Jayson Rego didn’t get a lot of playing time, and, hence, didn’t harbor big expectations for a pro football career when his five years as a running back at the University of Hawaii concluded in 2009. But a few games in the fledgling Hawaii Professional Football League’s recently completed first season, and the former Kamehameha star’s dreams are rekindled.
"Some doors opened," said Rego, referring to interest from the UFL, CFL and even a feeler from the NFL (prior to the lockout).
For now, Rego is focusing on rugby, but will also continue to consider football after playing for the Kailua Storm of the HPFL.
"The experience was good. It was pretty well organized. It’s a good way to keep playing," Rego said.
Likewise, a minor league baseball team, Na Koa Ikaika on Maui — which started its second season at Iron Maehara Stadium last Thursday — fuels the hopes of athletes for another shot at the big time, or, more realistically for most, merely an extension of their play-for-pay careers or a first opportunity at pro ball.
Owners in both ventures say they’re in for the long haul.
But — as always with professional sports teams in Hawaii — questions abound. The biggest have to do with money. Is there enough fan interest and sponsorship to generate revenue that will outweigh the huge costs involved? Are owners’ pockets deep enough to absorb substantial early red ink in the hope of future gains? Also, both ventures have potential conflict-of-interest concerns. How do they address these issues?
History tells us pro team sports in Hawaii simply don’t work financially. But the HPFL and Na Koa Ikaika made it through their first seasons (barely). New owners of the baseball team and the founder and owner of the football league say they look forward to long, successful stays on the Hawaii sports scene.
HAWAII PRO TEAMS
» 1946-48: Hawaiian Warriors (Pacific Coast Football League)
» 1961-1987: Hawaii Islanders (Pacific Coast League, baseball)
» 1961-62: Hawaii Chiefs (American Basketball League)
» 1974-75: The Hawaiians (World Football League)
» 1974-76: Hawaii Leis (World Team Tennis)
» 1977: Team Hawaii (North American Soccer League)
» 1979-80: Hawaii Volcanos (Continental Basketball Association)
» 1993-97, 2006 -2008: Hawaii Winter Baseball League
» 1994-1997: Hawaii Tsunami (U.S. Interregional Soccer League)
» 1997: Hawaii Waves (Professional Volleyball League)
» 1999: Hawaii Hammerheads (Professional Indoor Football League)
» 2002-2004: Hawaiian Islanders (Arena Football League AF2)
» 2005: Hawaii Mega Force (American Basketball Association)
Sources: Hawaii Sports (Dan Cisco, 1999), Honolulu Star-Bulletin archives
Bob Elder wants to make one thing very clear: The ownership and management of Na Koa Ikaika is completely different than last year’s. Hawaii Baseball LLC (a subsidiary of Western Sports and Entertainment LLC from Los Angeles) bought out the previous ownership and changed everybody and everything.
"We put that to bed," said Elder, the team’s vice president of marketing. "We’ve got a whole new energy and a different way of doing things."
The inaugural 2010 team fared well on the field, going all the way to the championship game of the independent Golden Baseball League. Financially, it was a different story, and owner Michael Cummings came far from meeting expenses.
That included more than $5,000 of $15,000 that Cummings was to have paid Maui County.
"We get nothing from the gate, but we have a contractual relationship, an annual contract where they give us $15,000 a year," said Patrick Matsui, deputy director of the Maui parks and recreation department. Matsui said the money goes directly into stadium improvements.
The new owners recently had a round of meetings with Maui officials and community leaders.
"They seem more credible," said Rob Collias, a veteran sportswriter with the Maui News. "They’ve got a track record in this."
Collias referred to the group’s success with another independent pro baseball team, the Orange County Flyers.
Hawaii presents unique problems, though, most notably travel costs. Airfare is among the biggest expenses for Na Koa Ikaika, especially considering all of the team’s opponents this year are based on the mainland.
Elder said the Maui owners will start a team in Hilo in time for the 2012 season, as well as one in Portland, Ore. That’s just part of their expansion plans. "Perhaps five to six clubs," Elder said. "Having more teams gives us more buying power for equipment and merchandise. It’s part of a three- to five-year plan, to stay and have lasting power."
Could this lead to stacking one of the teams with the best players, or other conflict-of-interest issues, especially when teams owned by the same group play each other? Elder said all transactions are scrutinized thoroughly by the North American League (the GBL, Northern League and United Baseball League merged in the offseason to form the NAL).
Elder said there are no plans for his group to start a team on Oahu. "No. It’s awfully difficult there and someone else has the rights to it."
Adding a team in Hilo will diffuse transportation costs, but it’s still a gamble. Clyde Nekoba, who was general manager of the Hilo Stars in the Hawaii Winter Baseball League, said a Hilo team can succeed.
"In the winter league, Maui and Hilo (attendance) increased every year," said Nekoba, who consulted with the new Ikaika owners and will likely have a leadership role with the new Hilo team. "We averaged 563 the first year and were almost at a thousand at the end." (In case you’re wondering, Ichiro Suzuki did not cause the increase; he played for the Stars in 1993, the first season of HWB.)
The question remains: Is even a thousand paying fans a night enough to sustain pro baseball teams in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Hawaii Winter Baseball tried twice, with solid organization and a bevy of attractive future big league talent. But it didn’t get enough support from Major League Baseball.
