Getting on the Ball

In an arena where other sports franchises have failed, the Hawaiian Islanders push forward with a new kind of game plan.

July, 2002

The newly formed Hawaiian Islanders had one week to prep for their inaugural game in March, but the players weren’t the only ones hustling in pre-season training. Off the field, the administrative staff scrambled to market the arenafootball2 expansion team as something Hawaii had never seen.

The odds weren’t promising. Hawaii had already seen its share of unsuccessful professional franchises. It didn’t help that the new venture shared its name with the Triple A Hawaii Islanders baseball team, a Pacific Coast League franchise that left in 1987 after 27 years in the state. More recently, the Hawaii Hammerheads struggled with low ticket sales, even after winning the Indoor Professional Football League title in 1999. That operation folded the following year.

“We had to come up with a marketing plan to identify who we are,” Director Carl Vincenti says. “We’re the Arena Football League, and the league requires a three-year commitment financially.”

Arenafootball2, or af2, is the Triple A offshoot of the AFL, a 16-year-old “fan-friendly” football league whose games are played on 50-yard indoor fields. The af2 started with 15 teams in 2000, mainly in midsize cities with arenas that can seat 6,000 to 12,000 fans. Last fall, Honolulu was the ninth city awarded an expansion team for 2002.

That gave Islanders’ owners Kimberly Wang and her father, Charles, and staff about six months to recruit and train players, purchase equipment, enlist sponsors and reserve a home-game venue in time for the March 30 season kickoff. Luckily, the Wangs weren’t new to the sports-franchise business. Charles Wang, chairman and founder of Computer Associates International Inc. (NYSE: CA), owns AFL’s New York Dragons and co-owns the New York Islanders of the National Hockey League. The projected revenues for his California-based company in fiscal year 2003 exceed $3 billion. His daughter runs a sport horse and boarding business in Hawaii, where she’s lived for eight years.

Still, the learning curve was tremendous for the administrative staff and most of the recruits, many of whom had to adjust to playing both defensive and offensive positions under AFL rules.

“All the costs associated with running a team, whether it be AFL or af2, are the same,” Vincenti says. “From that perspective, the budgets really have a lot to do with the demographics and the seating capacity and the support you get from local companies.”

More than 4,400 people attended the March 30 season opener at the 6,800-seat capacity Blaisdell Arena. At the May 11 game, about 4,500 fans turned out, although, by that time, the team was battling a five-game losing streak.

“Hawaii has always had a strong football fan base,” Vincenti says. “And we put the program together to market it to the community as an ideal evening out on a Saturday.”

The Islanders’ sponsorships include small-business contributions of $400 to much larger ones, like Ohana Hotels, whose sponsorship exceeds $100,000 for the season.

The team sells a few thousand dollars’ worth of merchandise per game —banners, mini helmets, polo shirts, and so on. Nearly all of the team’s products are purchased from local vendors, he adds.

“It was basically a mandate from the ownership that we utilize local businesses here,” he says. “It’s paying people from Hawaii who, in turn, will spend money in the community.”

Giving back to the community has always been one of the main goals of the team, says Jesus Salud, the team’s community relations director, who’s better known as a former world champion boxer. The Islanders have established youth educational and athletic programs and donate game tickets for high school fund-raisers.

“It’s important for the community to know that our long-term plan is to be here,” Vincenti says. “We can’t stay here if we don’t get the support from the community and businesses, and they’ve both been good to us. It’s exciting for the state of Hawaii and what this means in the long term in the introduction of sporting activities.”

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