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When the FIFA website said ‘sold out’ for the fifth time, Pranav Desai gave up hopes of buying a ticket for the football World Cup. “The tickets are released in phases. I kept my ears open for release dates, but I always missed it,” says the Mumbai-based entertainment consultant.

Desai consoled himself with the thought that he was spared the hassle of booking air tickets and hotel accommodation. “Travelling overseas to watch a big sports event is a logistical nightmare. Flights run full and the hotels are packed,” he says.

When Desai heard of SOTC’s everything-taken-care-of football-watching package to Germany, he jumped at the offer. For costs ranging between Rs 1.5 lakh and Rs 3.5 lakh, SOTC was offering air tickets, accommodation, a match ticket, transfer to the stadium and ' as icing on the cake ' local sightseeing. “I couldn’t believe my luck. The only effort I made was to submit my passport, photograph and a cheque,” says Desai ' who watched the quarter final match yesterday in Hamburg with his wife and school friends.

Given a choice, Desai would have picked a ticket for the football final ' or, as a compromise, for the semifinals. “But I had to settle for third best as all other tickets were sold out,” he says. SOTC claims to have sold 500 packages for the FIFA World Cup so far ' it hopes to sell another 100 before the game gets over.

Move over Preity Zinta and Salman Khan. The days when only Bollywood actors were spotted at international sports events ' rather, at cricket events ' are clearly over. Middle class India is now turning sports savvy. And sport, mind you, is no longer synonymous with cricket. “Thanks to satellite television, people have been following an array of sports like Formula One racing, golf, tennis and football. As a next step, they are now travelling to watch their favourite sports first-hand,” says Satish Viswanathan, director, The Desimators, a Bangalore-based sport travel firm.

Sports travel is becoming the new way to holiday. “Sports enthusiasts like to sync holidays with matches,” says Viswanathan. He adds that internationally sportainment’ is a mega-buck industry. “In India sports is completely driven by television and the spectator is not a priority. But internationally, the spectator is king, as huge revenue is earned from gate fees.”

So Indian sports buffs travel overseas to enjoy the action from the stands. Although still a nascent industry, sports travel is gaining ground. It is estimated that in the next three years, over 100,000 Indians will travel exclusively to watch international sports events.

“Cricket, of course, will be the chunk of sports travel,” says Saumil Majumdar, founder-director of a Bangalore-based sports travel firm, Sportz Village. “About 100 Indians regularly travel for the Formula One Grand Prix in Malaysia. In the next few years, we estimate that 500 to 1,000 people will travel for every major international sports event,” adds Majumdar.

The ball, therefore, is in the court of sports tour firms. SOTC’s Sports Abroad department ' which started in 2003 ' is growing by 30 per cent per annum. And this, says Srinivas, is just the beginning.

“With the cricket World Cup next year, we anticipate a growth of 50 per cent in 2007,” says Srinivas. World Cup cricket is the next big thing on the sports travellers’ calendar. It may still be nine months away, but don’t harbour hopes of watching a nail-biting India-Pakistan or an India-West Indies match.

Sportz Village ' which is marketing packages for the World Cup ' says tickets to the key matches are sold out. “We have already sold 500 packages for the cricket World Cup,” says Salim Bharmal, business head, Sportz Village.

A package includes airfare, accommodation for a day, one match ticket, parking at the stadium, a Caribbean breakfast, wine and beer, buffet lunch, match analyses and a post-match Caribbean party. “It costs upwards of Rs 2.4 lakh,” says Bharmal.

Cricket may be the top scorer in sports tourism, but its monopoly is being broken. Bangalore’s Desimators, for one, has no room left to market the cricket cup. It’s calendar for the year ahead is filled with F 1 events. “We are organising trips for the Grand Prix in France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, China and Brazil,” says Shankar Vishwanathan, director of the firm.

Fast cars are capturing youth mind space. Sugandhi Gadadhar, who’s been following Formula One racing for six years, was heartbroken when she heard rumours about Michael Schumacher planning to retire. “It was my dream to watch a live Schumacher race,” says the 26-year-old Bangalore-based software engineer.

Before Schumi’s racing chapter closed, Gadadhar grabbed a chance to attend the F 1 Grand Prix, held in Malaysia in March, this year. “I went for the F 1 only because I got a package tour. It is impossible to arrange for the Grand Prix tickets on your own. Everything from hotel rates to taxi fares is jacked up in Kuala Lumpur during the race days,” she says.

But Gadadhar didn’t have to worry about logistics. Everything from an exclusive cab, a good hotel room, an F 1-expert tour guide and the best seats at the race venue were arranged for. “We sat right across Schumacher’s garage,” gushes Gadadhar.

Gadadhar plans to attend the Malaysian Grand Prix again next year. This time, however, Schumacher will not be the sole attraction. “For two days, Kuala Lumpur was dressed in F 1 colours. Racing posters were plastered across town. Parties and street races happened all night,” says Gadadhar. She wants to revisit Malaysia to relive the F 1 experience.

Says Desimators’ Vishwanathan, “Sports watching is not a happy experience in India. People have to fight their way into stadiums, where they sit packed like sardines. Now Indians travel overseas to enjoy being sports spectators.”

High disposable incomes have also given a boost to sports tourism. “As Indians earn more and travel abroad frequently, they are not worried about spending a big sum for a good sporting experience,” says Sportz Village’s Majumdar.

A new-found corporate interest in sports packages has added a spin to the market. “Sports travel has become a popular incentive holiday option. Corporate firms buy bulk packages for clients and key employees,” says Bharmal. He adds that Sportz Village has sold most of its cricket World Cup packages to companies, including Kotak Investments, Deutsche Bank, Novartis and Wipro.

ICICI Bank turned sporty this year, when it sent 12 clients for the Malaysian Grand Prix. “Before that, we organised theatre shows for our clients. We switched to sports tours since it has a bigger following,” says V. Prakash, deputy general manager, ICICI Bank, who accompanied the bank’s clients on the Malaysian holiday. “Watching a high-adrenaline sport together builds a healthy relationship with the client,” adds Prakash.

Sports tourism is seen as a fit team-building exercise by companies. “Cheering for the same team helps break the ice between colleagues. Many companies send employees from different departments on a sport tour,” says Bharmal.

But that’s not always the motive. While Pranav Desai is a diehard Argentina fan, his friends, who watched the Hamburg quarter final with him, cheered for Brazil. “Football generates unparalleled passion and frenzy in Europe. We want to experience it first hand,” says Desai.

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