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Football’s Hall of Fame

Football’s Hall of Fame Enjoys Boom to Go With Busts

CANTON, Ohio — Football has long since overtaken baseball as the United States’ most popular sport. But when it comes to pomp and nostalgia, baseball has been the leader thanks in part to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

In the last decade, though, the Pro Football Hall of Fame has worked to burnish its legacy by revamping its museum and programs to prepare for the centennial of the founding of what became the N.F.L.

Last year, the museum completed a $28 million renovation that enhanced its archives, reconfigured displays and expanded its event space and gift shop. The museum also started taking part of its collection on the road, traveling to cities like New Orleans, Pittsburgh and St. Louis for three months at a time. For the first time, the Hall hosted a fan festival, in Cleveland, attracting about 20,000 visitors.

The improvements in Canton and the traveling exhibits helped the Hall reach more fans, including 700,000 on the road. In 2013, 208,191 people visited the Hall, an increase of 11.6 percent compared with 2012 and the highest total since 1996. This in turn has increased the Hall’s revenue.


 The bronze busts of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s class of 2014 were being stored in the archive room until Saturday’s induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio. Credit Dustin Franz for The New York Times 

The Pro Football Hall of Fame generated $13 million in 2012, the last year figures were reported, compared with $8.3 million in revenue at the Baseball Hall of Fame. David Baker, who became president of the football Hall this year, expects revenue this year to jump as high as $20 million, about five times that of a decade ago.

“The brand is enormous, but it has been tremendously undervalued,” he said.

The higher profile of the football Hall is no accident. Last year, it celebrated its 50th anniversary. In 2020, the league — founded in Canton as the American Professional Football Association — will turn 100. At a time when the N.F.L. faces profound conflicts, including class-action lawsuits by retirees over concussions, painkillers and the use of intellectual property, as well as serious questions about the cognitive health of its players, the Hall provides an emotional haven for fans.

The league has long relied on NFL Films to document the history of its players, games and teams. NFL Network and ESPN, which last week agreed to cover the induction ceremony for seven more years, have provided more immediate documentation.

The Hall, a private nonprofit organization independent of the league, has tiptoed around controversial topics like head injuries and steroids, but it creates an image of the league that is less promotional and perhaps more credible than that offered by the N.F.L. and its affiliates.

“Football has historically suffered what you might call a romance deficit,” said Michael MacCambridge, who wrote “America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation.” “It’s not that there isn’t a great amount of lore in football, but it was less part of the culture. They have to have that authenticity.”

The Hall has benefited significantly from a renewed interest by the N.F.L., its largest donor. In recent years, the league has worked closely with the Hall to put on the induction ceremony and the Hall of Fame Game — the Giants and the Buffalo Bills will play Sunday — and integrated the Hall of Fame into the league’s activities by, among other things, introducing many of the soon-to-be inductees at the draft. The league also moved its rookie symposium to Ohio in part so every incoming player could visit the Hall and be introduced to the history of the league.


 David Baker the Hall’s sixth president, expects revenue of up to $20 million this year. Credit Dustin Franz for The New York Times 

“We have a responsibility and desire to tell the story of the past,” said Mark Waller, the chief marketing officer for the N.F.L. “What we have to do is a better job of integrating all these stories.”

The Hall produces just a sliver of the revenue created by the league, which has grown into a $10-billion-a-year business. But the growing prominence of the Hall speaks to the N.F.L.’s dominance on the sports landscape.

Part of league’s efforts to burnish its business is to solidify its history. Ralph Wilson Jr., the owner of the Bills until his death in March, donated $2.5 million during the renovation so the museum could upgrade its archives and safely store its 25 million pages of documents, nearly four million images, and countless jerseys, helmets and other gear.

In the museum’s new research and preservation center, Jon Kendle, a researcher, carefully opened a rule book from 1871, then showed off the museum’s book collection, which includes one of the first written about the professional game, “Pro Football: Its ‘Ups’ and ‘Downs,’ ” published in 1934 and written by the football executive and historian Dr. Harry March. (Oddly, the book stood next to “Football for Dummies” on the shelf.)

The documents, photos, magazines and books are kept in temperature-controlled rooms that are visible to visitors through glass walls.

“For years and years, we were downstairs in the basement, but we wanted to show it off,” Kendle said of the collection.

About 5 percent of the Hall’s collection is on view at any time. Most items are kept in storage, including about 800 footballs, 700 jerseys and 300 helmets. There are also games, cereal boxes, Gatorade buckets, bass drums from marching bands, film boxes and a desk used by Bert Bell, a former commissioner, complete with cigar burns.


The Hall, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, recently acquired a collection of Buffalo Bills items. Credit Dustin Franz for The New York Times   

“People think it’s just a bunch of guys running on the field, but it’s mind-boggling the level of effort people put into running the league,” said Jason Aikens, a curator.

Kendle and Aikens are now working to sift through and archive collections held by N.F.L. teams, starting with the Bills. Ultimately, the Hall would like to get into the business of curating team collections. But, as with its own artifacts, the museum has to be selective about what it stores because everything has a cost.

“Space is money,” Kendle said.

Indeed, as with the N.F.L. itself, bringing in more money is the ultimate goal. The Hall has vastly expanded its gift shop and increased the sale of its branded merchandise online, and in sporting goods and department stores, to reach fans nationwide.

“There are so many opportunities outside our four walls,” said Steve Strawbridge, who runs merchandise and licensing at the Hall.

Last week, the Hall also announced a multiyear partnership with 16W Marketing, a New Jersey-based company that will help find sponsors and marketing opportunities.

The Hall also plans to spend $25 million to overhaul Fawcett Stadium, next to the museum, and may redesign the entire campus.

“I don’t look at us as being in the Hall of Fame business; I look at us as a sports business,” said George Veras, the chief revenue officer and executive producer of the Hall. “That’s where you get the dollars.” 

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