LAHAINA - The direct economic impact of the EA Sports Maui Invitational NCAA men's basketball tournament, now in its 26th year here, is routinely estimated at about $8 million.
That includes hotel rooms, rental cars, restaurants, bar tabs, boogie boards, macadamia nuts, Spam musubi, shave ice. It's a very nice bump during the Thanksgiving holiday week, especially in this anemic economic environment, said Maui Hotel & Lodging Association Executive Director Carol Reimann.
But the real impact goes way beyond that, tourism, government and business leaders said of the Grade-A tourney that starts Monday and culminates Wednesday evening at the Lahaina Civic Center.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
A packed house at the Lahaina Civic Center watches Duke battle Princeton in a Maui Invitational first-round game in 2007. Maui tourism officials said the tournament provides priceless publicity, including 24 hours of coverage on ESPN networks or channels.
The early-season tournament's value to Maui's tourism-based economy, especially when hotel occupancy rates are at near-record lows, is immeasurable, said Maui Tourism Bureau Executive Director Terryl Vencl. The tournament draws some of the most popular basketball programs in the country every year, which in turn draws in both fervent and casual college basketball fans.
Call it the ESPN effect.
"The Worldwide Leader in Sports" broadcasts all 12 Maui Invitational games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU to about 5 million viewers and rising. That's 24 hours of prime cable TV for one of America's most popular leagues, according to market research.
2009 EA SPORTS MAUI INVITATIONAL
At Lahaina Civic Center
Colorado vs. Gonzaga, 10 a.m. (ESPN2)
Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt, 12:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Chaminade vs. Maryland, 4:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
Arizona vs. Wisconsin, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Chaminade-Maryland loser vs. Cincinnati-Vanderbilt loser, 8:30 a.m. (ESPN2)
Colorado-Gonzaga loser vs. Arizona-Wisconsin loser, 11 a.m. (ESPN2)
Chaminade-Maryland winner vs. Cincinnati-Vanderbilt winner, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Colorado-Gonzaga winner vs. Arizona-Wisconsin winner, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Seventh-place game, 9 a.m. (ESPNU)
Third-place game, 11:30 a.m. (ESPN2)
Fifth-place game, 2 p.m. (ESPNU)
Championship game, 5 p.m. (ESPN)
"Every commercial break has shots of Maui, and absolutely every shot of the basketball court has banners and information about businesses in Maui," Vencl said. "We could never afford to buy that kind of advertising. And then in between games, (ESPN does) segments showing the athletes and their families doing activities on the island, like surfing and snorkeling. The whole tournament is a commercial for Maui."
Tournament Director Briana Wells said all they need to do is mount a camera on top of the gym to shoot sunsets over Lanai and shimmering views of the Pacific Ocean.
ESPN is consistently one of the most popular cable networks, so it averages top prices for a 30-second ad - $27,000, according to MediaPost.com, the Web site for marketing and advertising professionals. Using the most elementary arithmetic, the amount of airtime Maui gets from the tournament would cost $77.76 million if it were advertising.
University of Hawaii-Manoa Shidler College of Business Marketing Department Chairwoman Qimei Chen said you really can't put a price tag on what this kind of national TV exposure does, especially since Maui is so accomplished at putting its best face forward. The island has such natural beauty and genuinely friendly people, both of which can be captured on camera with minimal effort, she said.
"I can't quantify it," Vencl said. "It inspires people to visit. It's priceless. And you can't put a price on the jobs this tournament helps save either when people stay in hotels or spend their money at restaurants as well as at an activity."
Reimann said that the Maui Invitational, and the SBS Championship golf tournament at Kapalua (formerly the Mercedes-Benz Championship), which starts the PGA season, both boil down to epic television commercials for Maui.
"It's huge," Reimann said of the basketball tournament. "The marketing exposure is awesome. While the rest of the nation is going through the throes of winter, they (ESPN producers) are showing Hawaii in all its tropical splendor."
The tournament's organizers, KemperSports of Illinois, actually pays Maui County $4,800 a year to rent the 2,400-seat Lahaina Civic Center, clean it up and provide security. The tourney is halfway through a 12-year deal with the county, and ESPN has a contract to air the EA Sports Maui Invitational through 2011.
"With regards to the value of the (Maui) Invitational, I would say that the community value is immense," said Maui County spokeswoman Mahina Martin. "EA Sports Maui Invitational is considered to be a terrific model of partnership that the county is happy to be a part of."
Not only does it increase Maui's visibility, but the tournament also funnels proceeds to local nonprofits, such as Make-A-Wish, Maui Family YMCA and the Maui Food Bank, whose volunteers run the concession stands the parking lots and do just about anything that needs to be done.
Not to say Maui has an image problem. National magazine polls continue to rank the Valley Isle as one of the top dream vacation spots, and the island is known as a getaway for the famous.
However, Maui's hotel room occupancy rate has dropped by about 20 percentage points since the national economy tanked, from over 80 percent occupancy in 2007 to around 60 percent today.
The Maui Invitational routinely brings in about 4,500 visitors from the Mainland for at least its duration, and many stay in West Maui hotels that sponsor the event, including the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa, the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa and the Westin Maui Resort & Spa. The Maui Visitors Bureau pays tournament organizers an undisclosed amount to get the island's name on banners and the gym floor, Vencl said.
Maui residents, who love sports but lack any pro teams or big-time college programs to cheer on, also enjoy attending the event.
"We have such tremendous supporters," Wells said. "After all these years now and the friendships we've formed, we don't look at this as our event. We look at this as a a fantastic opportunity to bring the best basketball in the world to the middle of the Pacific Ocean."
This year's tournament is considered a bit of a down year, however. Although the eight-team field includes solid basketball programs such as Wisconsin, Maryland, Vanderbilt, Arizona and Gonzaga, only Maryland is in the AP Top-25 Poll, at least right now.
College basketball fans know that the early season polls often mean very little. All five of those teams have made surprising runs deep into March Madness, and both Maryland and Arizona have won it all in the past 15 years.
Division I men's basketball has 374 teams. And no one this early on can accurately predict who will make the 64-team March Madness playoffs, save a handful of the consistent winning programs, such as Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State, Kentucky and Kansas.
"Nobody has this scenery and weather to offer, and on top of that we get the best TV exposure for every team, plus they get to experience the aloha spirit," said Wells, who said the tournament hire dozens of locals during the event.
So an invitation to the EA Sports Maui Invitational still means something in an increasingly crowded season kick-off tournament schedule. KemperSports even puts together a promotional tour at each school scheduled to play in that year's tournament, which comes with a custom surfboard.
The players, coaches and boosters all look forward to it, according to the blogs and Web sites of sportswriters and fans, and there's plenty of speculation about how a team's performance can directly impact its national ranking.
Teams are invited to the tournament only every five years; last year featured eventual national champion North Carolina. Only the host school, Chaminade University, with 2,700 students in Honolulu, plays in the tournament every year.
Next year promises to be a barnburner.
The field will include three of America's most consistent basketball giants, Kentucky, Michigan State and Connecticut, who have all won multiple national championships in recent decades.
The 2010 tournament will also include Washington, Oklahoma and Virginia, each of which have basketball programs that could go deep into March Madness. Even the final team, Wichita State, reached the Sweet Sixteen only a few seasons ago.
And all those teams have boosters who will travel from the Mainland, Maui tourism experts said, especially Kentucky.
"Everybody is struggling so much, and the forecast is not good for next year," Reimann said. "2010 is expected to be a stabilizing year. All the events, with both their visitors and exposure, are worth their weight in gold."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.