New York Jets center Kevin Mawae, who has Hawaiian blood, says he's happy to be in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl: "If God could make someplace this beautiful, think what heaven is like."

Pro Bowl roots
deep in Hawaii

The NFL and the state want
the all-star game to stay here

An NFL official, a head coach and two all-star players said yesterday they want the Pro Bowl to remain in Hawaii indefinitely as the league held a kickoff news conference here.

"Most of all we enjoy being around the people of Oahu," said Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, here to coach the NFC in the Feb. 8 game, the 25th in a row at Aloha Stadium. "If the NFL came back here every year I think there would be a lot of people, in particular the players, that would be happy we could be here."

But what will be said behind closed meeting-room doors by negotiators in the coming days?

The ball appears to be in the state's court now, as talks for a new contract beyond the current one through the 2005 game are set to re-open.

It's been estimated the Pro Bowl has a $100 million impact on the local economy, but many residents still balk at the $5 million a year the state pays the NFL to host the game.

Bill McConnell, NFL director of game operation/special events, said the league isn't looking for more money.

"We understand the position the state's in," McConnell said. "It's not pay us 'X' or we're out of here."

But Hawaii is a very expensive place to hold a game, especially for a league like the NFL that does everything first-class or close to it. Insurance costs alone for the Pro Bowl are close to $1 million per year.

Some recent signs seemed to indicate a breakdown in negotiations. The popular NFL Experience was replaced by a smaller Pro Bowl Festival. The league sued to get money it says it is owed by a Hawaii businessman. Reports of Los Angeles or Orlando hosting the game in the future surfaced. And there have been no meetings in recent months between NFL and state negotiators.

McConnell and Jim Steeg, NFL senior vice president of special events, said too much should not be inferred from any of that.

"This is where the Pro Bowl belongs," McConnell said when asked about the possibility of a different host city. "It's a matter of making it feasible -- which has been done for 25 years (in Hawaii)."

Also, the NFL chose to hold its offseason meetings on Maui next year.

NFL Experience was replaced partly because a contractor the league works with on the event was not available, people close to the subject said.

"We were looking at where we were at financially and with attendance (for NFL Experience)," Steeg said recently.

Rex Johnson of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, which represents the state in its NFL dealings, said the scaled-down side event doesn't indicate less commitment by the league.

"It's a freebie for two days, with many of the same things the paid event had," Johnson said. "I think when you do a freebie vs. a paid event ... it's because they're trying to celebrate their 25th anniversary here."

Steeg and Johnson both said they look forward to serious discussions about a new contract.

"We kind of suspended things early last fall. We'll rekindle them when we get out there," said Steeg, who is in charge of putting on tomorrow's Super Bowl.

"We expect to do some talking when they get in town," Johnson said. "They've been pretty busy with the playoffs and getting ready for the Super Bowl. I'm sure we'll sit down a couple of times when they're here."

Steeg said the league is still trying to recoup $558,000 that the NFL says Manuel Sanchez of Honolulu owed the league through ticket sales and sponsorship of the Pro Bowl.

"We haven't been paid and it's still being worked on by the lawyers," Steeg said.

All seem to be in agreement that the FieldTurf surface installed at Aloha Stadium since last year's game -- at a $1.3 million cost shared by the NFL and the state -- is a major plus.

"Definitely, from the player's perspective," New York Jets center Kevin Mawae said. "FieldTurf's a much more giving surface. Coming off a 17-week season the last thing you want to do is play on a hard surface."

Said defensive end Shaun Ellis: "It's much easier on the knees than regular turf. It fits good for me."

McConnell called the new surface "icing on the cake."

"(AstroTurf) had a lot to do with some players' discontent. And not just with this game," McConnell said. "The players are your most valuable resource. You want to put them on the best field possible."

The players said they aren't too enthralled with the long plane trip to Hawaii, and they grouse good-naturedly about paying for hotel rooms and tickets and shopping for friends and relatives. But once they get here they forget about it.

"I'm happy it's here," said Ellis, a first-time Hawaii visitor. "I'd only seen on TV how pretty it is."

Mawae, who is from Louisiana but is nearly half Hawaiian, made his feelings clear about where he thinks the game should be played.

"I think it's a great thing. It might be cheaper on the mainland. But it never gets old. The only thing that gets old is the flight," he said. "If God could make someplace this beautiful, think what heaven is like."


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