- The Washington Times - Monday, January 13, 2003

A trip to Cooperstown was once to baseball fans what a trip to Graceland is to Elvis fans: a rite of passage, a pilgrimage, an expression of a lifetime of devotion.
Now, however, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and other major sports museums face dwindling fan interest, declining attendance and a struggle to remain relevant in a high-tech age.
The number of visits to the major sports halls of fame has dropped to levels far below their historic peaks. The museums representing football, baseball, basketball and hockey face ever-increasing competition for leisure and travel dollars and a challenge in finding ways to make dusty tales of Gordie Howe, Wilt Chamberlain and Babe Ruth more alluring to children of the Internet era.
"Pictures and plaques on a wall aren't going to do it anymore," said John Doleva, executive director of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. "Certainly no kid is going to relate to something static like that, and we got stale. We're competing with the Internet, video games, home entertainment, Hollywood, certainly other travel destinations. It's a very tough battle for that dollar."
It is a battle in which the museums have steadily been losing ground.
Though attendance at each rose slightly in 2002, the trend has been one of long, slow decline.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, received 180,004 visitors last year, 46 percent below the record of 333,029 set in 1973. The intervening years were filled with peaks and valleys in attendance but followed a downward path that led to a draw of just 165,337 in 2001, only 500 above the all-time low.
The story is the same at the Basketball Hall of Fame, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. The Basketball Hall of Fame drew a record 173,898 visitors in 1993 but saw attendance dip below 100,000 twice in the past four years.
The 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington complicated a worrisome situation.
The travel industry suffered badly after the September 11 attacks, and for most destinations 2002 was a time of a slow crawling back. The National Baseball Hall of Fame improved its annual gate 6 percent over 2001, the Pro Football Hall of Fame posted a 9 percent increase and the Hockey Hall of Fame a 7 percent increase.
However, those increases came over 2001 attendance figures which were the lowest ever for the hockey and basketball museums, and the second-lowest ever for the football museum.
When people began venturing back out after September 11, sports halls of fame were not at the top of most lists of places to visit. And as the sports world goes through its hall-of-fame election season baseball writers chose Eddie Murray and Gary Carter last week, and selections in football will be announced Jan. 25 2003 will remain a tough fight as well.
"I was here in the early '70s, when we were doing our biggest business and we thought the [attendance] increases would never stop," said John Bankert, executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "We're now trying to cycle back up. One of the things that is of particular concern to us now is the more local audience, the people just around Ohio and neighboring areas.
"It's very easy for them to get here and see the additions, the new exhibits we have, and it's not always happening. But I think it's kind of like people in Buffalo who never go to Niagara Falls. It's basically there and taken for granted."
None of the four museums stands in immediate financial jeopardy, but the smaller crowds have forced the halls to retool their budgets and operations.
The Hockey Hall of Fame, for example, developed a catering and hospitality business in which local companies use the museum for corporate events in an effort to make up for lost ticket revenue.
Several of the museums have also taken pieces of their collection on the road as traveling exhibitions.
"We've adjusted our business. We had to," said Jeff Denomme, Hockey Hall of Fame president. "We're always trying to get more people, but all sports museums have been going through a bit of a low period, and right now I think it's a bit ambitious to think we're going to get back to the numbers we had when we first opened our new facility." The Hockey Hall of Fame opened in 1993.
Each museum has also updated its facilities in an effort to give them a more modern look and reverse the downward trend.

Last year, the Basketball Hall of Fame opened a $103 million facility in downtown Springfield that it expects will draw a record number of visitors and begin an era of relative prosperity. Recent enhancements include interactive kiosks, expanded film and video libraries, and Hollywood-style lighting and sound.

Still, the museums' draw fluctuates significantly based on the popularity of the annual inductees and the state of each game. The baseball and hockey museums suffered badly during labor strife. When megastars such as hockey great Wayne Gretzky were inducted, crowds ballooned.
"We're working on developing an endowment so we're in a more secure financial position if we do have another down period, if interest in the game slips," said Dale A. Petroskey, National Baseball Hall of Fame president.

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