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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hawaii needs commission to attract sports events, Aiona says

By Dan Nakaso and Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writers

With the Aloha State still stinging from the loss of Sunday's NFL Pro Bowl to Florida, Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona yesterday proposed a volunteer Hawaii Sports Commission that would be responsible for attracting more amateur and professional sporting events to the Islands everything from professional mixed martial arts fighting to youth soccer and swimming.

"The timing of this announcement is strategic," Aiona said. "It's because this is Pro Bowl week and as we all know, the Pro Bowl is synonymous with the state of Hawai'i. This is where a sports commission would have that responsibility to keep an event like that in Hawai'i."

Aiona, a candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, made his announcement yesterday as enthusiasm remains sluggish for the first Pro Bowl to be played outside of Aloha Stadium since 1979.

Ticket sales for Sunday's contest in Miami are reported to be soft and more than one-third of the players chosen for the all-star game won't be suiting up.

Large-scale sporting events can mean substantial revenue for cities and states, and Aiona's proposal comes as Hawai'i's economy continues to struggle.

The Pro Bowl generated $28.6 million in visitor spending in the Islands last year, compared with $100.7 million brought in a couple of months earlier by the 2008 Honolulu Marathon.

The 13 members of the Hawai'i Sport Commission eight appointed by the governor and five by the state Legislature would all be volunteers, under legislation proposed by Aiona.

The $100,000 in startup money would come from individual and corporate donations, he said, similar to the popular Save Our Sports campaign that stepped in with donations when high school sports budgets were cut last year.

As of early January, the Save Our Sports campaign had raised $1.4 million.

Continued funding for the Hawai'i Sports Commission eventually would be augmented by fees from various sports events it attracts, Aiona's staff said.

Dr. Jim Barahal, president and CEO of the Honolulu Marathon, supported Aiona's plan yesterday but said these are tough times in which to raise money for new ventures.

"As head of the largest sporting event in Hawai'i that relies totally on corporate, cash sponsorship, I can say that it's a constant job to keep the funding going for sporting events," Barahal said. "It's a challenging environment. The issue in this day and age with the budget crunch, is that it often takes money to bring in money."

He called Save Our Sports' effort "very successful in generating money to save high school sports. Hopefully that model will be successful."

As of yesterday, 38 percent of the original NFL players selected to the Pro Bowl were either scratched or opted out of the game to be played at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., between Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

San Francisco 49ers president Jed York was asked yesterday by San Francisco radio station KNBR about the dozens of NFL players who have pulled out of the game in the same city as the Super Bowl.

"I think the idea sounded better on paper," York told KNBR.

The NFL is contracted to return the 2011 and 2012 Pro Bowl games to Aloha Stadium and will negotiate whether to extend beyond that.

A Miami-based ticket broker told The Advertiser that the lead-up to Sunday's Pro Bowl has so far lacked "the buzz" of previous ones in Hawai'i .

Everyticket.com's Bob Marshall, a part-time resident of Hawai'i , has handled Pro Bowl tickets here for nearly a decade. He said ticket demand has been "soft" in Florida, where tickets are being resold for below face-value, sometimes at a 50 percent markdown.

An NFL spokesman has said a sellout is expected at the 75,540-seat Sun Life Stadium. But fans yesterday were still able to go online and purchase tickets in desirable locations. Tickets are priced between $50 and $195, but pairs of seats in Row 25 of the lower level were still available yesterday at $120 each.

Marshall said the events that surrounded the Pro Bowl in Hawai'i and the fact that the state has no pro teams gave the Pro Bowl "a different atmosphere in Hawai'i."

In Miami, Marshall said, "there is so much to do, so many pro teams in the area. They have the Dolphins, the Heat they had LeBron James one week and will have the Super Bowl next week. In between is the Pro Bowl."

Dolphins linebacker John Offerdahl told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel that Hawai'i "rolled out the red carpet; they made it a big thing. (In) Miami, it's just another game."

Under Aiona's proposal, the Hawai'i Sports Commission would be placed under the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, with an executive director who serves at the pleasure of the commission's board.

Aiona said the commission would be responsible for working with all groups that deal with sports events in the Islands, including the Hawai'i Tourism Authority and the Honolulu County Sports Commission.

City spokesman Bill Brennan said Mayor Mufi Hannemann had not been consulted on Aiona's proposal but would support it.

"The mayor would tell you that anytime the top elected officials in the state get behind sports marketing and sports promotion, it's a good thing. This could help service the Neighbor Islands more than the Honolulu County Sports Commission could."

But Brennan said Aiona's idea was overdue at the state level.

"It's too bad that in the last several months of the Lingle-Aiona administration they're finally bringing this kind of idea to the table," Brennan said. "You wonder what opportunities we may have missed that the city and state could have collaborated on."