HONOLULU – The Pan-Pacific Championship's future in Hawaii could be on the line Saturday after a disappointing crowd for the opening games of the inaugural tournament.
Despite two big drawing cards in the Los Angeles Galaxy's David Beckham and Hawaiian native Brian Ching of the Houston Dynamo – the champions of Major League Soccer – the official attendance for Wednesday night's semifinals doubleheader was just 15,128.
That left a vast swathe of empty seats at the 50,000-plus capacity Aloha Stadium and raised doubts about the viability of hosting the competition in the islands.
It is hoped that far higher numbers will be in attendance for Saturday's third-place game and championship game, but advance ticket sales will need to pick up significantly before the tournament organizers are satisfied.
The local government authorities are behind the tournament. At his opening press conference on Monday, Lt. Gov. James Aiona urged Hawaiians to safeguard the future of the event by voting with their feet, but despite ticket prices that started at $10, the response has been mild.
There are clear advantages in hosting a preseason event here, with the weather and surroundings agreeable to all participating teams. However, there is not yet the kind of soccer interest in Hawaii capable of drawing blockbuster crowds on a midweek night, no matter how big the stars on display are.
MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis was talking about the English Premier League's plans to play games overseas when he made the following comment to Yahoo! Sports three weeks ago, but it is still relevant in this case:
"Soccer fans are becoming more sophisticated when it comes to what they want to see," Gazidis said. "The exhibition market is becoming saturated. Fans want to see the real thing."
While all the teams in the tournament want to emerge as its first-ever champion, the primary objective for three of the four clubs is to prepare for the new season.
Gamba Osaka, which beat the Galaxy 1-0, has lost seven first-team regulars to national team duty with Japan. Galaxy coach Ruud Gullit has taken the opportunity to play some of his young players, such as the promising Julian Valentin and Sean Franklin, and has opted not to risk Landon Donovan's tendon injury on the artificial turf of Aloha Stadium.
Houston Dynamo, despite looking in superb condition in the first half of its 3-0 victory over Sydney FC, wound down after halftime as coach Dominic Kinnear made a string of changes. Sydney is the exception in that its Hyundai A-League season has just finished.
"The concept here is great," Sydney coach John Kosmina said. "It is a good experience for our guys."
There are similarities between the North American, Japanese and Australian leagues, and all three can benefit from playing against each other and forging a closer bond. The leagues are relatively young products and are determined to make great strides forward over the next few years.
Even so, if the Pan-Pacific Championship is to have a successful future, it needs an appropriate fan response.
"We believe the fans in Hawaii and throughout the Pacific region saw some entertaining soccer," MLS senior vice president Dan Courtemanche said. "Overall, everyone was pleased with the level of competition.
"From a fan perspective, we are looking forward to more fans on Saturday coming out and celebrating this tournament. We will see how it goes."