Hawaii is a proud hotbed of sports fandom. It is the birthplace of surfing, a world leader in paddling and other ocean sports, the most represented state per capita in the UFC, an underrated manufacturer of soccer talent, and former national and world champions in volleyball and Little League baseball. We’ve got everything.

But there’s one omission on that list that would likely rile up readers if it went unmentioned: football. Football is arguably the state’s most-beloved sport, with strong youth participation and one of the highest production rates of collegiate players per capita. Even if it isn’t the state’s official sport, it is in many ways its most successful.

It is no surprise, then, to see the longstanding history of Hawaii hosting the NFL Pro Bowl, which has been the case every year since 1979, with the two exceptions of the 2009 and 2014 seasons. Despite the fact that Aloha Stadium seats significantly fewer okoles than most mainland outfits, it sort of makes sense for the Pro Bowl to be in Hawaii: We have ravenous NFL fans, and most players aren’t in season by the time the game rolls around, so they could use a nice vacation.

Plus, there’s all that extra money flowing into state coffers. Sure, the Hawaii Tourism Authority authorizes a 4 million dollar investment of taxpayer funds to subsidize the Pro Bowl, but that’s a small price to pay for all the money that comes in from it, right?


NFL Pro Bowl

The NFL Pro Bowl has been played in Aloha Stadium 34 of the last 36 years.

Nanea Kalani/Civil Beat

According to a study by economists Robert Baumann and Victor Matheson presented at the Western Economic Association International conference last week, the Pro Bowl actually has zero net increase on tourism-generated money. That’s not all. Not only does the HTA pay $4 million for the rights to host the Pro Bowl, it also pays $158,000 in game management costs, and the NFL keeps all of the revenue generated by ticket sales and media rights.

Basically, the HTA makes a down payment that is larger than the combination of all its other subsidies — the Ironman Triathlon, film festivals, Hawaiian cultural events — with itsr fingers crossed that people will fly to the islands in droves to watch it, spending their money in the local economy along the way. That’s simply not happening.

The HTA has gone on record to extol the economic virtues of the Pro Bowl, essentially conjuring numbers out of thin air to convince the public to continue trusting it with your money. In what can only be described as bush-league economics, the HTA creates its figures without correcting for obvious variables. As a single example, local residents who buy Pro Bowl tickets are used in the HTA numbers, when in reality, they would still be spending that money in the local economy if the Pro Bowl didn’t come; thus it becomes a zero-sum game, where money spent on the Pro Bowl goes to the NFL instead of local businesses. This is exacerbated by the fact that Pro Bowl money goes almost entirely to the NFL.

The study also highlights the “crowding out” effect that mega-events like the Pro Bowl have on local economies, where money generated by the game simply displaces regular economic activity, rather than multiplying it. This has been well-documented in several cities around the world that have the Olympics and come out none the richer for it. Not surprisingly, the HTA does not mention these confounding variables, instead taking rough, gross numbers and presenting them as proof of the Pro Bowl’s value.

The authors of the study accounted for crowding out by using daily airport arrival data from the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Because the Pro Bowl was hosted elsewhere this year (at the end of the 2014 season), they were able to compare tourist activity in the same time frames with and without it. They concluded that the Pro Bowl attracts 5,500-7,000 additional tourists to Hawaii. That is, visitors who would have otherwise not come to Hawaii anyway — a fraction of the 25,000-50,000 number that the HTA regularly publishes.

Local residents who buy Pro Bowl tickets are used in the Hawaii Tourism Authority numbers, when in reality, they would still be spending that money in the local economy if the Pro Bowl didn’t come.

Combined with the leakage of money spent that goes directly to the NFL, the study concludes that there is no discernible economic activity generated because of the Pro Bowl. This is a damning statistic when you consider the fact that the game eats up half of the HTA’s events budget.

The study contrasts that with the Honolulu Marathon, which receives no direct funding from the state, and results in a similar number of additional tourists and an overall bump of 2.5 percent on economic activity.

I love football. The blend of athletic savagery and grace is fascinating spectacle. But as a longtime fan and a sportswriter, the Pro Bowl isn’t that great anyway, especially since it’s been moved to occur before the Super Bowl.

Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie put it best in 2011: “You’ve got … these multi-millionaires and billionaires out there arguing about how they’re going to divide (the money) up, and then they come and ask us to bribe them with $4 million to have a scrimmage out here in paradise. We’ve got to get our values straight and our priorities straight.”

Hawaii Tourism Authority: You can still be football fans without spending our money on professional football players in a way that looks like you’ve been hit by them too many times. Get your priorities straight.

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