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Pro Football Hall of Fame looks to overcome $5m hit with “Super Bowl-like” event in 2021

Pro Football Hall of Fame president David Baker (Credit: Getty Images)

  • Facility calls off Hall of Fame Game and postpones enshrinement ceremony due to Covid-19 pandemic
  • Staging separate induction ceremonies in April and August 2021 considered but rejected due to costs
  • Operations team utilized 90-day shutdown to refurbish and clean iconic building in Canton, Ohio

The Pro Football Hall of Fame is expected to take a financial hit of at least $5m this year due to the devastating financial effects of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

This has included the closure of the iconic facility in Canton, Ohio, for an unprecedented 90 days as well as limited attendance since reopening its doors to the public in June, which has severely impacted ticket and merchandise sales.

The Hall of Fame has also been impacted by the cancellation of this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, the annual inaugural National Football League pre-season opener, which was due to be staged between the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers on August 6. Tickets for the game at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium sold out in just 22 minutes when they were made available in March.

Far more significantly, the Hall of Fame was forced to postpone its centennial enshrinement ceremony to honor the 100th birthday of the NFL, which had been scheduled for August 8. That highly-anticipated event was due to induct 20 former NFL coaches, players, and executives, including prominent Super Bowl winners Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson, and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

A number of other enshrinement celebrations have either been called off or scaled down, including the grand opening of the Centennial Plaza, a new $12.3m development which includes a cafe, a large LED screen, a children’s area, a stage, and a pavilion.

All told, the losses for the football shrine are not unlike the heavy impact being felt this summer at its baseball counterpart in Cooperstown, New York.

There will now be two induction ceremonies over a single, enlarged Enshrinement Week next year for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, one for the centennial class and other for the Class of 2021, which is all but assured to include legendary NFL quarterback Peyton Manning.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys and Steelers will face each other in next year’s Hall of Fame Game on August 5.

The multiday celebration has been billed as “Twice the Fun in ’21,” and it is hoped that the heightened interest in next year’s double enshrinement ceremony will help mitigate losses from this year.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Meanwhile, plans are continuing for the officially-named Hall of Fame Village Powered by Johnson Controls, a $900m mixed-use development in a 200-acre tourism development district, which provisionally includes a hotel with an indoor water park; a premium housing complex; retail stores and an entertainment complex; a field house that can be used for indoor sports as well as conventions; and a research and development center.

The Hall of Fame is a significant minority owner of the project around its campus, which has been in the works since 2015. It is hoped to become the “Disney World of football” once completed, although construction has stalled in recent years due to financing issues.

A new company, the Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment Company, has been created – following a merger between HOF Village LLC and Pittsburgh-based special purpose acquisition company Gordon Pointe Acquisition Corp. – and listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange. As a publicly traded company, it will be able to benefit from greater liquidity as well as access to multiple forms of financing.

SportBusiness spoke to Hall of Fame president and chief executive David Baker about the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the organization and what its plans are next year and in the long term.

What has been the effect of Covid-19 on Hall of Fame business operations this year?

In the history of the Hall of Fame, the Hall had never been closed more than two days in one year and it had never been closed for two consecutive days. Through this pandemic, we were closed for 90 days and that was very challenging. We had certainly never postponed our enshrinement, which is an important ceremonial activity but it’s also an important economic activity for our region, the community and the Hall.

This was going to be an extremely important year and an important enshrinement in that it was the centennial celebration for the NFL. We had some huge ceremonious plans as well as the enshrinement, and we had a centennial class that was 20 enshrinees; in a normal year we would have four to eight. This was going to be a special year…so the combination of this being a special year and being shuttered for 90 days, of postponing all of our activities for the enshrinement until next year has had a profound economic impact.

But, as the game we honor teaches, it has taught us how to do other things better. During those 90 days, our staff were working at home doing virtual programs on social justice. We were also able to do a lot of stuff with our Hall of Famers on healthcare issues in relation to the pandemic. We also were involved in a project called Project Isaiah, which provided close to three million meals to people are out of work or suddenly found themselves in need through this.

Do you have a dollar figure on the economic impact?

From our perspective, it’s probably been about $5m, and that’s a rough figure, it could be more than that. But between the admissions, merchandise, and lost enshrinement, it’s at least $5m.

But we’ve been working successfully in navigating it – and we’re excited to be open, too. We weren’t sure how people were going to respond – I’m not sure anybody was – and we’re working at limited capacity. We started at about 26 per cent of what we were last year and that has continued to grow pretty much every week. What was amazing to me was how many people were coming in from out of state. People are getting in their car and going [to the Hall] as it’s such a special place.

We operate well at limited capacity, we’re not so full that people can’t come because they can. We manage it and navigate it, but we’re growing it.

(Credit: Getty Images)

How did you look to utilize the shutdown to refurbish the facilities and so on?

In an institution that’s nearly 60 years old and has not been shut down in that time, we are constantly doing things but we don’t have that opportunity where nobody’s there. So we did everything from painting the entire place inside to rearranging things that are there so it can be pandemically safe from a healthcare standpoint to cleaning out the boilers. Adversity presents opportunity and I think our operations and facilities team did a wonderful job of taking advantage of this time.

What are you planning to do during the week when you were due to stage the enshrinement and all the other events to mark the occasion?

We are going to have a program where we run every enshrinement speech from past years and that is something that Bleacher Report is promoting. I give a State of the Hall that is only for our Hall of Famers, our partners and our board of directors but this year we will open that up to other people as well.

The people of Canton have raised about $12m for a very special park, Centennial Plaza, and we will dedicate that on September 17, which is the 100th birthday of the league. That is a park to mark the 100th birthday of the NFL and we have 11 pylons, which will have the name of every player who played in the first 100 years of the NFL. Originally that was going to be a huge event which would have economic opportunities but now we will mark it ceremonially.

Do you have any sense yet what next year’s induction ceremonies look like?

We have the phrase “Twice the Fun in ’21” and that’s when we hope to recuperate a lot of the loss this year. God willing, we will all be out of this situation and we will be consolidating this incredible enshrinement class, which is 20 enshrinees, of the centennial class, with the class of ’21, which is sure to have Peyton Manning but it will also have potentially Charles Woodson and/or Calvin Johnson.

It will be a Super Bowl-like celebration. It will undoubtedly be a huge, mega weekend. We always like to think that this will be the best four days in football and now we will be extending it so now it might be the best five days.

Did you consider splitting the 2020 and 2021 induction ceremonies across the coming year, rather than combining them into one big event?

We thought about having one over the Easter vacation but we also have twice the expenses. We pay for all of our Hall of Famers in terms of travel, hotel and, expenses for them to be part of the ceremony. Normally we have about 120 guys and for this one I think we’ll probably get around 150 people. That costs us about $1m right there to bring those guys out so to bring them out twice, not only is it difficult for their schedule but it is a difficult expense, too.

What are your long-term plans for the Hall of Fame Village development?

We’ve split from that [development] but we are obviously partners and a big shareholder on that. We have completed phase one, which is about $280m, which is the stadium and the youth fields. Now we are beginning to embark on phase two, which is the completion of the stadium, some retail, a center for excellence, a performance and conference center, and a water park and hotel. Phase three would be beyond that. It’s very important to the area for sure.

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