Column: L.A. teams heading to Hawaii to train and play games is the new norm
HONOLULU -- When the Rams announced they would be playing a home preseason game at Aloha Stadium last November, it was viewed as a one-off contest scheduled out of necessity more than anything else. The Rams were tied for the best record in the NFL at the time and likely would be playing January football in the Coliseum, pushing back scheduled renovations at their temporary home for at least a month. If the stadium wasn’t going to be ready until the end of August, the Rams needed a guaranteed site for at least one exhibition game and Hawaii seemed like the perfect fit.
“There hadn’t been an NFL preseason game here in 43 years and the Pro Bowl left three years ago so this was a chance to bring the NFL back to Hawaii and there was a real passion from the Hawaiian Tourism Authority to make this happen,” said Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff as he watched the team go through practice Friday in Honolulu. “It’s a chance to really plant some roots and strengthen our ties to the community here and make some long-term Rams fans in Hawaii.”
The Rams are the most recent Los Angeles sports franchise to tap into a market that has long been viewed as a home away from home for Southland teams. California is the largest state contributor to Hawaiian tourism with over two million visitors per year. The next closest is Washington with about 500,000. Walk into any sports bar on Hawaii’s eight main islands and you’ll be able to watch the same local teams on the same local channels you would in Los Angeles. Since most of Hawaii gets Spectrum, watching the Dodgers might be easier on the islands than it is for some in L.A.
“There’s always been a big connection to L.A. just because of proximity and the residents of Hawaii love their sports,” said Chris Tatum, president and CEO of Hawaii Tourism Authority. “Football and basketball are huge here. We’re close to L.A. and it’s a relatively easy flight, so proximity is huge but having a team come out here and reach out to the community and embrace us as fans is even bigger.”
The Lakers were the first Los Angeles team to do that on a consistent basis, holding 13 training camps in Hawaii, beginning in 1988. Before the team’s first camp in Honolulu, Lakers owner Jerry Buss said, “I have been coming to Hawaii for many years, and everyone over there seems to be a Laker fan. Since the people of Hawaii have seemed to adopt the Lakers, it only seems fitting that the Lakers adopt the state of Hawaii as their home, at least for training camp.”
“Dr. Buss loved Hawaii and the people who live there so much so he decided to host Lakers training camp there every few years,” Lakers owner Jeanie Buss told The Times on Saturday. “It was not easy for the staff having to move all the equipment to the islands but a beautiful sunset on Waikiki Beach could make you forget all the extra effort. The Lakers coaches, Pat Riley and later Phil Jackson, saw a special opportunity to build team chemistry. Also playing two preseason games in front of our growing Lakers ‘ohana’ (a Hawaiian term meaning “family”) Hawaii quickly became our home away from home.”
The Lakers, who last went to Hawaii in 2015 before training in Santa Barbara in 2016, have held camp in El Segundo since moving into their new $80-million headquarters in 2017, but Buss said there’s a possibility the Lakers could return to Hawaii in the future.
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“The NBA has shortened the amount of time and reduced the number of games played in the preseason, which creates a challenge in scheduling,” Buss said. “The Lakers hope to return to Hawaii soon and reconnect with the island spirit.”
When Hawaii lost the Pro Bowl, which had been played at Aloha Stadium for more than 30 years, to Orlando and Lakers training camp, the Hawaii Tourism Authority began to explore other options and reached out to the Clippers and later the Rams. The Clippers announced last week they will be holding training camp and playing two preseason games in Honolulu in October for a third straight consecutive year.
“These organizations are very smart and they know we have over a million and a half people here in the state of Hawaii and they love their sports and we love being fans of teams that love us and embrace us,” Tatum said. “So it’s great that the Rams and Clippers are reaching out to the community of Hawaii and hopefully making them Rams and Clippers fans, that’s a win for them and us. We’re over the moon to have them here. Hopefully we can continue that relationship and you’ll see a lot of Rams and Clippers fans here in Hawaii.”
In addition to the Rams playing host to the Cowboys on Saturday, the Clippers will be playing preseason games in Honolulu against the Houston Rockets on Oct. 3 and Yao Ming’s Shanghai Sharks on Oct. 6 while the UCLA men’s basketball team will be playing three games in Lahaina in November as part of the Maui Invitational. The games not only serve as a way to connect with fans in Hawaii but as a way for teams to bond before the start of the regular seasons. The Rams, for example, enjoyed a luau Friday night before Saturday’s game.
“We had been talking with Hawaii Tourism Authority in terms of ways we could work together and at the same time I was having a conversation with Doc Rivers and he was describing the year they won the championship in Boston they did an overseas trip and the connection that was developed with the team on that trip created a camaraderie and a chemistry that lasted throughout the entire season,” said Clippers president of business operations Gillian Zucker. “So it resonated with Doc as a great opportunity to do something similarly for our franchise and become a tradition.”
The Rams-Cowboys game sold out in March within 24 hours, the fastest sellout in the 44-year history of the 50,000-seat venue, and was projected to be Aloha Stadium’s biggest single-revenue producing event, surpassing a Bruno Mars concert last year. The success of the game has forced the Rams and the NFL to rethink the future of Hawaii as a destination for an annual preseason game.
“I think the NFL has looked at the success of this game in terms of the excitement and the sellout crowd and is paying attention,” Demoff said. “There’s a great passion for the NFL here and how we and the league feeds that in the future is something we’re still trying to figure out.”
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