42 MY JOURNEY IN SPORT TOURISM – Contributions by Heather Gibson

Getting Started

I never intended to teach and research in tourism; I was destined for sport sociology.  However, in arriving at the University of Connecticut in 1986 to work with Andrew Yiannakis on my master’s degree, I found a mentor who was starting some exploratory work in tourism, notably extending Cohen’s (1972) and Pearce’s (1985) ideas on tourist roles.  One of these tourist roles, the Sportlover role resonated with me as I had always been active and studying in New England (USA) I could finally go skiing more regularly as the mountains were only two hours away!  So, the idea that people would travel to take part in sport was a behavior I recognized.  But in the mid to late 1980s few people were combining sport and tourism and in fact, when I did my MS thesis examining tourist role preference across the life course, for some reason the sportlover role had been dropped from that version of our questionnaire (Gibson, 1989; Yiannakis & Gibson, 1992).  However, extending this work for my doctoral dissertation, not only did we add more roles, but revived the sportlover (Gibson, 1994).  My dissertation work also set the scene for several consistent characteristics that are still in my work today: 1. A focus on tourist behavior from the perspective that tourism is a special form of leisure; 2. A focus on gender, notably women’s behavior; and 3. A focus on different stages of the life course, as well as using a life span perspective.  It was a combination of these three characteristics along with the sportlover role that culminated in a conference paper at the 1994 North American Society for the Sociology of Sport conference where I met a few scholars who were also starting to connect sport and tourism, one being Paul DeKnop who with Joy Standeven (she was one of my undergraduate lecturers) wrote the first comprehensive book on sport tourism (Standeven & DeKnop, 1999) and Laurence Chalip who has not only been a great mentor to me, but provided me with many opportunities that raised my profile as a scholar specializing in sport tourism. In fact, it was Laurence who invited me to write my 1998 paper reviewing the literature (as it existed then) on sport tourism for the inaugural issue of Sport Management Review (Gibson, 1998).

In my 1998 Sport Management Review paper, I joined the pervasive discussions on defining sport tourism that were occurring as both scholars and the industry started to take more notice of the sport and tourism connection. I proposed three forms of sport tourism: 1. Active Sport Tourism which has its origins in the Sportlover role; 2. Event Sport Tourism, which at this point was confined to spectators travelling to watch sport; and 3. Counter to many others who were writing at the time, I followed the lead of Redmond (1991) in proposing Nostalgia Sport Tourism which I saw as encompassing behaviors such as stadium tours, sports museums and the many sports themed attractions that were beginning to emerge.  This paper received global attention and opened many more opportunities including keynote addresses, guest editorships for journals (e.g. Journal of Sport Management, 2003), and a book contract (Gibson, 2006) among others.  I can quite honestly say that I never intended to have sport tourism as a major focus of my career.  I thought that gender and my work on solo women’s travel (Jordan & Gibson, 2005) and leisure and tourism in retirement (Gibson, Ashton-Shaeffer, Green & Corbin, 2002) would be my contributions.  Even now I have a ‘mixed brand’ and sit at the intersection of leisure studies, sport management, and tourism.  This is how it all started!

Florida Gators and Sport Tourism

I have always liked to work ahead of the curve, which is not the easiest path as some reviewers are often not ready to accept ‘out of the box’ thinking and I have spent more time justifying why and rewriting papers than many would guess. This has also been compounded by an interdisciplinary approach where tourism journals have told us that our work belongs in sport or recreation and sport journals have told us our work belongs in tourism.  My PhD students can attest to this as they also work on the edge and share my pain in the number of times, we have done major revisions. However, I would not change this as I believe we need to push the boundaries of knowledge and not just ‘repeat the same old thing”.  In thinking back on some of our projects, I think some of our/my key contributions have been in small-scale sport tourism and in active sport tourism.

