Neal Milner: A Post-Pandemic UH Football Stadium Means Tamping Down Aspirations - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

“Aloha, and welcome to Party Planner Stadium.”

How did University of Hawaii football go from a 1975 state-of-the art stadium to a new, desperately cobbled together on-campus venue so small that game day could be run by a party planner?

It’s the building. Instead of constructing a stadium that fit Honolulu, we built a generic 1970s Mainland Major Sports Venue Ball Park like the then-new stadiums in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and that chilly tomb Candlestick Park in San Francisco. No sense of community, just ugly containers of many, many seats.

It’s about fit. The mistake was that it was a generic design for a place that is not generic.

The basic idea for Aloha Stadium was wrong because it got the city wrong. It also got UH football wrong because it did not see what bigtime college football was becoming.

Trying to copy the big boys worked for a while, with large crowds for UH football. But once pro baseball moved from the old Honolulu Stadium to Aloha Stadium, the team dwindled from the best minor league franchise in America to bye-bye Hawaii.

And then the full-stadium, big-stadium football dream came to a sad, but absolutely predictable, halt.

Honolulu Stadium, the city’s main outdoor sports and entertainment venue from 1926 through the early ’70s, managed to fit. It was an old-school stadium for an old-school city.

The histories of Honolulu Stadium describe its intimacy, its funky comfort. The sportscaster Al Michaels, who broadcast Hawaii Islander games before he made it big, called the stadium “Brooklyn of the Tropics” and compared it to Ebbets Field.  Internet forums about Hawaiiana often mention the memories of surviving fans.

The Aloha Stadium model was definitely anti-Ebbets, post-Ebbets. It was LA Dodgers rather than Brooklyn Dodgers.

Aloha Stadium was designed as a new-school stadium for a new-school city.

Honolulu has definitely become a different kind of a city than it was in 1974, or even 1984 for that matter.

It’s more hectic, and there are, for better or worse, more things to do, often with less time to do them. More choice, more complexity, more hassle, more sprawl.

In some ways Aloha Stadium was designed with this in mind. Its location is totally car-oriented, right in the middle of the island.  It had a big-box, corporate sports feel.

A perfect venue, the thought went, for University of Hawaii football to compete with the collegiate big boys.

Instead, it has been far from perfect. The theory behind the stadium did not take into consideration some other parts of urbanization particular to Honolulu that work against this kind of stadium’s success.

Aloha Stadium was built in an era of enormous concrete football stadiums that has now passed. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Hawaii’s history with televised sports is very different from the continent’s. When I moved to Honolulu in 1972, cable was still not available in the back end of Manoa where I lived. Live televised sports were a novelty here well after they had been available to the rest of the country.

People here today not only have more alternatives but — think of your own hectic weekends — less time to devote to a college football experience that begins early in the afternoon and goes into late evening. And of course, there is pay-per-view for UH games.

The University of Hawaii is at its heart an urban commuter university, but college football is not an urban spectator sport.

With few exceptions, big time football programs are in college towns. Only three of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. have major college football programs.

One of these three exceptions, the University of Houston, which is the most similar to UH’s program, has experienced huge attendance declines. In 2019 that UH’s attendance averaged around 25,000, not much different from our UH’s 20,000 that same year, when the Rainbow Warriors had an excellent 10-5 record.

It has become much harder for UH to become one of the big boys than it was when Aloha Stadium was built. The revenue disparity between the power conferences — you couldn’t choose a more appropriate name — and the rest, like the Mountain West Conference, has increased and will increase some more.

Economically the system is rigged to make the haves more have and the have-not’s more have-not. In perpetuity.

Even if everything else had worked well with Aloha Stadium — the rust proofing hadn’t caused rust, the movable seats actually moved, repairs were done on time, the arrangement between the stadium authority and the university had not been master and slave — the changes in both the city and football would have doomed Aloha Stadium.

So now what?  What does the state do at this crucial stage when Aloha Stadium is shuttered and officials are kinda, sorta planning a new venue to replace it?

Should the new stadium be more intimate and more integrated into the community? That’s the trend in Major League Baseball. Every one of the cities that built those awful Aloha-Stadium type venues have replaced them with small venues that are so self-consciously intimate and old school that you expect Liberace to lead us in the national anthem.

I’ve been to games at some. They are great. But they are only for baseball. These cities have built separate, much larger football-only stadiums.

Both pro and major college football have gone totally the other way. The power conference bigs have gotten even bigger.

Arthur Daemmrich, the director of the Smithsonian Institute’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention, recently wrote a piece on the design of what he calls “post pandemic stadiums.”

