Fun and Games: How sports tourism is picking up pace in India

November 10, 2022

Fun and Games: How sports tourism is picking up pace in IndiaIndian fans cheer during the ICC men’s Twenty20 World Cup 2022 match between India and Pakistan at Melbourne Cricket Ground in Melbourne on October 23, 2022. Photo: Surjeet Yadav / AFP

Among the thousands bringing the roof down in Adelaide, where India takes on England in the semifinal of the T20 World Cup, will be Rakesh Patel and his army of travelling fans, who are tailing Team India with flags, dholaks and their indefatigable vocal chords. It’s a journey Patel has been on since the 1999 ODI World Cup in England—when he bumped into three kindred souls and decided to get together during the India-Pakistan tie to amp up the decibels at Old Trafford, where the high-octane match was being held. Once the tournament wrapped up, Patel launched the Bharat Army, which would gather for every India match to drum up support from the stands.

In 2015, the Bharat Army snowballed into a group of 500 that travelled to Australia for the ODI World Cup. “Back then, we had no commercial interests in mind. But during this trip, we had to manage tickets, stays, excursions for this large group,” says Patel, now a resident of London. “When I returned, I thought we had an opportunity to build something from this.” That’s when the 47-year-old launched the Bharat Army Travel & Tours, a sports tourism and hospitality vertical that curates travel packages themed on sporting experiences.

In 2017, it became an International Cricket Council (ICC)-accredited agency and gathered around 1,200 Indian cricket fans from around the world to showcase the Champion’s Trophy in England. “In 2019, for the ODI World Cup, the number jumped to 11,500-odd,” says Patel. It’s a number he is looking to repeat for next year’s ODI World Cup to be held in India. “A lot of Indians abroad are saving up for the tournament to be held in India, the game’s spiritual home, and I am expecting to bring in a 10,000+ contingent,” he says.

Not just with non-residents, but within India too, sports tourism is on the upswing and sporting events have turned out to be an accelerator for driving demand for travel, especially post-pandemic. With rising disposable income and a growing awareness, Indian sports fans are crisscrossing the world to watch events ranging from cricket and football to tennis, F1, basketball, golf and even rugby.

According to a report by market analysts Future Market Insights (FMI), the total spending in the Indian sports tourism market that was pegged at $9,469 million in 2022 is expected to rise to $37,646.3 million in 2032 at a CAGR of 14.8 percent; during this period, the number of sports tourists will go up from 37.2 million to 213.3 million. Of this, while the inbound market has a growth prediction of 9.4 percent, outbound is nearly double at 17.4 percent. Says Sneha Varghese, senior manager, FMI: “Post-pandemic, sports is the first segment within tourism to ease out. Of the entire outbound travel market, 10-12 percent are sports travellers. Five years ago, this number would have been barely 5-7 percent.”

“There are a lot of investments being done in the sports culture in the country. There’s an ecosystem of sports marketing, a lot of startups have come up, plus there is a government thrust on sports as events like Khelo India and the National Games are being broadcast,” says Neeraj Singh Dev, senior vice president-ecommerce India and shorthaul holidays, Thomas Cook India. “All these factors will ensure sports tourism will grow at a brisk pace.”

While pent-up demand following a two-year-long, Covid-induced shutdown has been a key factor this year, a chock-a-block sports calendar with marquee events like the ICC T20 Men’s World Cup in Australia and the quadrennial FIFA World Cup in Qatar have also helped in spurring sports tourism. “For the 2014 soccer World Cup in Brazil, we had taken barely a few hundred Indians,” says Naveen Kundu, managing director, Ebixcash travel group. “At the 2018 edition in Russia, where we were a sub-agent for FIFA hospitality, the number had shot up drastically.”

According to news reports, while around 18,000 Indians had travelled to Russia for the event, as of September, nearly 23,500 out of the 1.8 million tickets for the current edition beginning in Qatar mid-November have been bought by Indians. That makes India the seventh-largest country in terms of ticket sales, a significant number considering the home team hasn’t even qualified for the tournament.

Adds Singh Dev: “Indians are among the top buyers for FIFA and T20 World Cup tickets and, currently, 10 percent of our outbound travellers travel specifically for sports. This is expected to witness a 20 percent year-on-year growth.”