As we emerged from the era of defining sport tourism, my team were involved in a project investigating tailgating behavior associated with our university football team.  Let me translate here for the non-US audience!  Arriving to work at the University of Florida in 1997 I was thrust into the world of “big time” intercollegiate athletics where we had a football (grid iron) stadium next to my academic building that was bigger than Wembley our national stadium back in the UK.  Fall semester was dominated by the football schedule and for 6-7 weekends per year our small college town was invaded by upwards of 60,000 (likely higher) out of town fans.  On the morning of a game, these fans sit in the car park on campus and the surrounding neighbourhoods barbecuing, drinking, socializing, and some even had satellite television to watch all of the pre-game coverage.  I was fascinated.  I had never seen anything like this before and I needed to find out more.  I put together a team and we initially surveyed the fans and then followed up with in-depth interviews.  In the sport tourism literature, this study became one of the first showing how regular season sport can be leveraged for tourism development (Gibson, Willming & Holdnak, 2003). Of course, the fan behavior itself was fascinating and became a paper published in the Journal of Leisure Research using serious leisure as the frame from within which to analyze the stories these Gator fans shared with us (Gibson, Willming, & Holdnak, 2002).  Interestingly, this paper will show you the disciplinary split in existence at the time as one of the reviewers told us not to refer to these fans as sport tourists! This was a leisure journal after all!

Small-scale Event Sport Tourism and Sustainability

Another project and also an opportune moment for me to arrive in Gainesville, (Florida) home to the University of Florida was that as sport tourism was beginning to gain traction as an industry niche, we were home to one of the first and innovative sports commissions in the US. The Executive Director Jack Hughes had immense experience in hosting and running sport events and was hired just before me.  I remember being at a tourism visioning meeting and the tourism leaders were trying to convince us all that Gainesville was an ecotourism destination.  Well, it is in some ways as we do have a lot of natural attractions, but our big attraction is sport!  University of Florida  sport and the work that the Gainesville Sports Organizing Committee was doing in attracting amateur level events to Gainesville.  After several years of persuading Jack that what he needed was research (numbers) to demonstrate the contribution the  Gainesville Sport Organizing Committee was making to Gainesville, he finally found some money to fund us to do a series of eight event studies for him.  For 18 months, we surveyed a range of events from youth soccer and softball to adult archery and a national level synchronized swimming event. Much of the data were the usual visitor style study statistics on expenditures, accommodation type, nights/days in the community and so forth.  However, when you examined them over the 6-8 events you could begin to see the contribution that the GSOC had for Gainesville (Gibson, Kaplanidou & Kang, 2012).  This project coincided with the 2008 recession and Jack asked us to include some questions on willingness to travel to participate as gas prices topped $4 (USD) a gallon and money was tight.  Our data showed that at least for youth sport events, parents were willing to make sacrifices for their children and cut back on their own participation.  This was likely one of the first projects to show that youth sport events are a resilient tourism sector during economic downturns.  The other realization I had was tied to the growing focus on sustainability and tourism and triple bottom line thinking.  It occurred to me that while much of the focus in sport tourism had been on economic impact and our expenditure data could definitely contribute to this, as more scholars were critiquing the mega sporting events such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup, following Higham’s (1999) ideas about small-scale events as an alternative to the resource intensiveness of hosting mega events, that the work of agencies such as the GSOC could be considered a form of sustainable tourism development.  The fact that the GSOC used existing facilities around town, provided a training ground for our students in the form of internships and volunteering and generally contributed to the quality of life of the community, I could see that the contribution was not just economic, but also environmental and social.  Hence, our paper in Sport Management Review on small-scale events as a form of sustainable tourism was born (Gibson et al., 2012).  Once again, the road to publication was not easy.  One of the top sport journals rejected us as our data were too descriptive, even though they told a story and our theoretical framing was strong, not to mention the innovativeness of the topic.  This was one of the first if not the first paper in sport management to empirically investigate sustainability in a sport event context.

