Four recent events illustrate the potential and pitfalls of Hawaii as a destination for sports and entertainment.

On the plus side was the Eddie Aikau big-wave surfing competition, which garnered international attention last month when it ran for the first time in six years. Same goes for the annual Merrie Monarch hula festival, held around Easter.

On the down side are embarrassing incidents like the Stevie Wonder concert “blunder” that was supposed to happen at the Stan Sheriff Center, and the canceled international soccer match at Aloha Stadium over concerns about the turf.

Some lawmakers at the Hawaii Legislature think the state could do more to attract major national and international sports and entertainment events. Pending legislation would establish an authority with that mandate, give it control over the stadium and task it with developing state-of-the-art facilities for professional, amateur and youth athletes.

House Bill 1847, which unanimously cleared the House Finance Committee last week, now awaits a full floor vote in that chamber this week before it can receive Senate consideration.

Rep. Scott Nishimoto wants the state to work to attract national and international sporting and entertainment events to Hawaii.

Rep. Scott Nishimoto wants the state to work to attract national and international sporting and entertainment events to Hawaii.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The bill’s sponsor thinks it has a good chance of passing.

“We’ve lost out on a few opportunities,” said Rep. Scott Nishimoto, who pointed to the example of the NFL Pro Bowl, which used to be an annual fixture and is today in danger of permanent relocation to other sites with better stadiums.

“We have no real point person or office to take the lead,” said Nishimoto. “We have got to do everything we can to maximize all the resources we have, and I don’t think we are doing that right now.”

Red Flags From Agencies

But HB 1847 received testimony from several state and county agencies and officials who raised concerns about elements of the legislation — procurement laws, legal expertise, funding sources and the creation of a new agency, among others — that could pose problems for its path through the Senate.

A Senate version of the sports and entertainment authority — Senate Bill 2216 — died in mid-February when two committee chairs could not see eye to eye on the legislation.

“We have got to do everything we can to maximize all the resources we have, and I don’t think we are doing that right now.”— Rep. Scott Nishimoto

The House version has been amended to reflect some of the concerns.

For example, HB 1847 had called for $10 million in funding from a portion of the revenues from the transient accommodations tax levied on hotels. In the current form of the bill the amount was left blank — a common way to advance a measure while answering difficult questions like funding at a later date.

The money would be placed in a special fund, and the authority would consist of an 11-member board with a paid coordinator.

The sports authority’s biggest booster is Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui.

Lt. Governor Shan Tsutsui waves to gallery in the House of Representatives on 2015 opening day of the legislature at the State Capitol. 21 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui says Hawaii “has the potential to establish itself as a premier destination for entertainment and sporting events.”

Hawaii has the potential to establish itself as a premier destination for entertainment and sporting events, as well as provide an ideal location for training facilities for youth, amateur, and professional athletes across many sports,” Tsutsui testified. “Hawaii’s unique geographic location can be an asset as a middle point between the Asia Pacific region and the mainland United States.”

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii sees a sports authority generating big bucks.

While the sports visitors industry enjoyed nearly $9 billion in spending nationally in 2014, only a fraction of Hawaii’s 8.2 million visitors that same year came to the islands for sports.

Marathons, B-Ball and ‘The Lion King’

And yet, several sports and entertainment events in Hawaii are proven successes, according to the Chamber:

  • The Honolulu Marathon generates about $5 million in tax revenue.
  • The Maui Invitational for college basketball attracted almost 5,000 visitors and generated $13.3 million in visitor spending in 2014.
  • “The Lion King” and Bruno Mars’ performances in March and April brought in close to $1 million in 2014.

Other major athletic events include the Ironman Championship on the Big Island (a triathlon) and the Sony Open on Oahu (golf).

Nishimoto, the bill’s author, is particularly interested in drawing tournaments for kids and teens.

“The one thing I want to see with this — and people don’t talk much about it — is attracting youth sports here,” he said. “We have the weather, we have the facilities out on the West Side, and a whole lot of kids and their parents could participate.”

