About the Author
Michael Tsai is an assistant professor of English at Kapiolani Community College and a former reporter and columnist for the Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published by the University of Hawaii Press and Center for Biographical Research of the University of Hawaii Manoa in 2020. It is taken from “The Value of Hawaii 3: Hulihia, the Turning.”
The vitality of a community’s sporting life reliably indicates its greater social, economic and even political well-being. The degree to which residents can engage in non-purposeful recreational play or participate in organized sport programs, and can consume as spectators amateur and professional sports — either live or via a myriad of electronic media — reflects and contributes to the quality of daily life in Hawaii.
It is worth reflecting on what we value as a sports culture, and on what we can do to preserve the sustaining force of sports in our community.
With year-round temperate weather, a broad network of parks and recreational facilities, and ready proximity to hundreds of miles of public trails and the surrounding ocean, Hawaii is quite literally a player’s paradise.
Residents and visitors keep busy some 75 golf courses across the state. More than 60 active canoe clubs offer recreational and competitive opportunities for thousands of participants in multiple age divisions. In Honolulu alone, there are 91 public tennis courts, nearly all regularly trafficked.
Prior to the pandemic, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of recreational athletes participated in road races, triathlons, time trials, open-ocean swimming events and other speed and endurance events each weekend.
Yet the raw numbers can be deceptive. In its 2019 report “State of Play,” the Aspen Institute argued that access to recreational and organized sport in Hawaii is not equal across race, region and socio-economic condition. According to the report, two-thirds of Hawaii residents live within a half-mile of a park. However, regional breakdowns reveal that this figure is heavily distorted by the concentration of parks and population in Honolulu.
Of course, enjoyment of recreational sports is dependent not just on access but on quality of experience. Thus, the maintenance of parks, as well trails and beaches, can also significantly impact their usability and the health and safety of their visitors.
For many residents, particularly on Oahu, recreational experiences can be compromised by the encroachment of growing homeless encampments and the crush of 10 million visitors per year to the state. The evidence is present at parks like Moiliili Field, which has long been ceded to the chronically unsheltered, or at any of Honolulu’s half-dozen most popular trails, where unchecked foot traffic exacerbated by commercial guided hikes for visitors has necessitated the installation of plastic-lumber steps and retainers and the dumping of tons of rock fill to stabilize deeply eroded pathways, essentially paving over the natural terrain.
Ala Moana Beach Park is a hub of local recreational activity. By day, the 100-acre space is shared by runners, cyclists, swimmers, surfers, stand-up paddleboarders, canoe paddlers, volleyball players and other everyday athletes and, in the pre-pandemic tourism peak, by a steady stream of Japanese wedding photographers posing their gown- and tuxedo-bedecked clients under trees, on the sand and along the waterline. At dusk, swimmers exiting the water make their way around throngs of visitors who, spurred by guidebook recommendations, line the shore to take smartphone photos of the sunset.
Such everyday incursions have been mostly tolerated by local park users but a hard line was drawn in 2019 when the city initially approved a plan by a private developer to build a $3 million playground (complete with zip lines) within the park. While promoted as a gift to the city, the project was widely viewed as a gift to residents of the pricey condominiums nearby.
The resulting public outcry effectively led to the project being scuttled, a victory of sorts for residents weary of seeing public spaces usurped for private interests and perhaps a message to lawmakers that the community’s recreational spaces need to be preserved and enhanced in ways meaningful to their host communities.
Native Hawaiians And Youth Sports
The significance of youth sports in Hawaii is compounded by its relation to educational opportunity. Children who show potential in a given sport are encouraged to specialize at an early age and are guided to private sports clubs and off-season camps to supplement the opportunities they get from their school athletic programs. Such investment can help to secure entry to one of the state’s elite private schools, a common goal for families seeking to flee the perceived inadequacies of the state’s chronically underfunded and underperforming public school system.
But private clubs can cost thousands of dollars per season and young athletes with working parents may lack transportation to practices and games, perpetuating differentials in opportunity that stretch beyond the field. The Aspen Institute report specified that Native Hawaiian youth, particularly those who live in rural communities, are disproportionately impacted by lack of transportation to recreational centers and inability to pay for private sports programs. There are no easy solutions here, but as a starting point the state and counties would do well to distribute funding with an emphasis on enhancing low-cost, park-based athletic programs as an alternative to costly private programs.
For Hawaii sports fans who enjoy watching as well as participating, there are nationally televised big-time professional sports and there is the University of Hawaii. What lies outside or between those two registers only sporadic interest. There have been numerous attempts at establishing minor league professional teams here, including the Warriors (football), Leis (team tennis), Volcanoes (basketball), Waves (volleyball) and Hammerheads (indoor football). None took.
The Islanders lasted 26 years and incubated the likes of Barry Bonds and Tony Gwynn but struggled with attendance and never recovered from the move from Honolulu Stadium to Aloha Stadium. Hawaii Winter League baseball had a pair of runs, neither of which meaningfully captured the imagination of local fans. There also have been numerous attempts to build a fan base for soccer, rugby, cricket and other internationally popular sports but none have gained traction beyond the periodic tournament or exhibition.
