COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | VINCE VASQUEZ

Competing for dollars in global sports tourism

This summer, government representatives from across the globe gathered at a key conference to collaborate and discuss the latest trends in what may be the fastest growing sector in the tourism industry. If San Diego is to retain its leadership in the fiercely-competitive hospitality industry, local elected officials should consider new opportunities for hosting global sports tourism.

In focus is the World Sport Destination Expo, which was held July 5-9 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Organizers of the inaugural event sought to give "centre ground to the most rapidly growing sector in the global travel and tourism industry," which weighs in with an estimated $600 billion annual economic impact. For millions of people, ancient rivalries and national pride swell in international athletic competitions, turning these events into a major personal investment and a sizable cash cow for sponsors and host cities, such as San Diego.

For years, the city of San Diego has built a strong reputation as a seasoned host for international sports tournaments. Mexico's national soccer team has played at Qualcomm Stadium at least 18 times since 1993, always to the roaring approval of a bi-national fan base, and just this week, a friendly international soccer match was held between Mexico's premier Club America franchise and England's Club Portsmouth F.C. The high-flying Red Bull Air Races have previously drawn an estimated 80,000 spectators to the San Diego Bay, and downtown's PETCO Park has hosted international ball games for the World Baseball Classic. Without a doubt, our future in global sports tourism is bright, particularly as America's Finest City is now positioned to reach the brightest brass ring in the industry.

By the end of this year, FIFA, soccer's global governing authority, will decide which nations will be the 2018 and 2022 hosts for the World Cup, the planet's most popular and widely watched sports tournament. The honor to be selected as the national host gives the recipient international bragging rights and an estimated $6.4 billion economic impact, the latter being a prime reason why ten bidders, including the United States are now in the running. If the U.S. is picked for 2018 or 2022 by FIFA this December, the city of San Diego will see action as a host city. We should not forget that San Diego earned the right to serve as a host city, as our bid emerged triumphant from an initial pool of thirty-seven U.S. cities down to a select eighteen. As such, this golden opportunity should not be squandered -- failing to make the final host cut would effectively forfeit significant economic benefits for our community.

A study published in fall 2009 by Economics Research Associates estimates that host cities could anticipate a $350 to $500 million economic impact from the soccer tournament, largely from new visitor spending, operational expenses and other areas. Anticipated sales tax revenue ranges from $11.3 to $20.7 million, and local job creation is pegged at 5,600-8,700 positions. Though World Cup economic benefits may be short-term for host cities, their magnitude should compel San Diego's elected officials to strategically position our city for hosting a broader array of future international sports competitions.

San Diego needs to carve new economic niches to keep its regional competitive advantages above the fray, particularly in this downward economic climate. Can strategic tourism partnerships be built with the city of Tijuana? Would a new Chargers stadium accommodate other large-scale athletic uses, such as cricket and rugby tournaments? Asking athletic boosters such as the San Diego Sports Commission to collaborate and develop a long-term Strategic Plan for global sports tourism in our region can help spur the policy discussions that need to begin today.

Excelling in this new industry will not only bring valuable worldwide visibility to San Diego, but it can shape civic pride and social inclusiveness in ways we have only begun to see in our community. According to the Nielsen Company, a marketing research firm, San Diego posted the highest U.S. television viewership ratings for all four U.S. team matches in the 2010 World Cup this summer, and had the 2nd highest U.S. household viewership ratings for the finals match between Spain and the Netherlands. With greater civic support, San Diego and the rest of the world may one day be watching sports history in our own backyard.

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