- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Washington Redskins have long been a major passion of area sports fans, and the team is in early discussions about capitalizing on that love by opening a Hall of Fame and museum in Northern Virginia.

The facility could be a hot spot for burgundy-and-gold history, but there is mounting evidence that the business of sports museums is often challenging and fickle.

Across the country, many sports museums have experienced a recent decline in attendance, while newer facilities have fallen short of initial projections for visitors. One major museum, the Sports Museum of America in New York, said last week it would cease operations after opening less than a year ago.

The struggles are not universal, but it appears many museums have been hit hard by the economy or outside factors, such as the poor performance of local teams. Some facilities simply had flawed business plans from the start, industry officials said.

“Sports museums are kind of latecomers,” said Mike Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum and the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards, both in Baltimore. “We’re still trying to figure it out, and I think the public is still trying to figure us out.”

In November, the Maryland Board of Public Works approved a plan by the Maryland Stadium Authority, the museums’ landlord, to lower rent and forgive more than $400,000 in back payments for the Sports Legends Museum, which opened in 2005. Lower-than-expected attendance is largely to blame; Sports Legends and the Babe Ruth Birthplace have drawn only about half of the 150,000 to 170,000 visitors initially projected when Sports Legends opened. Meanwhile, a $2 million fundraising effort for renovations at the Babe Ruth Birthplace has been put on hold because of economic conditions.

Gibbons noted that despite the economy, attendance in the last several months has risen by as much as a third from the same period last year, driven largely by the Ravens’ run in the NFL playoffs and the announcement of new uniforms for the Orioles. Also, several recent events, including a party for Babe Ruth’s birthday and appearances by Orioles’ Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken, were well-attended.

Nevertheless, more people likely would be going through the museums’ turnstiles if the Orioles were drawing more fans. Attendance for games at nearby Oriole Park has declined from more than 3 million in the late 1990s to less than 2 million this past year. When Oriole Park opened in 1992, the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum alone drew 60,000 visitors.

Gibbons declined to discuss the impact of the Orioles’ attendance but did say initial projections for Sports Legends were based on the assumption that a nearby convention center hotel would attract visitors. That hotel, however, did not open until August.

Even some of the most hallowed museums have seen declines. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., once drew more than 400,000 baseball fans annually but has averaged about 325,000 in the last decade. It set a record in 2008, when it drew more than 300,000 for the 11th straight year, but its total of 301,755 was 50,000 fewer than the previous year and the lowest since 1997.

Hall of Fame spokesman Craig Muder said attendance is often driven by the players elected each year. The 2008 induction of Goose Gossage, he said, attracted a much smaller crowd than in 2007, when Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken were inducted. But he also said the economy has meant fewer people are making the pilgrimage to the rural village.

“Attendancewise, most organizations have been affected by the economy,” Muder said. “To say that we have not been affected would not be accurate.”

Museum officials said one of the biggest challenges is convincing families that a trip to a sports museum can be as enjoyable as a game. Men often avoid museums in general, they said, while women - who often control the family purse strings - may not be as sports-minded.

“Sports museums and other similar institutions only exist at the whim of the community,” Gibbons said. “If the community is not interested or doesn’t care, they will go away. Part of our job is to market ourselves and keep our community interested in us and remain vital in their eyes. And that’s a challenge.”

Perhaps no other museum has faced such struggles like the Sports Museum of America, which opened last year in downtown Manhattan as the first national sports museum in the United States. The for-profit museum, which was also home to the Billie Jean King International Women’s Sports Center, had projected more than 1 million visitors but fell well short of that goal as the recession led to a drop in tourism. Officials also blamed overruns on construction costs, which cut into the museum’s marketing budget. (Eight months after it opened, a survey revealed that 95 percent of New Yorkers still did not know the museum existed.)

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