The most memorable part of my recent trip to Britain wasn’t seeing the London Bridge or eating a full English — it was taking the train into the suburbs to watch a soccer match in England’s third-tier League One. Americans might call a minor league game.
My solo seat was next to a dad and his teenage son, who gave me the CliffsNotes on key players and traditions — like why everyone disappeared before halftime. (They were rushing to the concessions level for midgame pints; with that tip, I got up and followed suit.)
Because this wasn’t the major leagues, I could afford to sit right behind the goal — so close you could banter with the players. I watched the red-clad fans around me and did my best to keep up with the many chants, stand when everyone stood. After the game, I joined the sea of people pouring out of the stadium and ended up spending hours inside a raucous, fans-only pub (you needed to show your game tickets to get in).
Even though I had no vested interest in the teams before kickoff, the day had all the trappings of a fantastic travel experience: the rush of figuring out public transportation to get somewhere new, the pleasure of spending an afternoon in the sun, the chance to blend into local culture and meet new people.
This is just one example of why, alongside the beach time, the museum visits and the restaurant reservations, going to watch sports deserves top billing on your travel itinerary regardless of your interest in sports.
“People want to travel like a local — they want that authentic experience, and it doesn’t get more authentic than going to a sporting event,” says Luisa Mendoza, the founder and CEO of Global Tourism Sports and Entertainment, a business-to-business platform that connects tour companies with tickets to professional sports events in the United States, among other services.
Don’t write off the idea because you don’t follow sports. I couldn’t tell you offhand who won the World Series. But blending in with fans in an unfamiliar place is still one of my favorite travel pastimes.
The minors are more personal
You could shell out a fortune to see the superstars play, but there’s a different kind of magic to packing into the cheap seats with the everyman.
Fulvio De Bonis, president and co-founder of Imago Artis Travel, says seeing one of Italy’s lesser-followed soccer teams instead of the super-famous AC Milan or Roma is comparable to eating a meal from an Italian grandmother instead of a Michelin-starred restaurant.
“Both are authentic, but it’s a different kind of authenticity,” he says.
Shop around and find something to fit your budget, whether that’s the minor leagues, a collegiate league or cheap seats in the upper deck or standing section.
“It doesn’t matter if your seats are thousands of dollars or $20 in the nosebleeds,” Mendoza says. “It just brings us all together, and for those two hours, you forget what’s happening because you’re just screaming like crazy, rooting for your team.”
It’s not (all) about the game
If you enjoy watching the sport itself, that’s a bonus. But for travelers the real joy comes from being with the fans. It’s the walk to the stadium, the chants, the outfits and the camaraderie. Finding a game — any game — opens up doors to adventure and new friendships for travelers.
If it weren’t for sports, I wouldn’t have seen Hsinchu, Taiwan, if it wasn’t for wanting to see a Uni-Lions baseball game. I wouldn’t have ended up at a Glasgow house party if I hadn’t stopped into a pub to watch a soccer final.
“It’s a great way indeed to learn about local culture, to immerse yourself into a team, its spirit, the supporters,” says former German sports journalist Sandra Weinacht, whose company Inside Europe arranges travel experiences for clients from soccer to tennis to the Tour de France.
Among the many selling points for going to a game during your trip, “at the very least, it could just lead to a really fun experience meeting new people in a new city,” says Tori Petry, a Fora travel adviser and former Detroit Lions broadcaster. “Sporting events are social events.”
Weinacht says even if you don’t speak the local language, cheering for the same team can create opportunities for bonding with the people around you. And if you can’t find a ticket or make it to the game in person, “public viewings are another wonderful bonding opportunity with locals,” Weinacht says.
Show up hungry
Then there’s the food. I left a Yomiuri Giants baseball game in Tokyo full of takoyaki — fried octopus balls that are a popular Japanese street food — and Kirin beer. In between Muay Thai matches at a Bangkok stadium, I feasted on Khao Man Gai, a chicken and rice dish.
Weinacht notes that the food, drink, pre- and postgame rituals are often not just unique to a country but to each region. Different stadiums will have different concessions, such as tacos at a Fresno Grizzlies game and pork rinds with pimento cheese at the Arkansas Razorbacks football stadium. All the more reason to see more sports in more places.
If there’s a culture of tailgating, go to the tailgate.
For example, before a Louisiana State University football game in Baton Rouge, “you just kind of wander around the tents and the setups and people will invite you in and offer you gumbo,” Petry says. “It’s truly an experience. So you have to go for the game, but you also go for the tailgating.”
Don’t rely on a scalper
You could try your luck and find a game when you’re already on your trip, but you may discover they’re sold out. Petry recommends finding tickets in advance while you’re doing the rest of your planning.
Before my London trip, it took me about 15 minutes after I gasped at the prices for a Manchester match to find online tickets for a cheaper alternative in the suburbs.
If you’re not working with a travel planner, Petry says the best way to find tickets is to go directly to the home stadium’s website.
“Look for tickets directly through the team,” she says. “Those are going to be your lowest-priced tickets.”
While you’re on their site, Petry recommends seeing if the team has an app to download. “A lot of these teams have apps that will give you maps to their stadium, tell you what food is in the stadium, tell you traditions what happen during game day,” she says.
If you’re not having luck finding tickets on the team or stadium website, be wary shopping from third parties. You may want to go through a trusted travel company or recognizable ticketing websites versus a random online listing.
“I always tell my client that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Mendoza says. “If tickets are going for $100 and you see one for $30, good luck with that.”
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