Elder said Na Koa Ikaika don’t have to average four-figure crowds to make it. "We actually figure around 800, if we factor in concessions and merchandise. Our goal is double that. If we do things right, we can get 1,500 to 2,000 a night."
The team drew 1,047 to Maehara for its opening-night loss to Lake County on Thursday. That dropped to 384 for Friday’s game, even with six players from Hawaii on the roster, including former Baldwin star Gered Mochizuki.
"Independent league baseball, just to begin with, is a tough gig," Collias said. "It doesn’t really compute (financially), even if you draw good crowds."
But Maui is baseball country, and optimism reigns in some corners.
"We remember last year, a standing ovation from 2,000 people, after the championship loss," Elder said.
"You could hear the screaming from the complex," said Matsui, whose office is more than 200 yards from the stadium. "It’s a very good level of baseball and a good venue. We want to support it because it can be a positive for our economy."
Gridiron Growing Pains
The league founder, CEO and commissioner had to sing the national anthem a couple of times.
Carson Peapealalo didn’t mind. He has some background as an entertainer, and that wasn’t even a problem compared to some of the other growing pains the Hawaii Professional Football League endured in its recently completed inaugural season.
The HPFL, with teams representing Waianae, Kailua, Honolulu and Ko‘olau, crawled to the finish line financially. It almost couldn’t play its final doubleheader of the season.
"The last game I wrote them a check," said Dr. Edison Miyawaki. "They were really desperate. They didn’t have the cash and the last game would’ve been canceled. The initial check from the league bounced."
Miyawaki is a co-owner of the Cincinnati Bengals. He said the donation, which he said was in the thousands of dollars, won’t be considered a conflict of interest by the NFL.
"That’s OK. It’s a gift. Not a big thing, a charity thing," Miyawaki said.
And charity is a key to financial success for the HPFL, said Miyawaki, who described himself as a "mentor" to Peapealalo, a former Kahuku football standout who is now an Air Force reservist.
Peapealalo took Miyawaki’s advice and filed for non-profit status for the league, which gives it some huge tax advantages. The league secured the status by establishing a foundation for education for the league’s players, many of whom do not have college degrees.
The Hawaii Iron Workers Union was the only official sponsor to provide a substantial financial contribution (Powerhouse Gym and Big City Diner supplied "mostly services," Peapealalo said). But the non-profit status, coupled with gate revenue, allowed the league to pay out between $8,000 and $10,000 to each of the four team’s owners, Peapealalo said. He also said the league is awaiting payments from two of the teams for their $25,000 franchise fees.
Despite the financial concerns, Peapealalo plans to add a team for next season, representing either Hawaii Kai or Kahuku. Interisland is out of the question for now because of travel costs.
"Yes, there will be a second season," he said. "Right now we’re going over what worked and what didn’t work. The quality of play improved as the season went along and guys got into football shape. For example, (former UH star) Nate Jackson. You could see him getting back to himself, and he promised, ‘You’ll see an even better Nate Jackson next year.’
"There’s still a lot of damage control that the league has to do. There are rules and regulations that have to be followed," Peapealalo said.
He said the league had to cancel a game because alcohol containers were found at a school field.
"This is a professional football league and it should be at a professional venue," he said, emphasizing that playing all games at Aloha Stadium and allowing tailgating is a key.
Still, Peapealalo said he was happy with the size of crowds at the school fields, even when he stopped giving away tickets.
"It was 90 percent comps at first. I told him that wouldn’t work," Miyawaki said. "After he started to charge, the fans remained enthused. There were about a thousand at Radford. There are some things to work through. In summary, I’m very encouraged."
Peapealalo said his main goal of giving football players in Hawaii a stage on which to perform and on which to be seen after high school and college is being met.
"This started as grass roots with no advertising. Look where we’re at now. I believe you build the house first, and then you sell the product to the community."
Ko’olau Hurricanes owner Dave Zavas said he’s optimistic. "I would tell you that like any new organization there were rough spots and some mistakes," he said. "But especially considering no one thought we could make it, I think overall the league did a decent job."
The definition of a professional league might differ to some, but in my mind it comes down to the players getting paid.
We remember the horror stories of even the Hawaii Islanders — the most successful and longest running pro franchise in Hawaii sports history — not meeting its payroll. It was a tipping point in a long decline that finally ended in 1987 with the franchise moving, nearly 10 years after a bailout led by Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi.
Na Koa Ikaika players, who, like the team and league, are not affiliated with major league organizations, make $800 to $1,000 a month.
As of Saturday, not all of the HPFL players had been paid. Jayson Rego was among those who had. He was told he’d get $600, but was happy with the $200 he received Friday.
"I get it that it’s a new league and things happen along the way," he said. "Our team owner (Tony Godinet) is a stand-up guy."
Rego said he would have played in the league for free. And he’ll play again next year if he’s not otherwise committed. "It was really more about the chance to keep playing. Get on some film and get in shape."
Pro sports teams are a boon for Hawaii athletes and sports fans, for as long as they last. You just can’t get your hopes up too high about anything longlasting.
Despite the risks, there seems to always be a long line of entrepreneurs willing to take a chance — either with their own money or that of others. Because so many ventures have failed before, it takes a lot to get most in the state to invest … financially or emotionally.
Reach Star-Advertiser sports columnist Dave Reardon at firstname.lastname@example.org, his "Quick Reads" blog at staradvertiser.com and twitter.com/davereardon.