Returning to my Roots: Active sport tourism and the Event Travel Career

I have definitely “cherry picked” some of my contributions to sport tourism through the years and I will now fast forward a few years to showcase work that returns to my original focus on active sport tourism and behavior.  Much of this work has been conducted in collaboration with my PhD students and in many cases became their doctoral dissertations.  Seohee Chang’s (Chang, 2009 Chang & Gibson, 2011) focus was on the leisure-tourism continuum.  Certainly, in sport tourism, participants are typically active in their daily lives and use their vacations to travel to destinations where they can pursue their favorite sports in different conditions, whether this is escaping the winter snow for golfers, or in search of snow for skiers and snow boarders.  However, few people had examined the connection between leisure behavior and tourism choices in the context of sport tourism.  Seohee incorporated enduring involvement a concept that had a long history in the leisure studies literature but had only just started to emerge in tourism and sport studies.

Don Getz is another scholar who was starting to pull concepts from leisure studies such as social worlds and serious leisure and combine them with concepts from tourism such as the travel career pattern (Getz, 2008).  In 2008, he started writing about the Event Travel Career (ETC) which was empirically investigated in cycling and running contexts (e.g., Getz & McConnell, 2011). The idea here was that for active sport tourists, many of whom were travelling to take part in events such as cycling, triathlon and running, seemed to adopt a career like pattern in their participation both in terms of their sport involvement and in the tourism characteristics they sought in an event destination.  Three of my former students were attracted to the ETC and have made contributions to further the concept in different sports.  Rick Buning (Buning, 2014) focused on cycling and in a mixed methods study suggested what he called the Active Sport Tourism Event Career (ASTEC) showed that participation for cyclists was not necessarily linear that sometimes participants had a break or reframed their engagement in the sport at certain periods in their lives (Buning & Gibson, 2015; 2016).  Mona Mirehie was also attracted to the idea of progression through active sport tourism, this time for women in the context of skiing and snowboarding (Mirehie, 2018).  In contrast to Rick who used social worlds to denote career stage, Mona used enduring involvement and well-being to examine the relationship between active sport tourism participation, progression, and wellbeing.  Similar to Rick’s study, Mona also found that progression in snow sports for the women she studied was not linear (Mirehie & Gibson, 2020 a).  She also found evidence to suggest that travel, notably active sport tourism contributed to wellbeing for these women (Mirehie & Gibson, 2020 b).  Most recently, Xue Yan a master’s student examined the ETC in the context of marathon participation (Yan, 2021).  She was also used enduring involvement to denote career stage but she was interested in the influence of Lamont, Kennelly and Wilson’s (2012) idea of competing priorities acting as constraints on the ETC of these marathoners.  She found that enduring involvement was a good predictor of ETC stage and however, as might be expected for participants involved in a sport like marathon running that most of them were able to negotiate most constraints on their running.  However, she did find that competing priorities are more restrictive for female marathoners in the pursuit of an ETC than for males.

Where to Next?

I have included work with my students as part of my contributions to sport tourism as I think that at a certain career point you become the mentor, collaborator, and refiner of ideas as you work with your students. I am proud of their contributions to the ETC and hope that this is the start of long careers in academic research where they will also get a chance to work with great students.  I continue to generate original ideas in sport tourism with one such project being a focus on youth sport families in terms of their travel planning and execution but also the way that having a child or children in youth sport dominates all aspects of family life including family vacations.  This work is quite pertinent right now as many communities in the US engage in sport tourism development through youth sport by building specialized facilities that are often paired with hotel and restaurant development.  So, there is still work to be done and it will be interesting to see where the path takes me next as I work with future graduate students.


Written by Heather Gibson, University of Florida, United States
Read Heather’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers 


Buning, R. (2014). The evolution of active event travel careers through cycling tourism. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Buning, R. & Gibson, H. (2015) The Evolution of Active Sport Event Travel Careers. Journal of Sport Management, 29, 555-564.

