Sports enthusiasts are taking their passion for the game on the road and making it a part of family vacations.

Americans took 60 million trips last year to attend a professional or amateur sporting event as either a spectator or a participant, according to a new industry study released yesterday.

Sports event travel--defined as a trip of 50 miles or more--represents a flourishing segment of the hospitality industry, generating $27 billion in annual consumer spending and accounting for nearly 6 percent of the 1.2 billion vacation trips taken nationwide, the study found.

Because the study, by the Travel Industry Association of America, is the first of its kind, it does not document whether sports travel is growing. But Suzanne Cook, TIA vice president, said all indications are that this pastime is "a growing, and a very lucrative, market for the travel industry."

Baltimore ranks 16th among the cities that attract the largest share of sports event travelers, according to the study. Chicago and Atlanta were ranked as the top two destinations for sports travelers. The District and Virginia, where government officials and business executives are trying to lure a professional baseball team, did not make the list.

The rising popularity of collegiate and high school sports and some professional leagues and events--such as the U.S. women's soccer team and NASCAR auto racing--helps feed sports travel, as families mix vacation with the sporting events of their children, industry experts said. Increasingly, local governments are trying to draw more tourists to their cities by aggressively promoting the athletic competitions they host.

"America has a long, rich tradition of sports history, especially the popularity of women's sports, which is fueling this growth," Cook said.

While travel agencies have always sold tour packages to major sporting events, the market's steady growth is attracting companies such as the Walt Disney Co. and the National Football League. The NFL is studying whether to develop and sell travel packages to the annual all-star game in Hawaii and the college draft for purchase by corporations that want to entertain clients or reward employees, said spokesman Chris Widmaier. Disney is considering a similar venture with its ESPN television sports network.

The state of Maryland is following the same game plan. "We're aggressively marketing our sports venues," said Hannah Byron, assistant secretary with Maryland's division of Tourism, Film and the Arts. "It's one of the highest-growth industries--and that includes amateur sports too."

Last year, the state hired a sports marketing specialist to promote its stadiums and lure more travelers to its sporting events in Baltimore and surrounding counties. Among those events was the Preakness horse race, the Volvo Ocean Sailing Race and the State Farm PGA golf tournament in Howard County.

Sports event travelers spend an average of $422 per trip, with one-quarter of them paying $500 or more, according to the TIA survey.

Cook said the average trip costs may be "conservative" because the question asked of survey participants didn't include all transportation costs. The results are based on a mail survey of 240,000 adults and telephone inquiries to 1,200 households and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

The average sports event traveler is 45 years old, with more than half between the ages of 35 to 54. More than 80 percent are employed full time, and the median annual household income is $46,841.

But with the rapidly rising price of tickets to professional events, tour operators say the majority of their business is coming from corporations. Corporate incentive travel generates $2.1 billion in annual revenue, according to a joint survey by the George Washington University Tourism and Hospitality Management School and Sports Travel magazine.

Stephen Parry, president of Golden Sports Tours in Dallas, said sports travel has been growing 10 percent to 20 percent annually over the past eight years. "Some companies have been looking to sheer costs," Parry said, so they are opting for less-expensive events such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball championship.

Parry said one of the fastest-growing sporting events among travelers has been auto racing. NASCAR, he said, has added more seats around its tracks, and events are being held in second-tier U.S. cities where travel costs are less expensive. And the sports fan is buying the tickets.

"With all the money being made on the stock market, it has led more people than ever to to go to these events," Parry said.

Going Far Afield

More than a third of all U.S. adults traveled 50 miles or more to attend an organized sports event over the past five years, according to the Travel Industry Association.

All adults 38%

Men 45%

Women 31%

Percent who traveled 50 miles or more over past five years to watch:

Baseball / softball 17%

Football 15%

Basketball 9%

Auto / truck racing 8%

Golf tournament 6%

Skiing / snowboarding 5%

Soccer 5%

Hockey 4%

NOTE: Results based on mail survey of 240,000 adults and phone inquiries to 1,200 households.