Four days before last fall’s election, Gov. Pat McCrory trumpeted the announcement of a major college sports event coming to Raleigh, even as the NCAA and NBA had pulled theirs out of the North Carolina in the wake of the controversial House Bill 2 law.
“North Carolina is proud to welcome the return of the Hula Bowl,” McCrory said in a news release from the bowl’s owners. “Players, coaches and fans will enjoy first-hand the warm Southern hospitality and enthusiasm for college sports that are the hallmarks of our great state.”
But four months later, correspondence The News & Observer obtained through a public records request shows the college football all-star game is unlikely to come to Raleigh. The drive to bring it to N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium was tied to McCrory’s re-election, which he lost narrowly to state Attorney General Roy Cooper.
NCSU officials hadn’t struck a deal with the bowl owner before McCrory’s announcement, and there have been no negotiations since.
“The game was a main focus during the election and we feel will not actually come to fruition,” Liz Brown, director of athletics event sales and operations at NCSU, wrote in a Jan. 3 email. She wrote to managers of the PNC Arena, which manages parking around the adjacent Carter-Finley Stadium.
Fred Demarest, an athletics department spokesman, said in releasing the correspondence, “We’ve had no additional communication pertaining to the Hula Bowl. We do not anticipate hosting this event.”
Brown and other NCSU officials worked to attract the Hula Bowl after Frank Grainger, a member of the UNC Board of Governors, brought it to their attention roughly three weeks before the election.
Grainger is the owner of Fair Products, an agribusiness that sells chemicals that improve tobacco crop yields, and is a political supporter of McCrory. Grainger and his wife, Judi, have given $31,585 to McCrory’s campaigns in money and in-kind support since 2008, state election records show. Grainger is also a big supporter of NCSU, co-founding a political action committee for the school, and he’s a past director of the Wolfpack Club.
A text message by NCSU Athletic Director Debbie Yow on Oct. 12 said Grainger learned about the bowl through McCrory. Chancellor Randy Woodson said in an interview he first learned about it through Grainger, who asked if Woodson would take a call from state Commerce Secretary John Skvarla about the bowl.
Grainger said in an interview he wasn’t sure who told him about the bowl opportunity, but he didn’t think it was the governor. He did recall contacting NCSU about hosting the bowl game and said he may have told McCrory about it.
“I think it would be a real opportunity, and a real asset to the area to have an all-star game here,” Grainger said.
But the Hula Bowl had lost its luster. Once a prominent showcase for college stars, it was overtaken by other games that showcase college and pro talent. The last year it was played, in 2008, it drew roughly 2,000 fans in Hawaii.
Promise of cheap rent
McCrory, a one-term Republican, was facing heat during the campaign for his support of HB 2. The law, which moved through the state legislature in a day and was signed by McCrory that evening, forbids local anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people and requires people in government facilities to use bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates.
It drove out the NBA All-Star Game, which was supposed to have been played in Charlotte this year, the ACC football championship, and numerous NCAA post-season games, including the annual March Madness men’s basketball tournament that had routinely scheduled early round games in Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro. This year’s games, scheduled for Greensboro, were moved to Greenville, S.C.
McCrory said little about the Hula Bowl in a short interview last week.
“During the month of October, my major focus was dealing with the ongoing disaster from the hurricane impacting many towns and lives,” McCrory said, referring to Hurricane Matthew.
He referred questions to Skvarla, who could not be reached.
The plan was to play the bowl game in early January 2017, two months after the election. At NCSU, Brown quickly placed a hold on the stadium for the game and began negotiating terms with Nick Logan, who founded the business that owns the bowl. He could not be reached for an interview.
The correspondence shows concerns over when to schedule the game and how much Logan would have to pay to rent the stadium.
Woodson said he was willing to make the stadium available so long as it didn’t cost the university.
“All I told John Skvarla was we couldn’t lose money doing this,” Woodson said. “But if it helps the state and helps the region, we would do everything we could do at cost.”
On Oct. 31, Brown told NCSU officials that Logan had said he had reached agreement over the terms and was planning to finalize the deal that day. It didn’t happen.
A November surprise
Four days later, NCSU officials received an early morning surprise: On Nov. 4, bowl officials announced the game was coming to Carter-Finley in 2018 and commerce officials notified the media. None of the released NCSU correspondence indicates a shift in negotiations for a 2018 game, other than discussion of a multi-year agreement.
“We were not aware of release before seeing it published,” Woodson said in an email that day to a Raleigh tourism official, who had offered to help pay for the bowl game.
At the time, NCSU released a short statement that it was in negotiations to bring the game to Raleigh, but did not disclose that it was not a party to the bowl announcement.
The North State Journal, a statewide newspaper and online publication run by former McCrory administration officials, was the first to report the bowl was coming to Raleigh. The story had no information on the lack of an agreement with NCSU.
Demarest, an NCSU senior associate athletics director, said in an email that day that bowl officials “put this on their site at 6 am this morning. Notified North State Journal shortly after (had given them a heads up last night, but not us). They distributed to media at 9:40 a.m.”
Commerce officials forwarded the Hula Bowl organization’s news release to The N&O at 9:37 a.m. that day.
Hawaii officials told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser the week after the announcement they were unaware of the plans to revive the all-star game. That was after bowl organizers announced the game would rotate between Raleigh and Hawaii.
“North Carolina, proceed with extreme caution,” wrote Dave Reardon, a Star-Advertiser sports columnist. “It would probably best for all concerned if you just left the Hula Bowl name alone and where it belongs – in the past and in Hawaii.”