Buning, R. & Gibson, H. (2016). Exploring the Trajectory of Active Sport Event Travel Careers: A Social Worlds Perspective. Journal of Sport Management. 30, 265-281.

Chang, S. (2009). The relationship between active leisure and active vacations. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Chang, S., & Gibson, H. (2011). Physically Active Leisure and Tourism Connection: Leisure Involvement and Choice of Tourism Activities among Paddlers. Leisure Sciences, 33, 162-181.

Cohen, E. (1972). Toward a sociology of international tourism. Social Research, 39, 164-182.

Getz, D. (2008). Event tourism: Definition, evolution and research. Tourism Management, 29, 403-428.

Getz, D., & McConnell, A. (2011). Serious sport tourism and event travel careers. Journal of Sport Management, 25, 326-338.

Gibson, H.  (1989). Tourist roles: Stability and change over the life cycle. (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT.

Gibson, H. (1994). Some predictors of tourist role preference for men and women over the adult life course. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT.

Gibson, H. (1998). Sport tourism: A critical analysis of research. Sport Management Review, 1, 45-76.

Gibson, H. (Ed.) (2006). Sport tourism: Concepts and Theories. London, UK: Routledge

Gibson, H. & Yiannakis, A. (1994). Some characteristics of sport tourists: A life span perspective. PaperpPresented at the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport Conference, Savannah, GA, November 9-12, 1994.

Gibson, H., Willming, C., & Holdnak, A. (2002). “We’re Gators not just a Gator fan:” Serious leisure and University of Florida football. Journal of Leisure Research, 14, 397-425.

Gibson, H., Ashton-Shaeffer, C., Green, J., & Corbin, J. (2002). Leisure and Retirement: Women’s stories. Loisir et Societe/Society and Leisure, 25, 257-284.

Gibson, H., Willming, C., Holdnak, A. (2003). Small-scale event sport tourism: College sport as a tourist attraction. Tourism Management, 24, 181-190.

Gibson, H., Kaplanidou, K., & Kang, SJ., (2012). Small-Scale Event Sport Tourism: A Case Study in Sustainable Tourism. Sport Management Review, 15, 160-170.

Higham, J. (1999). Commentary-Sport as an avenue of tourism development: An analysis of the positive and negative impacts of sport tourism. Current Issues in Tourism, 2, 82-90.

Jordan, F., & Gibson, H. (2005) “We’re not stupid..but we’ll not stay home either”: Experiences of solo women travelers. Tourism Review International, 9, 195-212.

Lamont, M., Kennelly, M., & Wilson, E. (2012). Competing priorities as constraints in event travel careers. Tourism Management, 33, 1068-1079.

Mirehie, M. (2018). Trajectory of women’s participation in active sport tourism and sense of well-being: A case of snow skiing and boarding. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Mirehie, M.  & Gibson, H. (2020 a). Women’s participation in snow-sports and sense of well-being: a positive psychology approach. Journal of Leisure Research, 51 (4), 397-415.

Mirehie, M., & Gibson, H. (2020 b). The relationship between female snow-sport tourists’ travel behaviors and well-being. Tourism Management Perspectives, 33, (1) 1000613.

Pearce, P. (1985). A systematic comparison of travel–related roles. Human relations, 38, 1001-1011.

Redmond, G. (1991). Changing styles of sports tourism: Industry/consumer interactions in Canada, the USA and Europe. In M. Sinclair & M. Stabler (Eds.). The Tourism Industry: An International Analysis, (pp. 107-120). Wallingford: CAB International.

Standeven, J. & DeKnop, P. (1999). Sport tourism. Champaign-Urbana: Human Kinetics.

Yan, X. (2021). Competing priorities as constraints of marathon runners in pursuit of event travel careers. (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Yiannakis, A. & Gibson, H. (1992). Roles tourists play. Annals of Tourism Research, 19, 287-303.



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