SECOND OF TWO PARTS
Hawaii came out the winner among 14 candidate sections to host the just-completed 2019 American Youth Soccer National Games.
A total of 175 teams participating, most from out of state.
“We’re talking around 2,000 players and a total of between four and five thousand visitors,” said Clyde Asato, director of AYSO’s Hawaii section. “Especially the 10-and-under and 12-and-under are usually not going to be coming by themselves.”
“That translates into quite a few hotel nights,” said AYSO president Matt Winegar.
Although the games are during a peak time for visitors, it is still a windfall for Hawaii’s tourism industry.
“Obviously, Hawaii is a very attractive destination,” Winegar said. “Combining the attractiveness of Hawaii with the capability of the AYSO infrastructure made Hawaii a good candidate to host.”
Playing venues, accommodations, staff and referees are considerations when choosing a site, Winegar said.
Winegar and other national AYSO officials considered Hawaii a top candidate because of its track record of successful hostings in 2002 and 2008.
“We knew that Oahu could host, and prepare quickly because they do the Rainbow tournament (that includes mainland teams) annually,” Winegar said.
It was reported that the 2002 event made an $8 million impact via visitor spending.
This is the kind of sports event the Hawaii Tourism Authority is looking to attract more of to the islands, according to the new HTA chief, Chris Tatum.
Tatum said HTA and its affiliated organizations, the Hawaii Visitors Bureau and the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, want to promote youth community sports here.
Winegar said AYSO and the HTA (which is funded by Hawaii taxpayer dollars) are working on a plan where HTA provides some assistance to AYSO for staging the National Games here.
The Los Angeles Rams are at the other end of the spectrum of AYSO. The National Football League team is a competitive professional sports franchise. But in order to get the $2 million rights fee to stage its Aug. 17 preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys here, the Rams had to pledge a commitment to Hawaii’s youth.
“What (those who want HTA support) sometimes misunderstand is that we are not a promoter,” Tatum said.
He acknowledged that part of the HTA’s job is to brand Hawaii. Tatum used the PGA Tour’s fan base as an example of a demographic he hopes to attract, via continued support of the Sony Open in Hawaii.
But even that PGA Tour event supports Hawaii’s youth via its association with Hawaii Junior Golf.
“A major part of anything here (that HTA funds) is that it has to have (youth) clinics,” Tatum said.
The Rams are expected to put on a total of around 15 youth clinics while they’re here.
“We just had a team out there a couple of weeks ago doing some great stuff,” said Jason Griffiths, the Rams’ vice president of partnership sales. “We’re doing quite a bit of stuff with the high schools. In addition to a 7-on-7 passing event with 300 kids from public schools, we also had a cheer camp.
“In addition, during the week coming up to the game we’re doing various appearance opportunities around the island. Our goal is to make sure we’re spending a lot of time with the youth and the general community. We know how much of a priority that is in Hawaii. There’s no shortage of Rams fans in Hawaii. We want to be part of the initiative to establish a base of young fans throughout these community events, and with the military. We’re pretty committed to not being a flash in the pan, just in-and-out. We’re still trying to double-down on growing the Rams fan base to show that commitment with business and media.”
Griffiths declined to talk specifically about potential games in future years.
“Obviously we want to be respectful of our partnership with the HTA, but what I can tell you is we’re looking at this as long term,” he said. “We’re hoping this game inspires more teams to play NFL games in Hawaii. Also minicamps, training camps. We want to establish a year-round relationship.
“This is also a great opportunity to bring Rams football fans and NFL fans to Hawaii,” Griffiths added.
John Monahan is CEO of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau, which makes recommendations to the HTA on which events to sponsor.
“First and foremost is the kids,” Monahan said. “Of course we look at it from a marketing perspective, and we also look at the economics. ‘How many people will they bring?’ But there’s also a very strong component having to do with community.”
Tatum used the Polynesian Bowl as an example of an event with both local flavor and national interest.
“It’s a different kind of format in that it aims to bring players from all over the nation. This also helps to underscore the fact that it’s not just pro sports. Hawaii can do youth events. Also, football is real synonymous with Hawaii and Polynesia. … A lot of the actual leaders of the Polynesian Bowl are from here, grew up here and they don’t ask us for much.”
Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann is president of the HLTA. Part of his job now is to work with incoming teams like the Rams and Cowboys on marketing opportunities.
“Youth sports, we see as a major tourism booster,” Hannemann said.
He acknowledged that big events like NFL games and pro golf events get the most attention, but, “I’m seeing from a personal and professional view that (youth sports) could be a major revenue generator.”
For the past 13 years, the former basketball player at ‘Iolani and Harvard has taken a Hawaii girls high school all-star team to the mainland.
“It’s a huge market,” Hannemann said. “They travel well, and the parents accompany them.”
By “traveling well,” he means that families of youth athletes tend to spend money when they play in events away from home.
“It’s not just the participants, but the supporters,” he said.
Hawaii should take advantage of its facilities and tourist attractions to bring in more youth sports events, Hannemann said.
“It’s not Disneyland, but we have Aulani,” he said.
While sports travel to Hawaii can help the state’s coffers and inspire the state’s young athletes, sports travel in the opposite direction has become commonplace for many young athletes and their families. It’s a way for Hawaii athletes and teams to gain confidence and exposure, and in some sports win national championships.
Derrick Low’s ProFormance basketball club is just a couple of years old, but is already getting into the travel-ball realm.
“Absolutely. We’re just starting off, so we’re getting our footing with this,” said Low, who recently took a team to Tahiti for the second year in a row. “Those who do travel are the serious ones. They’ll be putting some money into it. We try to do fundraisers, but do believe in having them pay something. The younger teams don’t travel — they play here and prepare locally.”
Other teams travel because they win state championships and advance to regional and national competition. The most notable recent example is the 2018 Honolulu team that won the Little League World Series.
The team was on the road for more than two weeks as it won its regional tournament in San Bernardino, Calif., and then the World Series itself in South Williamsport, Pa.
Air travel is covered by Little League, and room and board is provided at complexes, at the regionals and in Williamsport.
“Little League does a good job. Everything is set up for you,” manager Gerald Oda said. “The complex is fun, but the kids will go nuts if you just keep them there. You have to get them out sometimes. One meal, that’s a couple hundred bucks right there. We’ll take them to a Chinese restaurant so they can get rice.
“You get breakfast, lunch and dinner at the complex, and it’s not bad. It’s not five-star accommodations, but it’s comfortable.”
Oda said there are other expenses, such as getting a van for ground transportation.
Family members must pay their own way for everything.
“It’s brutal for the parents,” Oda said. “It’s not cheap.”
Oda’s club team plays in tournaments on Oahu and neighbor islands. But when they won the Little League state tournament last year, most of the players were already seasoned travelers.
“It used to be some of these kids might never experience something like this at another time in their lives,” he said. “Since the advent of travel ball, everybody on the team had traveled, everyone except one player, multiple times.”
AYSO uses a lottery, not state or regional tournaments, to determine which teams play in its national games. Then the lottery winners raise funds to pay for their trip.
“The real purpose of our national games is to afford players and teams a chance to see different parts of the United States and promote intercultural exchange,” Winegar said. “On Tuesday was SoccerFest. Players are put on random teams, and they play with boys and girls they don’t know. Then they go back to their regular teams and start pool play.”