Olympic Hopeful

John Korff says buzz can bring the Olympics to Hawaii, but are the games worth it?

July, 2004

Sports and entertainment marketer John Korff measures the success of his events with one word: buzz. “It’s like being at a party. Where’s the buzz, what’s the feel? Look at the crowd,” he says.

The organizer of last April’s Olympic triathlon trials says the buzz for that Hawaii event was good. It’s just the beginning of his campaign to make Hawaii an Olympic-friendly state. “Anything’s possible. Hawaii could host the summer Olympics in 2030 or 2034,” he says, which could cement its reputation as a world-class sports venue, grabbing a larger share of the estimated $60 billion global sports tourism market. “You certainly have the entrepreneurial spirit here. You’ve got multiculturalism. It’s certainly convenient,” he says. “Why not?”

For 30 years, Korff has built his reputation on executing the unexpected. His A&P Tennis Classic combined a women’s professional tennis tournament with a chili cook-off, a 5K race and a Beach Boys concert. He has also organized world championship fencing tournaments amid commuters at Grand Central Station. “When you organize a public event, you have an obligation to entertain the public. You can’t take your event so seriously that it’s not fun,” he says. In addition to his own events, Korff’s unconventional style has led to consulting gigs for such organizations as the Senior Professional Golf Association tournaments and New York’s 2012 Olympic bid committee. For Hawaii’s Olympic future, he says the strategy should be to target more championships for outdoor sports that showcase Hawaii’s environment and bring in tourists.

Korff’s credentials aside, his “why not?” prompts another question: Is it worth it? For one, Hawaii lacks the infrastructure. Tom Kiely, CEO of Team Unlimited, thinks hosting the Olympics is out of Hawaii’s reach. “We can’t do that unless we undertake massive construction,” he says. Admittedly, Korff says it could not happen “unless one guy has $10 million to risk (on a bid), Olympic-sized dreams, drive and support.” Still, he insists, “No city had its infrastructure until the Olympics was going to start.” True, but the 1984 Los Angeles games earned $200 million only because it relied on existing stadiums and venues. In contrast, Atlanta reportedly spent $1 billion in construction projects and made only $5 million. Dr. Jim Barahal, president of the Honolulu Marathon, says that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “You could argue that events consistent with Hawaii’s goal as a destination could justify taxpayer subsidies, and we would be left with world-class facilities to attract future events or for local residents’ recreational use.”

Second, aside from independent studies conducted by individual events, the value of sports to Hawaii’s economy is a big unknown. The Honolulu Marathon and Team Limited’s Xterra World Championship Triathlon have measured economic impact by tracking direct spending by race participants and their companions, but this has limited application to the Olympic games, says Barahal.

“Olympic-qualifying events are for elite athletes, meaning you won’t have thousands of people in it. They’re not going to be large, direct-spending events,” says Barahal. Team Unlimited’s Kiely agrees, but says it depends on the sport. “The triathlon trials brought in only 50 to 60 (participants from outside the state) and everyone else was local. A triathlon might be a high-prestige sport, but some sports may have lower level prestige and might bring more people,” he says.

Ultimately, direct association with the Olympics’ brand may not be necessary, as Hawaii is already in talks with teams prepping for the 2008 China Olympics, says University of Hawaii Athletics Director Herman Frazier.

Like Korff, Frazier admits Hawaii’s prospects of being an Olympic host city may be slim, but not impossible, with the right leadership. “Billy Payne, who brought the games to Atlanta, was a lawyer who had a vision along with the mayor at that time, Maynard Jackson,” he says. Still, Korff expects mostly skepticism. “I guarantee you they’ll laugh. But that’s what they said about New York City; now it’s a front-runner for the 2012 games.” Spoken like a true Olympic hopeful.

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Maria Torres-Kitamura