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim gestures during Ways and Means meeting while listening to Mayor Kirk Caldwell. 4 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim says a Senate version of a sports authority did not address key issues such as costs versus benefits.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Senate version of the sports authority was very similar to the House version, and it attracted many of the same supporters and critics.

It passed the Economic Development, Environment and Technology committee Feb. 17, but the vote was murky: Three senators voted yes but four others voted “yes with reservations,” suggesting they were not completely sold on the idea. 

SB 2216 had a joint committee referral with the Government Operations Committee. But its chair, Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, refused to hold a vote, and so the measure died.

“Until we know how much it’s going to cost, should we try to shore this thing up under the Hawaii Tourism Authority or a Sports Authority?”— Sen. Donna Mercado Kim

Kim said chairs normally must agree on shared legislation, but she and the other chair, Glenn Wakai, were not able to do that.

“I explained to him that I asked the lieutenant governor about breakdowns on costs, how many people would be involved, what was envisioned, what were they targeting and what were the costs and benefits,” she said. “Because until we know how much it’s going to cost, should we try to shore this thing up under the Hawaii Tourism Authority or a Sports Authority?”

Kim’s concerns are detailed in documents posted at the end of this article.

The HTA, the state’s official visitor industry arm funded through tens of millions of dollars coming from the hotel tax, takes the lead on attracting major sports events to the state. It includes the NFL Pro Bowl, though HTA has come under fire for the cost to the state to host the annual event — $4 million.

Senator Glenn Wakai sits in during capacity joint House/Senate education meeting at the Capitol today as the legislature winds up for a close in a few weeks 22 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sen. Glenn Wakai, center, thinks the House version of a sports authority will get a good reception in the Senate, if amendments to the bill satisfy concerns of critics.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Legislature’s solution to that problem is to set up a task force to “plan and coordinate” efforts to keep the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, and to make Hawaii a host site for a NFL pre-season game, world-title soccer and mixed-martial arts tournaments and more. House Bill 2229 passed the House and now awaits Senate consideration.

The key to much of a sports authority is the status of the aging stadium. While it has undergone major repairs and renovations, it is still considered far inferior to comparable mainland facilities. Gov. David Ige has said he is not interested in throwing more money to the stadium, let alone tearing it down and building a new one.

“How in the world can we have facilities and entities for marketing of sports and not be doing the job?”— Sen. Glenn Wakai

George Szigeti, the HTA’s CEO, told House lawmakers it would be important that the HTA and a new authority “avoid duplicating efforts” and to ensure that revenues from the hotel tax “are sufficient to support all legislative priorities without imposing burdens on the market that could reduce Hawaii’s appeal to visitors.”

Asked about Kim’s concerns, Wakai said Kim was “not receptive” to his proposed amendments to the Senate bill.

“I just left it at that,” he said. “She had every opportunity that day and the next to tell me what she liked and didn’t like, but to just say ‘no’ and offer nothing in return, well … I put the ball in her court to make a decision because there was no more time left for me from a procedural stand point because we were at the end of lateral.”

Deadlines, Deadlines, Deadlines

SB 2216 was one of many pieces of legislation that failed to make the Legislature’s internal “first lateral” deadline Feb. 19, meaning the bills had to arrive in their final committee for possible hearing. The sports authority bill will not be heard by Senate Ways and Means, barring some legislative wrangling.

But the Senate will have a chance to hear the House version, assuming it clears the House floor this week — a pretty good bet.

Wakai said he thought the bill would do well in the Senate, assuming it was amended sufficiently to allay the concerns of Kim and other officials and agencies.

“It’s astonishing to me that we have a stadium around for 40-plus years but no marketing in place around that for 15 years or so now,” he said. “How in the world can we have facilities and entities for marketing of sports and not be doing the job? All those decades of efforts resulted in what we are seeing finally being discussed.”

But Kim is sure to keep a close eye on the House bill.

She is the senator, after all, that led lengthy, intense hearings on the University of Hawaii’s “Wonder blunder” and a lawmaker who has long scrutinized whether the HTA is doing its job to market tourism.

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