Sports Tourism in Hawaiʻi in 2019

Feb 4, 2019

Young Hawai'i soccer players pose for a selfie with professional soccer players at the 2018 Pacific Rim Cup Keiki Soccer Clinic.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Professional soccer is coming back to Hawaiʻi. It’s not only for a short stay – but state officials hope the Pacific Rim Cup is part of a broader movement: growth in sports tourism for the islands. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi reports.

I met Pacific Rim Cup organizer Takehiko Nakamura at his makeshift tournament headquarters in the conference room of a Waikiki hotel. Surrounded by tournament posters, daily task lists, and boxes of sponsor swag, he reflects on the success of last year’s soccer tournament.

“The attendance 12,000 was something that exceeded our expectations,” says Nakamura.

The tournament isn’t a big moneymaker for him just yet. His strategy is to invest in community events like last year’s popular keiki soccer clinic and this year a high school all-star game between Japan and Hawaiʻi. He learned this lesson after several attempts to bring professional soccer to the islands.

“If there’s no local community support, I think there’s no fantastic event. And that’s what we saw in (20)08 and (20)12,” says Nakamura, “So right now we don’t see that much return on our end, but we believe the more we make the plate bigger, we could be able to serve better meals on top of it.”

State officials say sports tourism adds about $150 million a year to Hawaiʻi’s economy. Proven winners like the Sony Open give Hawaiʻi massive television exposure. And the Honolulu Marathon brings in tens of thousands of visitors and accounts for $100 million in economic impact.

“That’s part of it but there’s a huge part of it and that’s how does it impact the community? The residents, the kids?” says Chris Tatum, President and CEO of the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority, “By having those pro teams come here I think it’s hard to put a value on that and that’s kind of what I have to do.”

Last year, the state agency sponsored 26 different sporting events from college basketball and football to professional golf and a triathlon. And then thereʻs professional football. Tatum says this yearʻs headliner is:

“Obviously is the Rams coming in August. We wanna get them engaged, engaged with the community, do some clinics,” says Tatum, “You know you’re gonna have a lot of people fighting for those jobs in the preseason so I’m sure you’re gonna see some great football.”

The state agency spends about 10 percent of its $80 million budget on sports marketing. But a sport tourism destination is only as good as its facilities. Renovation discussions of the 50,000-seat Aloha Stadium have Tatum excited, not just for sports tourism but for the community impact.

“To have a facility that has activity not only for the stadium and sports and other concerts but also for retail and dinner, I’d tell you that that whole area would be so exciting to have something like that,” says Tatum.

But those are longer-term plans. For the moment, the sports tourism focus is on the professionals teams comign in from Japan and the mainland. The Pacific Rim Cup gets underway with its first games this Friday.