Sports and tourism are more connected than ever.

Social media and digital streaming have brought U.S. professional sports teams into households around the world and have given rise to new international fandoms; these days, you’re just as likely to see a LeBron James jersey in Shanghai as Los Angeles. Sports are an essential part of American culture, and a huge draw for international visitors traveling to the U.S.

As American professional sports continue to surge in global popularity, U.S. Travel is working to bridge the gap between sports and travel, and help teams and destinations identify ways to collaborate to capture growing international markets.   

IPW: bringing the world to America’s stadiums
Teams, venues and destinations are starting to realize the limitless potential at the intersection of their industries. Last month at U.S. Travel’s IPW in Anaheim, CA, 17 sports-affiliated organizations had booths on the show floor, and more than two dozen other organizations participated in tours of the event.

Representatives from across Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball League, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer were present, as well as some of America’s biggest leaders in live events. We’re thrilled that we had the most sports teams ever exhibiting, but even more encouraged by the large number of organizations who came out to tour IPW for the first time—to see first-hand the strong connection between sports and travel.

American sports aren’t just for Americans
Nearly four in 10 international travelers are interested in an NBA, NFL or MLB experience when visiting the U.S. That’s nearly 30 million visitors.

Leagues understand this and have made concerted efforts to break into key international markets. Last year, the NBA’s preseason games in Shanghai and Shenzhen each drew crowds of 16,000. The NFL annually fills London’s Wembley Stadium, the MLB plays games in Mexico, and the NHL has a pair of scheduled match-ups in Europe this upcoming season.

Fill the stands, boost the economy
These efforts to break into international markets do more than just fill the stands in-market—there are serious economic opportunities. They boost the chance those fans will come to our shores to watch their favorite team or player, spending money on flights, hotels, food and souvenirs –and helping lower America’s trade deficit.  

The NBA smartly opened several offices in China. That country is the third-largest source market for all overseas visitation to the U.S., and Chinese visitor spending was among the highest of all international visitors in 2017—nearly $7,000 per trip. In the U.K., the NFL chose the largest overseas inbound market to the U.S. as the focus for its international efforts, and the MLB is expanding in Mexico, a market that is expected to see growth in visitation to the U.S. in the next few years.

International players serve as ambassadors for their sport
Foreign-born players also help popularize American leagues in their home countries, which can lead to a boost in international visitation to their team’s city.

In IPW host city Anaheim, the Los Angeles Angels’ Japanese-born Shohei Ohtani’s impact on the region is a prime example of this cultural exchange. Since signing Ohtani, his jerseys have become a top seller, the Angels have inked six new sponsorship deals with Japanese companies, and Orange County-based luxury mall South Coast Plaza reports a jump in visitation from Japanese tour groups.

“We have seen last year—and now that he has been activated this year—that there is a boost in visitation to games because of Shohei Ohtani,” Visit Anaheim Senior Vice President of Marketing Charles Harris told the Los Angeles Times.

Destinations, attractions, hotels, restaurants and other businesses can benefit greatly from increased sports tourism, and American leagues are bolstering the overall U.S economy by capitalizing on the trend. U.S. Travel will continue meeting with league representatives, venues and destinations to identify and facilitate cooperation between the two industries.

To learn more about how sports boost international inbound travel, please check out U.S. Travel’s sports tourism fact sheet, and click here to read an op-ed from U.S. Travel President and CEO Roger Dow on international sports tourism.