Thursday, January 20, 2005

Hula Bowl hopes
to be back

The college all-star game's
prospects are brighter, but it
still needs fans in the stands

Hula Bowl Maui

Who: East vs. West

Where: War Memorial Stadium in Wailuku, Maui

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

TV: ESPN2 (subject to blackout on Maui)

WAILUKU, Maui » Marc Antosch moved from Santa Cruz, Calif., to Maui seven years ago. It wasn't long after the Hula Bowl relocated to the Valley Isle, from Oahu.

Antosch, a server at Marco's Grill and Deli, has never been to the annual college football all-star game at nearby War Memorial Stadium. But he says he supports keeping the Hula Bowl on Maui. Yesterday, he waited on several more tables than usual because of people here for the game, and that translates into more money in his pocket from tips.

"It has an impact on all local businesses, a positive impact," Antosch said. "I've always been working (the day of the game), but I have friends who go every year. There are so little events on Maui, I think they want it to stay."

Antosch is an example of why the Hula Bowl's future on Maui could be short-lived. Like many other residents, he feels the game is good for the island's economy, but he doesn't buy a ticket to go to it.

Yesterday, after Hula Bowl chairman Kenny Hansmire told reporters there is a 10 percent chance the game will not be played here next year, Maui mayor Alan Arakawa said the new owners "have lots of challenges in front of them."

One of the biggest is getting more than 10,000 people to buy tickets to come to the game each year. Last year the game drew an announced crowd of 9,128 -- and many of those got in free.

On Tuesday, part-owner Dick Schaller, who was the sole owner for the 2003 and 2004 games, said the Hula Bowl lost $400,000 those two years. He said poor attendance is the reason, and if Saturday's game doesn't draw well, the game would likely be moved back to Oahu or shipped off to the mainland for the first time in its 60-year history.

Hansmire said the $400,000 figure is accurate, but this year's game is nearly in the black already, and he doesn't think it will be moved next year.

"Moving to Honolulu does not solve the problem, although it does give us a million people. If attendance starts dwindling, that's our problem," he said.

Hansmire said he has fielded offers from mainland cities that want the game, but he wouldn't name them yesterday.

He said new management and ownership will allow the game to survive here.

"Hula Bowl LLC (Schaller's company) had some problems," said Hansmire, who added that Schaller is now a 10 percent owner without a vote on the game's future location. "If we didn't come in, we wouldn't be talking here right now. In four months (of new ownership) this (2005) game is solvent."

When Hansmire, a Dallas businessman, came aboard with president Mark Salmans and vice president Mindy Salmans in October, they brought with them a five-year, $2.5 million presenting sponsor in Credit Unions of America.

"The new sponsorship is a great plus," Arakawa said, in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. "They have the financial backing to make it fly, and (Hansmire is) very experienced in working with the coaches."

Hansmire said he is a "traditionalist" and doesn't want to move the Hula Bowl.

"We're about 90 percent that we'd like to keep it here. As of right now, if I had to make the decision today, next year's game would be here," Hansmire said.

But several questions later, Hansmire said ownership will take a "wait-and-see attitude" before making any announcement on the game's future on Maui.

"We want to get through this game first," he said.

The Maui County Council approved beer sales at Saturday's game. While that will help concession sales and attract more fans, Hansmire acknowledges the potential game-management difficulties.

"We don't anticipate problems, and we'll have a great police presence," he said. "The county understands the game is nationally televised."

ESPN2 is once again broadcasting this year's game, and ESPN is contracted to show the following three games. Hansmire said the rights fee is relatively "insignificant," and the main benefit of national television is exposure for the game.

Hansmire said he will not ask the NFL for money, although the league benefits from a venue for more than 50 scouts to observe draftable pro football talent.

Veteran Oakland Raiders scout Bruce Kebric has worked at the Hula Bowl since it was played at Aloha Stadium.

"This is the nicest place to have it," he said. "If they had kept it on Oahu, to be honest, I probably would have stopped coming. I'd much rather come to Maui than Honolulu. The traffic in Waikiki is like L.A."

Kebric also said there are not too many college all-star games, and the Hula Bowl is a good opportunity for scouts to get a closer look at borderline players who have potential that is not easy to determine at first glance.

"It takes more work, but if you work here, you can find players," he said.

One player the scouts won't see here is Hawaii defensive back Abraham Elimimian. He opted out of the Hula Bowl, partly because he had a chance to play in next week's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

The Senior Bowl gets the marquee names because the NFL wants it that way.

"The Senior Bowl is the closest thing pro coaches have to a convention. Virtually everyone from every staff goes there," said retired BYU coach LaVell Edwards, who remains active with the American Football Coaches Association. "It used to be if you had the choice of going to the Hula Bowl or the Senior Bowl, it was 10 times more popular to go to Hawaii rather than Mobile. Seven or eight years ago the NFL made a big push, a P.R. campaign, telling the agents that their players' best chances would be to go to the Senior Bowl."

The Hula Bowl could regain some spice by going back to its previous practice of inviting draft-eligible juniors, Kebric said.

Many of the 50-plus scouts here will leave for Alabama without seeing the actual Hula Bowl game.

The Hula Bowl doesn't have Abraham Elimimian this year, but next year it hopes to have Abraham Lincoln -- the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. The Navy ship, now involved in operations to assist tsunami victims, has 3,600 sailors on it. Hansmire wants them in War Memorial Stadium next January, assuming the Hula Bowl is still being played there.

His other ideas include allowing randomly selected fans to call plays, and if the play results in a touchdown the fan wins a car.

Hansmire is clearly creative and connected. But so were former owners Lenny and Marcia Klompus, and they sold the Hula Bowl three years ago.

Hansmire said he has developed a good working relationship with the island's political and business leadership. He also admitted the Hula Bowl owes many Maui businesses money. That could affect future support.

Arakawa, the mayor, said the ball is in the court of Overtime Sports Pacific, the apt name of the 42-year-old Hansmire's first sports promotion company, since it is unlikely he can achieve success in this venture working 8-hour days.

"We don't fumble the ball," said Hansmire, a former college and NFL receiver.

"We have to leave it as a business decision by them," Arakawa said. "They have to adjust to our rules and regulations, but we're trying to accommodate them as best as possible. We think the game is a plus for the community."

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