Once renowned for hosting the Pro Bowl — the National Football League’s annual all-star game at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu for more than 30 years — Hawai'i has fast become a go-to destination for a variety of sports event planners from Mainland USA and Asian and Australian countries, too.
“We loved having the NFL here, but it was time to focus more holistically on the entire state,” says Leslie Dance, vice president of marketing and product development for the Hawai'i Tourism Authority (HTA). “I think we’re in a perfect location for East meets West.”
Indeed, the Pro Bowl may have relocated to Orlando, Florida, but Hawai'i and its four primary islands – Kauai, O'ahu, Maui and the island of Hawai'i – are thriving, with high-profile sporting events happening on every one of them, Dance says.
From sports such as stand-up paddle boarding and surfing — activities long associated with the state — to golf tournaments, the IRONMAN World Championship, youth volleyball and basketball tournaments and National Basketball Association extravaganzas, Hawai'i is in the midst of a major reboot.
“Our environment certainly helps,” Dance says, referring to beautiful lush scenery, wondrous waterscapes and temperatures that average between 75º F and 85º F all year long. “That’s one of the biggest advantages we have.”
Another advantage is that participants in Hawai'i-hosted sports events often bring family members or friends along and extend their stay into a vacation. Every year, the HTA supports nearly 20 sports events that result in an economic impact of more than $150 million.
Following are highlights of sports and events that are helping Hawai'i attain greater status as an ideal destination for just about any type of competition.
Teri Orton, general manager of the Hawai'i Convention Center in Honolulu, traveled to the West Coast in 2015 to attend a sports-event industry conference and gauge interest in her state from sports organizers.
“The response was so overwhelming. People have wanted to bring tournaments to Hawai'i for a long time, but the cost to ship equipment was too prohibitive” she says. “Now, I feel like we’ve really alleviated the number-one challenge of coming here.”
What did Orton and her convention center staff do? In 2016, they made a $1.1 million investment in basketball and volleyball standards, as well as portable sports flooring that can accommodate up to 28 volleyball courts, 19 basketball courts or 11 futsal courts. The 200,000-square-foot exhibit space already has attracted two youth volleyball tournaments and one AAU basketball tournament with 130 teams, including 70 from the mainland.
That tournament, the 2017 Pacific Rim Championships, was a major step forward in Hawai'i’s youth sports efforts, according to Dance, and it also provided teams from Hawai?i an opportunity to play in a high-profile event without having to travel to the mainland.
A number of volleyball, basketball and futsal tournaments are tentatively scheduled at the Hawai'i Convention Center over the next several months up to 2018.
“We were always looking for ways to generate more business and use the facility in a nonconventional way,” Orton says, adding that AEG Facilities took over management of the Hawai'i Convention Center in 2014 and encouraged the new direction.
The facility is now interested in adding soccer, wrestling, cheer and gymnastics events to its slate of youth sports activities.
Professional and College Basketball
As the Hawai'i Tourism Authority was proactively looking into other professional sporting event opportunities post-Pro Bowl, a discussion with AEG led to the idea of looking to the NBA. Because the West Coast is Hawai'i tourism’s most popular market, Dance says the HTA invited the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers to play two preseason games at the Stan Sheriff Center on the University of Hawai'i at Manoa campus on Oct. 1 and 3, 2017.
The team’s opponent for both matchups will be the Toronto Raptors, an attempt to generate excitement and interest in Hawai'i among East Coast and Canadian fans. What’s more, the Raptors’ newly named general manager Bobby Webster is a native of O'ahu.
A fan fest will coincide with the games, and several players will be involved in a construction project at a local school. HTA officials hope the Clippers, who hosted a “Hawai'i Night” last season at Staples Center, will return to the islands on an annual basis.
At the college level, the Maui Jim Maui Invitational has established itself as a premier early-season NCAA basketball tournament that has featured 118 schools from 26 conferences and 40 states over its 33-year history.
This year’s event takes place at the Lahaina Civic Center in Maui from Nov. 20-22 with teams from all over the United States, including Cal, Chaminade, LSU, Marquette, Michigan, Notre Dame, VCU and Wichita State.
This year’s Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic, scheduled for Dec. 22-25 at the Stan Sheriff Center, will feature Akron, Davidson, Miami, Middle Tennessee, New Mexico State, Princeton, USC and host university Hawai'i.
“We’re open to whatever makes sense,” Dance says about working with college and professional sports teams. “We get approached by every team imaginable.”
High School Football
Another event through which Hawai'i is seeking to attract athletes and their families from all over the country is the Polynesian Bowl, an all-star high school football game that kicked off for the first time in January 2017.
Held at Aloha Stadium, the game is organized by the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame and boasts 100 elite football players, the majority of them of Polynesian descent. The second Polynesian Bowl is scheduled for Jan. 20, 2018, and former NFL head coaches Dick Vermeil and Terry Donahue will coach the two teams.
The islands of Hawai'i provide the ultimate scenic backdrop for golf events, and there is no shortage of professional events on the state’s schedule.
Kapalua Golf’s Plantation Course on Maui is home of the PGA TOUR’s Tournament of Champions and is recognized by Golfweek as the best golf course in Hawai'i for 10 years running. The Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hual'lai on the island of Hawai'i (the state’s biggest island) brings in pro players over age 50, and the Sony Open in Hawai'i at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu is part of the PGA TOUR’s FedEx Cup Series and takes place in January, when golf courses in most other states are unplayable.
Additionally, the LOTTE Championship at Ko Olina Golf Club on O'ahu attracts some of the top female golfers in the world.
The Polynesian culture lays claim to inventing surfing, which is why Dance calls the sport “Hawai'i’s gift to the world.” Among the state’s most popular surfing events are the Billabong Pipeline Masters at Banzai Pipeline in O'ahu (the final event of the World Surf League Championship Tour) and the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing (a Hawaiian specialty series of professional surfing events).
Meanwhile, the Moloka'i 2 O'ahu Paddleboard World Championships and the Maui Jim Pailolo Challenge make exciting use of the deep blue Pacific Ocean. The latter event is a 26-mile outrigger canoe endurance race from Fleming Beach, Maui, to Kaunakakai, Moloka'i, in channel crossing conditions, and paddlers come from the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere to compete.
International competitors also descend on the island of Hawai'i for the IRONMAN World Championship, which has been held in the state since 1978. More than 2,000 athletes will compete this October on a 140.6-mile journey to earn the title of the ultimate IRONMAN.
It’s clear that Hawai'i has plenty to offer sports event planners — maybe even more than many people think.
“Give it a look and see what we can work out,” Dance offers. “There is something here for everyone.” SDM