Gov. Neil Abercrombie threw into question the future of the state’s 32-year partnership with the Pro Bowl on Thursday, sharply questioning the $4 million the state annually pays the NFL to hold its popular all-star game here.
"That kind of egregious self-indulgence has to stop," Abercrombie said during a discussion on early childhood education at the state Capitol. "Four million dollars is a lot of money. That’s the kind of thing you have to look at."
The 2012 game is the last here under a contract with the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
HTA officials said Thursday, "At this time we are unable to speculate on any future Pro Bowl games in Hawaii beyond 2012." The game has been held at Aloha Stadium every year but one since 1980.
An NFL spokesman declined comment.
Hawaii Hotel and Lodging Association President Mufi Hannemann downplayed the impact of the governor’s criticism, saying he believes the NFL "recognizes that we have a new governor that doesn’t have a history of dealing with the NFL, so it is going to take some education, some relationship building, if you will."
Hannemann, who helped negotiate earlier contracts with the NFL as Honolulu’s mayor and who opposed Abercrombie for the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination, said the Pro Bowl remains a good investment for the state, and "we in the visitor industry stand ready to assist in building that bridge."
Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who also supported the game during his administration, wrote in an email to the Star-Advertiser that "(Abercrombie’s) statements suggest he is unaware of the Pro Bowl’s value — direct as well as indirect — to Hawaii. First, the NFL provides nationwide television coverage of Hawaii — nearly five hours of direct television as well as pre-bowl advertising of the Pro Bowl during the NFL playoffs that money can’t buy. Second, the game brings in thousands of visitors including many vendors and corporations that do business with the NFL. Third, the NFL contributes and supports local charities and other community activities. Finally, past administrations have done studies of how Hawaii’s economy has benefited from the game. The governor may find them worth reading."
Cayetano said, "These are some of the reasons Hawaii’s partnership with the NFL has lasted more than 30 years. Other states would love to have the Pro Bowl but Hawaii has had it because the players prefer our state over others. It would be penny wise and pound foolish to dismiss the Pro Bowl as some kind of escapade for benefit of billionaires and millionaires and throw more than 30 years of goodwill down the drain!"
The game accounted for $28.15 million in visitor spending this year and generated $3.07 million in state taxes from fans who said they specifically came to attend the game, according to study done for the tourism authority.
The game attracted 13.4 million viewers, according to Fox, which televised the game. The NFL said viewership made the game the "most watched all-star event of any sport since 2009."
"Why fix it if it isn’t broken?" asked Kevin Chong Kee, stadium authority chairman. "I think, for the past 30-plus years the Pro Bowl has come to Hawaii, the state has reaped the benefits in tourism."
But Abercrombie said austere times mean the state has to set priorities on spending, citing the $4 million as an example.
"This is a values question," Abercrombie said. "I’m not really that concerned (about) multibillionaire (NFL owners). What do they do with all that? How many sandwiches can you eat?"
Abercrombie said the Pro Bowl "happens to be an easy target because it is so stupid. You can’t do things like give $4 million to a $9 billion football industry and not give money to children."
He told reporters that he discounted the importance of the Pro Bowl in comparison to other economic stimuli, such as civil union ceremonies being performed here.
"Please, we will get more out of civil unions in a weekend then we will get out of those guys," Abercrombie said of the Pro Bowl.
A June 2010 study by UCLA researchers projected that legalized civil unions in Hawaii would attract $22 million to $50 million in visitor spending over four years.
Star-Advertiser reporters Mary Vorsino and Richard Borreca contributed to this report.