Why we need to capitalise on sports tourism
JUST last month a new park run started in the grounds of Stranmillis College in Belfast. That's quite a hilly course for the weekly timed volunteer-led 5k run which takes place in public venues rights across the UK and Ireland, north and south, and which has now spread to become a global phenomenon. Despite the hills at Stranmillis though, the event attracts over 60 runners each week and that will increase as Stranmillis beds down as a park run venue.
While it is unremarkable that another park run event has sprung up in Belfast, that makes nine such events in the Belfast city council parameters and that is indeed a remarkable figure and its ranks Belfast as proportionately one of the most popular park run cities in the world. The countries which have most recently begun park run events include Italy, South Africa, Greenland and Russia.
This level of global activity is a long way from a group of 13 runners gathered in Bushy Park in London in 2004 to run together. That became a weekly occurrence and so the weekly free timed 5k event was born and has by this stage gone truly global. The nine park runs in Belfast cater for approximately 2,000 runners each week. That figure includes fast runners, slow runners, dog accompanied runners and runners pushing children in buggies. There are nine-year-old runners and 90-year-old runners. There are regulars who would not dream of missing their weekly run and who are steadfastly loyal to their local venue. There are also, every week, without fail, park run tourists who travel to a particular city based on their park run habit.
I am one of a group of fantastic volunteers who manage the park run at Queen's sports pavilion, know more affectionately as The Dub. Our ‘Q' event is one of only three in the world which start with that letter of the alphabet and the only ‘Q' in these islands. This last Saturday we welcomed runners from Monaghan, Dublin, Edinburgh and Newcastle upon Tyne, all were seeking to tick off a Q in their quest to complete a park run alphabet.
That phenomenon is real and I always make a point of chatting to these visitors, to find out what they will do when they are here, and to help spread a warm Belfast welcome. Usually they will make a weekend of their visit, staying in a hotel and keen to find out where to get the best pint of Guinness, where they can hear live music or see a show. These are park run tourists and they are a key part of what is termed sports tourism, an important part of the overall tourism sector and one which we can collectively tap into more than we currently do.
Despite my loyalty to Spurs and my belief that a trophy is surely on the way one of these seasons, two of my sons are Liverpool supporters. Three weeks ago the three of us were sports tourists when through a friend of a friend of a friend - you know the story - I was able to secure tickets for a Liverpool home game.
Flights were booked, a hotel stay arranged and off we went. Our modest spending budget won't make or break the economy of Merseyside but I was amazed at the number of Irish people flying into the city for the game. Accents from all four corners of the island could be heard on the buses to and from the stadium and in the streets around Anfield and our flight home on the Saturday evening was almost exclusively made up of football fans.
In Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland, we are in a strong position to capitalise on sports tourism. It is fair to acknowledge that the organisers of our biggest running event, the annual Belfast City marathon, have now moved the event to a Sunday and have amended the route so it now takes in all parts of the city. That followed requests and appeals from a number of sources in recent years, including from this column, and the impact can already be seen in the increased number of entrants. The number of runners who will complete the whole course and not just run the relay, is set to almost double.
Dublin moved its marathon to a Sunday four years ago and now has the third biggest 26.2 mile race in Europe. We are not there yet but progress is being made and more is achievable.
The Rugby World Cup bid, of which Belfast was a part, faltered unfortunately, but already another bid to host another major event is on the agenda. The FIFA 2030 World Cup is a long way off and a realistic bid between all the home nations and the Football Association of Ireland is at the earliest of stages, but can you even imagine the excitement and the spending power that event would have here? Even more modest international events like the World Police and Fire games in 2013 and the Giro D'Italia in 2014, both of which took a lot of work to bring here, paid off handsomely in terms of profile and reputation.
Every park run tourist in search of a ‘Q' equals spending power and a chance to enhance our reputation as a welcoming city. Every mass event multiples that impact by thousands. Sport can be good for you in more ways than one.
:: Brendan Mulgrew (email@example.com) is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter @brendanbelfast
:: Next week: Jamie Delargy