Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

The last-minute cancellation of an Aloha Stadium international soccer match, which was to pit the U.S. national women’s team against Trinidad and Tobago on Dec. 6, generated all sorts of national media coverage, an increase in scrutiny that some in Hawaii’s tourism industry feel damaged the state’s sports tourism reputation.

“I think it was a major black eye,” said Mufi Hannemann, the president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association. “We took several steps back, [and now] it’s all about damage control.”

Less than 24 hours before the match was scheduled to kick off, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced the match would be canceled, saying the artificial turf at the Oahu stadium “is not suitable to hold an international soccer match.”

In a Players’ Tribune story posted Dec. 7 and attributed to members of the U.S. women’s national team, who got their first in-person look at the Aloha Stadium artificial turf just one day before the match, the players said that coaches cut their Saturday practice down to just 30 minutes on the artificial surface, “so we wouldn’t risk injury before the game.”

The U.S. women went on to describe the field conditions, saying “there were sharp rocks ingrained all over the field. … The artificial turf was actually pulling up out of the ground, and the turf itself was both low-grade and aging. This was a playing surface that looked like it hadn’t been replaced in years.”

Aloha Stadium officials maintain that the facility’s turf was safe for play.

Earlier this fall, the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) seemed eager to share its excitement about the first-ever U.S. women’s national team match to be played in the Aloha State. The organization’s president and CEO, George Szigeti, announced the event in a late-October statement, saying “soccer is one of the most popular sports worldwide, and having the USWNT here will showcase our ability to host sporting events of this caliber.”

The HTA has been looking to grow the number of widely televised, major sporting events Hawaii hosts annually for some time, recognizing the substantial marketing value that footage of the Islands’ natural beauty generates during national and international broadcasts.   

Originally, the HTA agreed to pay $200,000 to serve as a marketing sponsor in support of the match. But in a statement earlier this month, Szigeti said that “none of the sponsorship funds have been paid out, as HTA has never received an original, fully executed and notarized signed contract from the U.S. Soccer Federation.”

Szigeti added that his organization hoped the televised U.S. women’s match would help to showcase the Hawaiian Islands to soccer fans worldwide.

“We were not aware that a cancellation was being considered until shortly before the team announced its decision late Saturday night,” he continued. “Obviously, we were very disappointed, especially for the fans who had bought tickets and were excited about seeing the U.S. Women’s National Team play in person.”

Hannemann is hopeful, meanwhile, that the recent Honolulu soccer fiasco might lead to a change in the way Hawaii pursues and then manages major sporting events.

“This should certainly serve as a wakeup call to the state,” he said, noting that key sports marketing management positions at the HTA have been vacant for months. “I think we need a state sports authority that will serve as a clearinghouse and a focal point for all sports-related activity and promotions.”

Hannemann, a former Honolulu mayor, said the idea for a state sports authority has been kicked around in Hawaii since the 1990s and been championed more recently by the state’s Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui. Hannemann also noted that a state entity of that nature could help with Hawaii’s ongoing saga about whether the NFL will commit to playing its Pro Bowl with regularity in the state in years to come.

But perhaps most importantly, Hannemann believes a state sports authority would help with “ensuring that people take us seriously.”

“My feeling is this: If we were Chicago, New York, St. Louis, San Francisco, any one of those cities that have a serious approach to sports, this never would have happened,” he said of the recent Honolulu soccer debacle. “They never would have canceled with less than 24 hours. But they did it here, and they got away with it.”

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