Open Shots

By Dave Reardon

Friday, May 9, 1997


Francis’ No. 1 goal is
to keep the Pro Bowl

MOST of us in Hawaii would not live here if money was the determining factor. Who doesn't have friends and relatives in Seattle or Las Vegas or somewhere else because of economics?

So it is with the Pro Bowl. If the NFL owners put money above what amounts to rewarding its best players and their families with a vacation here, we can kiss the game goodbye after next year, when the current agreement runs out.

The city of Orlando, backed by Disney's big bucks, isn't Mickey Mousing around. It's going after every sporting event in sight, and the Pro Bowl is a prime target.

The game means a lot more to Hawaii than sports-world prestige and the chance for local fans to see their heroes up close in a glorified scrimmage.

It's a three-hour-long ad for Hawaii sunshine, beamed into mainland living rooms in the middle of winter.

It's also immediate income in the form of more Big Island fishing charters, more size double-X aloha shirts and more dinners in Waikiki.

NFL people have lots of money to spend. And the days prior to and after the Pro Bowl, when they can relax after a long season, is prime time to spend it.

Enter Russ Francis, the 14-year NFL veteran who came home to be a sportscaster two years ago but ended up as point man in this war with Orlando.

"Nobody can match the money of Orlando, which is positioning itself to be a sports Mecca with new facilities," Francis says. "We have to depend on other things that they can't offer."

His official title is state sports coordinator in the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. His job can be stated simply: Keep the Pro Bowl here and bring in other events that will develop sports tourism in Hawaii.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," Francis says. "I like to think that our long relationship with the NFL means a lot."

Francis is helping Gov. Ben Cayetano form a committee chaired by Honolulu City Councilman Mufi Hannemann that will work on "speeding along a new agreement with the league."

At least one key group wants to keep the game here: the players. Francis has secured an endorsement from their union. But he realizes that might not be enough.

"People keep saying, 'Don't worry, the players love it here,'" Francis says. "Well, the problem is the players don't make the decision.

"But if the owners don't listen to the players and they don't show up, there's no game."

As for baseball, Francis says there might be another Major League series at Aloha Stadium -- as early as sometime this season.

After last month's three-game matchup between the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals that marked the successful debut of big-league ball here, Francis' office has received inquiries from six other teams.

The latest to call are the Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves.

"It's been several weeks and interest has not waned at all," Francis says. "Now the teams have to look at the hard cold economics of it, and we're putting together an economic impact study to determine what (the state's) involvement should be."

He said an NFL preseason or regular season game is a possibility as well.

But sports tourism in Hawaii doesn't end with the NFL and Major League Baseball. Sports are going international like never before, and team owners and league officials see Hawaii as a stepping stone to a whole new market in Asia. Francis says professional baseball teams from Japan have been in touch, too.

When Howard Cosell called Francis "All-World" more than 20 years ago, it referred to his skills as a tight end. Now it might be an apt moniker as he plays a role in bringing sports worlds together in Hawaii.

But Job One remains: Keep the Pro Bowl.

Dave Reardon is a magazine editor and freelance
writer who has covered Hawaii sports since 1977.
He can be reached via the Star-Bulletin or
by email at reardon@aloha.com.




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