By Steve Jones
When John Aloisi crashed home a penalty against Uruguay on that unforgettable November night in 2005, it sent 83,000 fans packed into Sydney’s Telstra Stadium into ecstasy and propelled the Socceroos to their first FIFA World Cup for 32 years.
Seven months later an estimated 60,000 Australians descended on Germany to follow the national team on a football adventure that will live long in the memory.
Since then, the FIFA World Cup has become something of a pilgrimage for Aussies, albeit one that only happens every four years, with thousands flocking to South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014.
Indeed, Australia sold more tickets for Brazil — 53,000 — than the footballing powerhouses of Italy, Spain and the Netherlands combined.
We may not be a giant in world football, and it’s far from being our national pastime, but the number of travelling fans underlined what we all know: Australians are rather fond of sport and will travel the length and breadth of the globe to watch it.
If witnessing the cream of the round ball crop has captured the imagination in recent times, the Rugby World Cup has not been far behind. Australia took 55,000 fans to New Zealand in 2011, while VisitBritain reported a 20% increase in arrivals from Australia during the World Cup period in England in 2015. Another huge army of Wallabies fans are expected to make the relatively short trip to Japan in 2019. Such continuing passion for sport spells good news for the burgeoning sports tourism industry.
Renee Riitano, product, brand and event manager at FanFirm which operates Australian Sports Tours, We Love Rugby and the Fanatics, said the World Cups of football, rugby and to a lesser extent cricket, are, unsurprisingly, the most sought after events by sport fans, with the four year interlude between tournaments one of the contributing factors.
“World Cups are the ultimate event that any sports fan wants to go to, and they don’t take place very often so the anticipation builds,” she told travelBulletin. “We start working on all the World Cups two years in advance. It’s the biggest part of our business.
“I think some people regard the Ashes as more important than the Cricket World Cup because of the rivalry. But football and rugby are on a different scale.”
If anything, football outstrips rugby in popularity, in part, Riitano suggested, because the Socceroos rarely pit their wits against the best in the world, unlike their rugby counterparts who line up against the All Blacks, South Africa and other international teams comparatively regularly.
Daniel Cecconi, chief operating officer at sport tour operator Sportsnet, singled out the Rugby World Cup as its largest draw. “It’s always big and it’s really exciting to again have a World Cup on our doorstep in Asia Pacific in 2019,” he said.
Sportsnet focuses on events where there is high demand and low supply, Cecconi said, with the company selling upwards of 60 events during the year. And it’s not just the mass market, global events that rev up Australian sports fans.
Motor sport is “really strong”, Cecconi said, with packages to October’s Japan MotorGP — the first time the company has offered the event — already sold out.
“It’s been an overwhelming success,” he said. “The Malaysian and Texas MotorGPs are also really solid.
“We also have Formula One packages in Singapore and Malaysia, which are traditionally popular, and we always take a good number to Monaco. It’s the bucket list Grand Prix for F1 fans.”
Continuing the motor sports theme, Cecconi said it could sell the Isle of Man TT packages “many times over”.
Another event identified by Riitano and Cecconi as a perennial strong seller is the centrepiece of the NFL calendar, the Super Bowl, where tickets are hard to come by. The Wimbledon tennis championship also draws the crowds.
Brand USA Australia and New Zealand director Matt Fletcher described sport as a growing sector for tourism but said it is a desire to experience American culture, rather than a dream to attend a specific event, that is driving interest.
“What we hear most is that it’s not that travellers are hell bent on going to the Superbowl or National Basketball finals, it’s about having a unique Americana experience and going to a game with locals,” he said, adding that more than a quarter of Australian visitors attend a sporting event.
But in an age where sports fans can buy tickets from a variety of sources — both official and unofficial — why would they book packages through a sports operator? The reasons are several, argued Cecconi, not least of which is peace of mind in the knowledge that tickets have been secured from a reputable source.
In addition, Sportsnet aims to provide an “experience” including functions attended by sporting celebrities.
“Every package we offer has some sort of exclusive function or experience,” Cecconi said. “This year alone we must have worked with 30 or 40 celebrities across a large number of sport genres.
“We don’t want to be in the game of selling tickets and accommodation only, we want to be in the sports travel experience game.”
When it comes to participating in sport, golf leads the way with several operators running escorted tours around the world, often timed to coincide with a major tournament.
Bede Hendren, owner and managing director of Teed-Up Golf, said the majority of his 3,000-4,000 clients are motivated more by playing than watching, with the US Masters a notable exception.
“That is the holy grail of golf. That is as much about going to the tournament and walking around Augusta,” he said.
Tours to Ireland, Scotland, Hawaii and South Africa are among the most popular.
“We have grown each year for the past 15 years so it’s a strong area of niche tourism,” Hendren added. “It’s also high end and high margin. Generally our clients are direct and repeat customers but travel agents can make good commission.”