The absence of the NFL Pro Bowl is no less painful to the state of Hawaii than it was when it happened for the first time two years ago. Every city relishes opportunities to host large, high-profile events. For a geographically isolated state whose economy relies primarily on visitation, though, such events can be particularly impactful.
It might seem easy to dismiss the loss of revenue enjoyed by the posh hotels and luxury accommodations that we tend to associate with Hawaii, but beneath Honolulu’s shiny corporate tourism veneer is a population desperately reliant on income from external sources.
“The real value of the game, though, was in who it brought that money to.”
Past the sun-baked tourists and swaying palms of Waikiki, between the glinting glass giants that define Honolulu’s skyline, my young family and I would pass on our way out to Aloha Stadium nearly every weekend. My son’s tanned toes would swing as my daughter sang songs to him and practiced her hula hand motions. They’d cheer as we pulled into the stadium parking lot to enjoy the state’s largest open-air market.
Before us lay a giant ring of hundreds of vendor booths operated by Hawaiian locals attempting to scratch out a living in the state’s forbidding economy by hawking puka shell necklaces, Hawaiian print clothing, and coconut water still in the coconut. In the background loomed the venue for Hawaii’s most profitable annual entertainment event since 1979.
If you’ve never lived in Hawaii or another very remote location, it can be difficult to appreciate how isolating that type of distance can be. During a portion of the time that I lived there, there was a state-wide shortage of toilet paper and other necessities because one major shipping company went on strike.
Compared to many mainland locations, it can be inconvenient, costly, and time-consuming to get both products and people to Hawaii. This drives the cost of many everyday consumer items up to levels unparalleled in the lower forty-eight, making the struggle for survival quite arduous for many Hawaii residents. The travel situation, along with the relatively small population, means that the islands haven’t been seen as a viable location for any professional sports teams, or often even for major concert or performance tours.
The thriving tourist industry does support the state, shouldering the lion’s share of the revenue load. While there are minor fluctuations in tourist flow throughout the year, though, there’s not necessarily a narrowly concentrated tourism period. For 37 out of 39 years, NFL Pro Bowl weekend provided a much needed financial shot in the arm for Hawaiian locals.
How much difference could the Pro Bowl have made in just a few days each year? It is estimated that the 2014 television coverage of the game provided Hawaii with $26.2 million in exposure to folks watching back on the mainland (and that doesn’t include the actual influx of visitors during the week of the game). The game accounts for a significant enough amount of revenue that Orlando, Florida, was willing to spend $200 million in renovations to host the game for the three years after it left Hawaii.
It’s no secret that the top stars in the NFL earn impressive salaries or that some are prone to generous spending. It was a popular trend for many of those players to turn Pro Bowl weekend into a group vacation for family and friends, usually staying for one or more weeks.
The real value of the game, though, was in who it brought that money to. Sure, the major hotel corporations got their cuts, but so did their many paycheck-to-paycheck employees.
Waiters, drivers, housekeepers, private vendors, valets, security guards, bartenders, tour guides, and many of the locals who normally find themselves on the less pleasant side of Hawaii’s disparate economic environment all benefitted in very impactful ways during that one weekend every year.
Amidst a growing atmosphere of access to other exotic travel destinations, the state of Hawaii (and the island of Oahu, specifically) lost the one event it could count on annually to give a lot of its less fortunate residents a much needed financial boost.