Nearly a year after Gov. Neil Abercrombie equated a $4 million fee to keep the NFL Pro Bowl in Hawaii to a "bribe," the governor has changed his tune.
On Wednesday, the League announced a new agreement that brings the game back to Aloha Stadium in 2013, and the governor couldn't be happier.
"This is wonderful news for football fans in Hawaii and elsewhere who love watching the game," Abercrombie said after the announcement. "It's also great news for NFL players and their families who enjoy coming to our Aloha State."
Last June, Abercrombie highlighted the amount of money it took to keep the all-star game on Oahu in contrast to other funding priorities, for example state spending on early childhood education.
"These multimillionaires and billionaires (are) out there arguing about how they are going to divide it up, and then they come and ask us to bribe them with $4 million to have a scrimmage out there in paradise," the governor said at the time.
The comments drew immediate criticism from many Hawaii residents and NFL fans, who view the Pro Bowl at Aloha Stadium as an annual tradition.
In announcing the new deal that brings the game back to Hawaii a week before the Super Bowl in New Orleans, the League and the NFL Players Association promised to work closely to improve the quality of the game, which in January was plagued by lackluster play that some criticized as a glorified scrimmage.
"We have had many discussions with the players in recent years about the Pro Bowl, and they recognize that the quality of the game has not been up to NFL standards," said Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. "We look forward to working with the players toward the goal of improving the competitiveness of this season's game."
In an afternoon press conference, the Hawaii Tourism Authority said it's paying the League $4.1 million for the privilege of hosting the game, roughly the same amount criticized by the governor.
HTA President and CEO Mike McCartney said Abercrombie's comments may have actually helped negotiations, since it brought the issue into laser-like focus.
"I think through those types of discussions and that dynamic conversation, we created a better product," said McCartney. "Going forward we're much better off, all of us I think, because of what happened."
Meanwhile, the HTA continues to huddle with the League on a long-term deal. The agency is seeking a seven-year agreement that would guarantee the game is played at Aloha Stadium at least five of those seven years.
"I think we're going to continue to pursue some type of arrangement like that," said David Uchiyama, HTA's vice president for brand management and chief negotiator with the NFL.
The new one-year agreement will afford the NFL more promotional opportunities in emerging Asian markets, specifically China and Japan. It's for those reasons Abercrombie changed his views on putting up taxpayer dollars to host the game.
"Kind of open up the idea of the game as an entrée point to the Asia-Pacific area in a way that maybe wasn't thought of before," said the governor. "I think it's going to blossom into something that not only is revitalized, but puts a smile on everybody's face."
As part of its marketing effort, HTA may include NFL imagery in advertising campaigns throughout Asia.
"We're going to be looking to expand their exposure through our marketing means, so that will happen," said Uchiyama.
HTA wouldn't reveal the scope of changes being planned during Pro Bowl week, but officials said the agency is thinking outside the box.
"There's some items that I'd rather not disclose right now because we're in a competitive environment for the game," said Uchiyama. "I think we've gotten pretty creative, and I think that got the attention of the NFL."
The HTA will also make more of an effort to include the neighbor islands as part of its Pro Bowl marketing, and hopes to attract more fans throughout the state.
"So, we'll be trying to work with the inter-island carriers, as well as the NFL, to be able to produce something that kind of fits that," said Uchiyama.
In March, the HTA released a study showing the 2012 Pro Bowl generated $25.3 million in visitor spending, with another $2.8 million in state taxes. The study also showed the nationally televised game reached an audience of 12.5 million viewers in North America, with a publicity value of $271.6 million.
In 2010, the Pro Bowl was held in South Florida a week before the Super Bowl. It marked the end of a 29-year streak of holding the game at Aloha Stadium, where it has been played the past two years.