Full-Court Press

By Paul Arnett

Friday, September 3, 1999

Sellout crowd is just
first step for UH

EVEN the hiring of June Jones did little to send the local fence-sitters scurrying to the box office to buy season tickets.

Granted, Hawaii ended a seven-year slide by selling 22,000 nine-game packages over a six-month period. The healthy 10 percent increase should help balance the books come June.

Considering that another 28,000 individual tickets for tomorrow night's season opener were purchased in only three weeks, will most fans be back on the fence by Labor Day?

Despite the Rainbow revival efforts by Jones, many people still have a wait-and-see attitude. While they may be willing to pay $21 to see the only marquee matchup on the schedule, they weren't ready to spend $144 to watch the remaining eight teams against teams whose combined record last year was 38-52.

Like it or not, a majority of the local football fans aren't coming to see Hawaii play an Eastern Illinois or a Boise State. It's just not name-brand enough for them.

Throw in the fact that most of the top Western Athletic Conference teams left this summer to form the Mountain West -- including chief nemesis Brigham Young -- and selling season tickets down the road may be a big challenge.

A more immediate problem is what kind of falloff Hawaii will face from Game 1 to Game 2. Two years ago, the Rainbows opened the season with back-to-back victories over Minnesota and Cal State Northridge.

UH athletic director Hugh Yoshida told everyone the program had turned the corner, that there were only bright days ahead. Apparently, a lot of people believed in his dream.

In the opening-day win over Minnesota, Hawaii drew 35,248 to Aloha Stadium. The next week, that figure dropped to 33,138, but Game 3 vs. Wyoming produced the largest crowd of the season.

Some 42,369 fans filed through the gates to see if the Rainbows were for real. That night, Yoshida and associate athletic director Jim Donovan had dollar signs in their eyes. Things were looking up.

Unfortunately for the Rainbows, the Wyoming Cowboys rode out of town with a 35-6 victory and took all the casual fans with them. Two weeks later, only 28,206 saw Hawaii beat Fresno State. The Rainbows haven't won since.

SHOULD Hawaii shock the world and turn a similar trick against No. 21-ranked USC, it could cause a stampede at the gates similar to those created by Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey and the Eagles. But should the Rainbows fall hard as they did two years ago, all the promises in the world won't bring many fans back this season.

With that in mind, Yoshida and Donovan can't ignore the need for more fund-raising. While Don Murphy and the Na Koa Club are doing their part, it takes much more than that to fund a Division I program. Keep relying on ticket sales to drive the engine and sooner or later a derailment is bound to happen once again.

There's little question that Jones has created the kind of aloha necessary to make this program viable again. The fact that the USC game will bring 50,000 UH fans into Aloha Stadium for the first time since 1992 is a testament to that.

Just don't let it end there. UH has to keep marketing itself as the only game in town. Tomorrow night's encounter is a good first step for all concerned. But to keep the fans from landing back on the fence, the brighter tomorrow has to start becoming a reality today.

Paul Arnett has been covering sports
for the Star-Bulletin since 1990.

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