HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The NFL said Wednesday its decision to move the Pro Bowl to Orlando, Florida, for the next three seasons is unrelated to funding, Aloha Stadium or Hawaii's ability to host the game.
Peter O'Reilly, the league's senior vice president of events, made the statement in a news release provided by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
George Szigeti, the tourism authority's CEO, said the agency will use the $5 million it would have paid for the game to support sport competitions and other programs. Some of the money will go to preserve Hawaiian culture and the environment, sponsor community festivals and events and bolster tourism marketing.
The Pro Bowl had been played in Hawaii since 1979, with the exception of two years.
O'Reilly said the league would keep paying for youth programs in Hawaii and continue a partnership with the state. "It really wasn't anything Hawaii didn't do, it was what Orlando can do and what Orlando has the ability to do in terms of family, entertainment and youth football," O'Reilly said in Orlando.
The game will be held at Camping World Stadium, which recently underwent $200 million in renovations in hopes of attracting the NFL.
In Honolulu, the game was played at Aloha Stadium. The Hawaii venue suffered bad publicity in December when the U.S. women's soccer team abruptly canceled an exhibition game there after players complained of poor field conditions. Stadium officials countered that the turf was only four years old, still under warranty and hasn't had any issues.
The tourism authority long valued the Pro Bowl, which is played during the winter, for the national television exposure it gave Hawaii when many football fans watching on the mainland were coping with cold weather.
The television broadcast of the 2014 Pro Bowl gave Hawaii exposure worth $26.2 million, the agency has estimated. The game also brought 15,000 visitors to the islands.
Mufi Hannemann, the president of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said the NFL had sent warning signals that Hawaii needed to up its game to keep the contest in the islands. "We lost focus, we didn't have creativity, we didn't have a plan. We really left it at the mercy of the NFL," he said on Tuesday before the official announcement.
Hannemann said Hawaii should have leveraged its long relationship with the Pro Bowl to get a preseason or other NFL game instead of the Pro Bowl. "We lost an opportunity to negotiate from strength — because it wasn't a high priority in my opinion," said Hannemann, who previously was mayor of Honolulu.
Leslie Dance, the tourism authority's vice president of marketing and product development, said the agency has thought about hosting a preseason game. The agency is in talks with people "about lots of different things. I'm not ruling out that that's one of them."
Dance noted a preseason game would be during the peak summer season for travel to the islands. Such a game would have to make sense for Hawaii and the NFL, she said.