UH, then, remains the top spectator draw in the state. Despite lukewarm student support, the school’s signature programs maintain strong core followings within the larger community. Still, continual budget shortfalls for the flagship Manoa campus’ athletic department have required regular borrowing from the university to balance its accounts.
In 2019, the athletic department ran a deficit of $2.94 million, necessitating a $13.6 million loan from the university to cover $51.3 million in expenses.
While less than 20% of college athletic departments participating in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision are financially self-sufficient, UH’s specific situation does present unique challenges. Only a handful of sports — football, men’s basketball, men’s and women’s volleyball and baseball — either break even or generate a profit.
The heaviest investment goes to football, which supports the largest number of scholarship athletes and incurs the largest operational expenses. But the return on investment, which is relied upon to help fund the non-revenue-generating sports, is negatively impacted by high travel costs, travel subsidies paid to visiting conference opponents as a unique requirement of Mountain West Conference affiliation, low student fee support and a zero share of parking and concession fees from Aloha Stadium, where it plays its home games.
Attendance at games tends to fluctuate wildly depending on the success of the team, with a base of roughly 15,000 core fans and season-ticket holders. Given the dilapidated state of the stadium (a new stadium is scheduled for construction in 2022) and the at-times unruly atmosphere in the stands, many fans now share pay-per-view subscriptions for home viewing.
To avoid contraction of non-revenue-generating sports – a scenario that would be complicated by Title IX requirements that ensure equal access to participation opportunities for men and women — and establish a sustainable financial model for the department, UH will need to secure greater annual appropriations from the state and seek new means of maximizing its operating revenue.
If eliminating football or moving the sport to the Div. III level, as some have suggested, is unpalatable to local sports fans, it may be time for UH to seek specific support for programs that help to ensure Title IX compliance via a combination of dedicated state funding and private booster support.
To be a part of the daily life of the islands is to be subject to the promotional forces of the state’s No. 1 industry. Each year, the Hawaii Tourism Authority spends roughly one-tenth of its nearly $80 million overall budget on sports marketing. In 2019, that translated to $7,692,000, more than the combined amount spent on programs to perpetuate Hawaiian culture ($3,577,000) and protect and enhance natural resources ($1,802,000). The investment is meant to maintain and build upon a sports tourism sector that HTA values at $150 million.
HTA’s roster of sponsored events reflects a multi-pronged approach to its sports-specific and overall efforts to promote tourism. The NFL staged its post-season Pro Bowl at Aloha Stadium from 1979 to 2015, with the exception of two years, aided by an HTA yearly subsidy of approximately $5 million.
The state claimed that the subsidy was necessary to secure an event that annually drew as many as 47,000 more visitors to Hawaii and promoted the islands to millions of TV viewers. However, a 2015 analysis by the North American Association of Sports Economists estimated the actual number of additional visitors during the period at 5,596 to 6,726. With the departure of the Pro Bowl in 2016, HTA’s most prominent professional sports affiliation lies with the PGA and LPGA, which stage several prominent golf tournaments in the state throughout the year.
The state signed a four-year, $2.1 million extension with the PGA to continue hosting championship golf events on Oahu, Maui and Hawaii island. The arrangement provides promotional opportunities for Hawaii’s $1 billion golf industry and for the state as a whole.
HTA also sponsors dozens of other events, many of which are tied to local sporting traditions, like the Na Wahine O Ke Kai Canoe Race. In addition, HTA sponsors events that allow for community outreach by world-class athletes, such as a youth football camp hosted by the Los Angeles Rams in advance of the Rams’ exhibition football game against the Dallas Cowboys in 2019.
It is notable that the state has not provided direct financial support to the state’s largest and most economically impactful sporting event — the Honolulu Marathon. Staged each year on the second Sunday of December, traditionally a slow tourism period, the race draws tens of thousands of participants from Japan via aggressive in-country marketing by sponsor JAL and its subsidiary travel business JALPAK. While the Honolulu Marathon Association no longer commissions an annual economic-impact study, it previously reported in excess of $100 million in economic activity related to the event each year.
That figure can be misleading given that it includes spending that does not stay within the local economy. A more telling figure is the $4 million to $6 million in direct tax revenue that benefits the local economy. The Kona Ironman Championship claims $30 million in economic impact, with an outsize sphere of benefit to the many private, locally owned businesses in the area.
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In recent years, HTA has increased its interactions with UH athletics, a positive refocusing that bears watching. For a 2019 UH-Washington road game in Seattle, HTA paid $50,000 for an alumni reception, ti leaves for Hawaii fans and flights for the UH cheer team, who joined UW cheerleaders in a visit to a local children’s hospital. By investing in the top local sports attraction, HTA can continue to promote Hawaii tourism in meaningful ways while also helping to preserve revenue-generating UH sports and the non-revenue-generating sports they support.
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