Kansas City tight end Tony Gonzalez celebrated a touchdown in last February's Pro Bowl

HTA looks over playbook
to boost sports marketing

The recent passage of Act 58
gives the agency the green light
to form an athletic commission

The Hawaii Tourism Authority is attempting to find the play that will show them the money in the highly competitive sports marketing arena.

Members of the authority yesterday discussed forming an independent sports commission to help them secure a better sports lineup for the state's tourism team. It's not a new topic. Members have been discussing the need to garner a greater share of the $60 billion global sports market for years; however the recent passage of Act 58, which authorizes the HTA to hire a sports marketing professional if they so choose, has extended the topic's playing time.

Sports tourism is a big stakes game. That's why HTA officials have said their next strategic plan, which is scheduled to come out in early fall, should capitalize on the increasing popularity of sports tourism, yet also include NFL and PGA level signature sports.

"We are realizing that we didn't probably do the best job that we could as an HTA," said Marsha Wienert, Gov. Linda Lingle's tourism liaison. "It's a market segment that's basically untapped within our state. We feel very strongly that the whole sports category should be part of our long-range plan."

The state has to balance its big-name sports spending against a need to seek out opportunities to create sporting events that will bring more first-time visitors to the state and can be timed to boost travel during May, June, September and December, which are traditionally the state's slower months, Wienert said.

There is no denying the positive economic impact high-level NFL and PGA spectator events bring to Hawaii. Last year, the Pro Bowl brought more than 18,000 visitors to Hawaii and generated as much as $28 million in visitor spending, as well as $2.7 million in state taxes, according to the HTA.

However, tourism officials have said they also see the potential in adding more events like the Honolulu Marathon, which doesn't cost the state any money but generates higher visitor numbers and spending during a traditionally soft period.

Lifestyle events like marathons, bike races, surfing contests and soccer tournaments attract visitors by offering amateur athletes the chance to play their sport against Hawaii's coveted backdrop of blue skies, clear water, and swaying palm trees, said Tom Kiely, chief executive officer of Team Unlimited, which runs the Nissan Xterra World Championship triathlon.

But it's possible that the HTA doesn't have adequate resources to decide which events to attract, which events to fund and how to market these tourism opportunities, said Ron Wright, vice chairman of the HTA.

"The conundrum over the past few years is that we haven't been able to hire anyone or to form a sports authority and we've let some of our opportunities languish," Wright said, adding that with the passage of Act 58 that cap has been lifted.

Making sports decisions has been a tremendous challenge for state tourism officials, who have often used the catch-as-catch-can method in deciding which events to sponsor, said HTA member Vernon Char.

This year, officials will pay $5.3 million to host the Pro Bowl -- that's about double what they spend on any other event. The state also will spend $2.1 million to bring six PGA golf tournaments to Hawaii. Those funding decisions will leave state officials struggling to decide how to divide an additional $585,000 among 10 other events.

"In looking at the budget and the amounts that we spent on the Pro Bowl and golf in comparison to other events, it appears someone needs to take a look at the whole sports program and its objectives," said Char.

When the HTA funds large contracts; it means the authority has less to spend on developing new sports tourism products. Forming a sports commission would help leverage the state against competitors by giving contract negotiators the latitude to deal with public and private funds, said Mark Rolfing, former HTA member and Pro Bowl negotiator.


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