Originally created 11/27/01

Tenth Big Island Invitational may have been last



HILO, Hawaii -- Kathleen McNally is playing a game of Big Island survival.

It's not another television show about people in a tropical setting.

It's a first-year athletic director's attempt to keep a basketball tournament going in Hawaii.

McNally took over the athletic program 10 months ago at Hawaii-Hilo, the Division II school that has served as the host for the Big Island Invitational the last 10 years.

The latest edition of the eight-team tournament ended Sunday, with Weber State beating Colorado State 72-69 for the title.

But more than the final score, economics have become the biggest number in the future of the Big Island tournament.

NCAA rule changes mean a host school must cover all of a visiting team's expenses, compared with 25 percent just five years ago.

McNally insists that no decision has been made on whether there will be an 11th Big Island Invitational.

"We need to make some kind of decision for next year because we have no one committed for next year," McNally said. "Something has to be decided so we can solicit teams."

Since the Big Island has no national sponsor, no TV deal and no news about the 2002 edition, the Maui Invitational - which has a national sponsor in EA Sports and a contract with ESPN for at least seven games - recently announced its fields through 2004.

McNally said she has tried to sign major sponsors and has talked with KemperLesnik Communications, the company that promotes the Maui Invitational.

"I think this has always been the 'other tournament' because it's survived on an island that hasn't had that same interest," she said. "But now that there's fear that it might not be here, there's all kinds of renewed interest."

Interest alone won't help save the tournament. Money is needed.

McNally said it costs the tournament between $20,000-$25,000 to bring each of the teams to Hawaii, including air and ground transportation and per diem.

The school raises most of the money to offset the expenses, and tourism is a big part of it. Fans accompany the teams, paying their own way through tourist packages and spending plenty of money once they arrive.

Marsha Wienert, the executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau, estimated this year's Maui Invitational meant a record $8.5 million to the island's economy, up from $8.3 million last year.

There were no numbers available for the Big Island Invitational. Hilo is not a major tourist attraction, although Kona, located on the other side of the island of Hawaii, is.

"We might try to do the whole tourism approach with teams and fans spending time on both sides of the island," McNally said. "We need to sell the package deal for the whole island because we have the uniqueness and the size."

Television is another matter.

"One of the problems we have here is that the island itself has minimum cable access," she said. "The Maui games start early here because they are set for Eastern time and that's the prime audience. We just haven't been able to tie those up. You have to get the big names in and then try to tie up the TV packages. TV guarantees the sponsor, so it's a vicious cycle you're in."

Chaminade is the host school for the Maui Invitational and other Division II schools - Hawaii Pacific and BYU-Hawaii - do the same with their own tournaments.

None appears in as dire straits as Hawaii-Hilo.

Jeff Law, the coach of the Vulcans, doesn't want to see the tournament end for a number of reasons, including recruiting.

"We can tell a kid he can come here and play three games against Division I opponents and that our program is Division I in a lot of respects," Law said.

Hawaii-Hilo, which almost upset LSU in the consolation semifinals, beat South Carolina State 87-69 in the seventh-place game to snap a 23-game losing streak in the tournament and improve its record in the event to 3-27.

"Maybe that will help," McNally said. "The university doesn't want to lose the tournament, that would be a sense of failure, so we're going to do everything we possibly can to maintain it."