Ruchi Shah, journalist

At the start of August, an Argentine team made its way to Pattaya in Thailand, to compete in the 16th IDBF World Dragon Boat Championships. The trip not only illustrates the passion for the sport all around the world but also underscores the growth of the market for sports events in Asia and the growing interest in investment.

Thailand is targeting over US$1bn in revenue from its sports tourism ventures in 2023

‘It is the first time a team from South America will compete in the international dragon boat championship,’ says Gabriel Antonio Cocca, who worked with Argentina’s dragon boat association to send the team. Dragon boat racing is not a particularly well-funded sport, at least not in Argentina, so team members had to pay for their own travel.

Events such as the dragon boat championship may not deliver the same boost to national economic growth as the major tournaments such as the Cricket World Cup (to be held in India in October 2023), the Olympics or the FIFA Football World Cup, but they do attract fans and athletes to specific locations, generating tourism revenue for local economies. The Pattaya mayor Poramase Ngampiches hopes the World Dragon Boat Championships will enhance the beach resort’s reputation as a tourist destination generally and burnish its credentials for hosting other world-class sporting events.

Why dragon boat racing?

Dragon boat racing goes back over 2,000 years and commemorates the poet Qu Yuan, who drowned following his banishment from the Chinese kingdom of Chu. As the news of his death spread, local fishermen raced to be first to recover his body.

Each year that frantic rush through the waves is re-enacted using long narrow boats, each decorated with a dragon head and tail, painted with scales, and thunderous with drumming to represent the heartbeat of a dragon.

Dragon boating has become a modern-day paddle sport practised worldwide. The Dragon Boat Championships are overseen by world governing body, the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF), founded in 1991 in Hong Kong. Among the aims of the IDBF is to protect and maintain the Asian cultural and historical traditions of dragon boat racing.

The 16th championship, which runs from 8 to 13 August, will attract almost 3,000 athletes and coaches from 30 nations. They will compete in 351 races scheduled during the week-long regatta at the Royal Navy Rowing and Canoeing Association centre in Rayong, which has six lanes for racing and a total distance of 2,000 metres. The championship shines a spotlight on the host as a destination for large sports events and sports tourism. Both could give Thailand valuable economic thrust as it grapples with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The country’s GDP fell by 6.1% in 2020, with the tourism sector, which accounts for about a fifth of national GDP and 20% of employment, suffering disproportionately. The rebound, though, is now well under way, with sport events revenue projected to grow 4.71% year on year between 2023 and 2027. Thailand’s tourism and sports minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn recently announced that the country is targeting over US$1bn in revenue from its sports tourism ventures in 2023. Around US$100m was raised by the MotoGP Grand Prix alone in October 2022.

Sports tourism will grow faster across Asia Pacific than anywhere else in the period to 2028

Regional surge

Thailand, of course, is only one of the players in Asia’s burgeoning sports event market, which now attracts major financing and investment.

Grand View Research estimates that, between 2021 and 2028, sports tourism will grow faster across Asia Pacific than anywhere else. The marketing research company projects sports tourism revenue across the region to grow by over 18% year on year in that period, with India and China making major contributions.

Singapore, in particular, has been working hard to attract big events, and is punching well above its weight. Kallang Alive Sport Management, an agency that manages the Singapore Sports Hub, is preparing to host a number of global sporting events.

In September, Singapore will become the first Asian host of the FIBA Intercontinental Cup, a international basketball event, followed by the FIM World Supercross Championship, a motorcycle competition; in October, it will host Hyrox, a fitness racing competition, for the first time. And in 2024, the city-state will also be one of the eight global venues for SVNS, the new rugby sevens competition, which starts in December 2023.

In India, cricket is a passion, and the Indian Premier League (IPL) is the biggest cricketing bonanza in the world. The Indian state of Odisha has reportedly invested more than US$250m over the past decade to strengthen its sports infrastructure. It is now home to one of the teams in the top flight of Indian football, hosted the Men’s Hockey World Cup in January 2023 and co-hosted the women’s U-17 Football World Cup in 2022.

In a note in June 2022, India’s Anand Rathi Advisors pointed to India’s sports sector as the ‘next hot investment destination’ and expects it to be worth US$100bn by 2027, up from US$27bn in 2020. The brokerage’s director Atul Thakkar says the country will ‘soon become a sporting superpower’.

Meanwhile China expects its sports industry to be worth around 3 trillion yuan (US$415bn) by 2025 according to the General Administration of Sport, following a reform plan introduced in 2015 to promote sports and encourage participation in outdoor pursuits.

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The new hot

Venture capital and global hedge funds are keen to get a piece of the sports pie and are turning to sports investments as one way to beat the tech slowdown. In 2021, UK-based CVC became the first private equity firm to own an IPL team, bidding US$686m for a franchise. CVC has also invested heavily in Formula 1, MotoGP, rugby and tennis.

There are four Asian names among the big investors in global sports: Sequoia Capital (which is currently being split into three entities, two of which are Asian), Tencent, SoftBank and Hillhouse Capital. These four have spearheaded overall venture funding in the region for sports unicorns.

In comparison with the West, several subsectors in the Asian sports industry are underfunded and undermonetised. But with Asian markets still in the early growth stages, they represent large opportunities for growth and monetisation.