anyway. “Restaurants are open at 50 percent capacity, and 80 percent of Louisville’s attractions have re-opened since the original COVID shutdown, including some popular Bourbon distilleries, the Muhammad Ali Center, Louisville Slugger Museum and Bat Factory, and the Frazier History Museum,” said Stacey Yates, vice president of marketing communications at Louisville Tourism.

In Indianapolis, the Indianapolis 500 car race, which typically brings in 300,000 fans and $300 million in economic impact, was pushed back from May to this past weekend. “With the Indy 500 being such a tradition for so many families, we have anecdotally heard of fans coming into the city, booking a hotel room, just so they can be in the most iconic race city in the world for the most iconic race, even if it means hearing the roar of the engines from outside the gate,” said Morgan Snyder, director of public relations at Visit Indy. 

General Sports Tourism

Tentpole sporting events aren’t the only fuel for sports tourism: everything from regular-season major league games to sports museums draw tourists.

Currently, three of the four major sports leagues in the U.S.—baseball, hockey, and basketball—are playing without fans. (The National Football League is allowing individual teams to decide whether or not they’ll welcome fans when the season starts in a few weeks.) And in many neighborhoods with sports facilities, fans are the biggest source of revenue for shops and restaurants. “Local businesses that surround stadiums, arenas, and fields that cater to spectators are having major financial issues,” said Jay Smith, president of travel agency Sports Travel and Tours. “If they don't have outdoor capabilities and advertise something extra special, fans aren't going to the area to grab a bite to eat.”

In destinations that aren’t known for games, but rather sports-themed attractions, there’s still trouble. Take Cooperstown, for example—the village in Upstate New York is home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which sees more than 250,000 visitors annually. “Our museums are reopened, but they’re only allowed to have folks at 25 percent capacity,” said Cassandra Harrington, executive director of the Destination Marketing Corporation for Otsego County, which oversees Cooperstown. “In the last two weeks, we’re now reaching that capacity every day, so the Baseball Hall of Fame is obligated to turn people away. That’s been a little bit of a challenge since they’ve hit their limit at a point when revenue is most crucial.” 

And that’s not to mention the town’s own tentpole events: the annual Hall of Fame Induction in July, which regularly draws 50,000 visitors to the village over the weekend, and a series of youth baseball tournaments throughout the summer.

But it’s not all bad news for every baseball destination. Ballparks of America in Branson, Missouri, a complex of two-thirds-sized replicas of Major League Baseball parks that hosts tournaments for youth players, has been faring quite well throughout the pandemic. “We had to alter a few things, but we have been doing robust business since May until now,” said Dan Shepherd, a publicist for the company. “Baseball can be managed safely, as it is an outdoor sport, the players in the field are spread out, and many people such as fans, parents, and coaches, wear masks and keep their distance in and around the dugouts.”

And even Cooperstown is able to tread water to an extent. “The bulk of our business is still coming from the New York City metro area, so we’re seeing a lot of people coming up for outdoor recreation. But they’re visiting our museums as a supplement to that, so it’s a shift in focus,” said Harrington. “We are a sports destination and we continue to be, but now it’s hiking, biking, and kayaking instead.”

Unfortunately the decline in sports tourism is just another part of the new pandemic normal. “People are willing to be patient and understand that changes in the name of safety are taking place this year,” said Shepherd. “Everyone is hopeful that next year there will be a greater return to normalcy.”

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