He says that after being cooped up and isolated watching small screens, people will be more willing to return to the firsthand experiences and crowds that stadiums offer, sort of Aloha Stadium’s pattern in reverse.

It will be a particular kind of stadium — one that “feature(s) even greater community integration and design of flexible spaces to support a more individualized and mobile experience.”

This sounds vaguely like what planners are talking about here.  The proposed size fits — a 30,000 to 35,000 seat stadium. There is some talk about how it would link to the community.

The thing is these ideas are even less developed than they were a few years ago. What we know about the stadium plan raises red flags.

It would involve a public-private partnership where the private company would build the stadium in exchange for the right to develop housing on that presently vast and lonely Aloha Stadium parking lot.

From what we know right now, this all seems too much like a government giveaway, and the developers’ ideas about integrating the stadium with other surrounding activities sounds too much like an excuse for more tourist-oriented development.

And who knows if it will ever be built? We are still living with the effects of rail trauma. The dipsy-doodles about the stadium over the past few years do not instill confidence that it will be any better.

File photograph of UH vs UNLV at Aloha Stadium.. ALOHA STADIUM, HONOLULU, HAWAII. photo CORY LUM/ CIVIL BEAT
People may be looking for a different kind of live sports experience in the post-pandemic era. Cory Lum / Civil Beat

You may get to see your second-grade granddaughter place kick for the Rainbow Warriors at the new stadium, but you’ll probably have to drive.

But here’s the thing: A small stadium, no matter how cool and friendly, means that people here have to readjust their aspirations about UH football.

Even if all goes well, UH football will not match the pretenses attached to it when Aloha Stadium was the venue.

The new size will be much smaller than the average for a NCAA D-1 football stadium, and right down there with a bunch of teams that are occasionally good but never make the bigs.

The television networks’ and power conferences’ Iron Fist of Sports Economics will keep UH athletics a money-losing proposition, just as it is in all but a handful of schools around the country.

UH football fans, here is a new vision for football in Post-Pandemic Stadium. UH football attendance has dropped to a bit over 20,000. It’s going to be half that at best until a new stadium opens.

So, let’s guess that down the line somewhere, Post-Pandemic Stadium attendance will average around 22,000.

That’s about what old Honolulu Stadium got on a good football day and roughly halfway between a Post-Pandemic full house and a packed Party Planner Stadium.

Limbo Bowl rather than Rose Bowl. Ball State rather than Ohio State.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Time will prove what's right and what's wrong here. If another white elephant is built on that precious piece of public land, this will be a stain on Governor Ige's legacy.  Although our community has been critical of Governor Ige's leadership in this pandemic, most do not consider him to be dishonest.  But just as the failed Rail Project has left feelings of distrust and anger in the public's mind about Mufi, a failed AS Project where a profit-motivated developer is reaping the benefits from public assets will create ill thoughts in the public's mind.  Future politicians will blame the past politicians, and Gov Ige will take the blame.Just as the public will never forget or forgive Mufi for the Rail Project (despite laying blame on Caldwell), the public also will never forget or forgive Ige for allowing this to happen with the AS lands under his watch.Governor Ige, think about this when you ponder whether to sign or veto that special legislation to create a super authority for the AS lands. You might be creating a "Monster/Machine" that will cause great harm to the public for a long, long time, and thereby cause your reputation and image to be destroyed forever.

LostAndFound · 2 years ago

UHM should  build out Ching Field into ac 20,000 seat stadium. Play UH & high school  games at a facility that will be reasonable in costs. Don't pay ripoff rents; avoid no concession fees splits, splitting cable  broadcast fees with private operator. Stadium Authority,  state DAGS controller, Legislature &  Governor should be ashamed promoting a white elephant new entertainment district that will be a money loser like our 20 year old State Convention Center. Don't spend $330 million in bond financing. Redirect to repair/ upgrade our schools that need new technolog so our kids can benefit & improve learning skills. Start work on art least  $300 million in backlog repairs. Most schools are a disgrace with unsafe conditions of mold, mildew & more. Go visit your nearby school, esp in areas where communities no more kala to donate to schools. Stop this NASED BS! Most of us no more entertainment $$. And don't give away acres of state land to a developer who will make millions developing housing without any public purpose. Lease the 90 acres to nonprofits  & affordable housing developers to build quality, workforce rental housing for teachers, health/service workers and more. 

Expat_808 · 2 years ago

Seriously, spectator sports are a thing of the past. They actually encourage obesity in our society. Quit wasting money on that type of entertainment.

Scotty_Poppins · 2 years ago

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