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Hawaii mulling NCAA football game in Japan

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Perhaps the idea is like a third-and-1 at this point, but the University of Hawaii is trying to make it a first down.

While visiting on an Asian tour for the UH men’s basketball team, the school’s athletic director, Jim Donovan, said he is seeking a realistic chance for the school’s football team to play a regular-season opening game in Japan.

If that happens, it would be the first time that an NCAA regular-season football game has been played in the country in more than two decades. An NCAA game was played annually in Tokyo between 1977 and 1993.

“We’re looking at the possibility of playing an American football game in Japan in a few years from now,” Donovan said after the basketball team’s final game on the tour against the JBL’s Panasonic Trians in Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture, on Saturday.

“We’ve started trying to see what the cost would be and if it is financially and logistically possible. Positively, it looks like it is logistically possible. We have to focus on the finances.”

The UH has actively sought to strengthen its ties with Japan through sports over the last few years.

Donovan, a former offensive guard for the UH in the early 1980s, said that Kyocera Dome, home of the Orix Buffaloes, would be the leading candidate venue to host the game. Football in Japan has its deepest roots in the Kansai area, and Donovan visited the stadium for an inspection on Friday.

“We went and met them (stadium executives) for about 2½ hours, three hours,” he said. “It was a very positive meeting. Definitely it has everything that it needs to host an American football game.”

Donovan said that he and the UH are looking at the 2014 season, because their schedule for 2013 has already been completed while there is one game left to fill for 2012 and 2014. Next year would probably be “too much of a rush” to prepare.

“We need to line up some corporate sponsors of both Hawaii and the U.S. . . . and possibly Japan,” he said. “Our estimate for the total cost is, maybe half a million to six (hundred thousand) in U.S. dollars.”

As far as the possible attendance, which would help generate, Donovan is confident despite Hawaii’s distant location.

“For example,” he said, “if we were to announce something in 2012 that we are going to play a game in 2014, our fans would have a couple of years to budget and save up for the trip. I think thousands of people would come — maybe two thousand, maybe five thousand — somewhere in between would come because of an experience to come to Japan for an American football game.

“When we went to the Sugar Bowl (on Jan. 1, 2008, UH vs. Georgia), 16,000 people went to the bowl in New Orleans, Louisiana, which is 4,000 miles (6,437 km) away from Hawaii. So we can bring quite a few people if the conditions are right.”

The opponent would be a focal point as well. The UH announced last winter the football-only move to the Mountain West Conference from the Western Athletic Conference for the 2012 season.

Donovan said that the UH would first talk to a school from inside the conference, which now includes nationally recognized Boise State. But depending on how negotiations go, it may bring other schools outside the conference to the table, for instance, the Pac-12.

“I think there are some other schools out there that would be interested in playing in Japan, especially if we could get either CBS or ESPN to televise the game back to the United States,” said Donovan, executive director of the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl from 2002-08.