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Volume 23 No. 28
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Closing Shot: The Past is History

Change is in the air as the Pro Football Hall of Fame gets ready for this year’s enshrinement ceremony. Here’s how the hall plans to extend its time in the limelight.
The renovation of Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium was an example of how the Pro Football Hall of Fame is building on what it has to offer and how it can generate more revenue. The much-anticipated Hall of Fame Village mixed-use development will include a hotel, water park, retail and dining.
Photo: getty images

When the 2019 class of eight luminaries that includes former tight end Tony Gonzalez, late Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and longtime Cowboys executive Gil Brandt is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 3, the festivities will look very familiar at first glance: gold jackets, emotional speeches, adoring fans.

In truth, little else is the same in Canton compared to just a few years ago. In fact, the organization is in the midst of a complete overhaul to both its business model and its physical space. In 2013, the year current CEO David Baker took over, the hall reported annual revenue of $14.9 million and net assets of $32.8 million. In 2017, the most recent tax filing available, those figures were $27 million and $59.4 million, respectively.

That’s due in part to the for-profit development of the Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village, an $899 million mixed-use space, which will proceed this year after some delays in funding. The development, scheduled for completion in 2020, has already led to a renovated stadium and its next steps include a hotel, water park, retail and dining, and convention space.

Baker reflected on the changes as he looked out of his office window toward the front of the hall. “I see where guys used to bring lawn chairs and come for free to the enshrinement,” he said. “Now, last year, enshrinement was the first thing to sell out, even before the game.”

This year’s Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 1 features the Atlanta Falcons and the Denver Broncos, and it will be held on a Thursday night for the third consecutive time. That has shifted the exhibition from an anti-climactic coda after the Saturday enshrinement to a table-setter for Enshrinement Week Powered by Johnson Controls. The stadium, which had been a high school field that barely met NFL standards, was renovated three years ago and dubbed Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. On Sept. 1 it will host the first Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic, and starting next year, the Stagg Bowl — the Division III national title game — will be held there.

Another project calls for creating Centennial Plaza in downtown Canton, where the hall will mark 100 years since the founding of the NFL in 1920.

While the first week of August will always remain the most important time of the year for the hall, much of Baker’s work has been focused on diversification and decreasing the hall’s financial reliance on those few days.

“The goal is to do everything better than the year before, but respect the traditions of the past,” he said. “So there have been events here that have gone away, and every time something changes there’s always people who object to it, but the goal here is to try to make it better.”