One year after opening, Hall of Fame looks ahead

The College Football Hall of Fame, which opened one year ago in downtown Atlanta, will make some changes to its playbook for its second year.

The enshrinement ceremony for new Hall of Famers, held here last fall, will be eliminated. A televised awards show, presenting all of the season’s major individual honors except the Heisman Trophy, will be added to the lineup. And marketing efforts will be increased.

“If you look at the Hall of Fame in Atlanta as an open book, we have just now gone through the foreword and are about to get into the first chapter,” said Steve Hatchell, president and CEO of the National Football Foundation, which moved the attraction here.

Previously located in South Bend, Ind., the Hall of Fame opened its $68 million facility near Centennial Olympic Park to great fanfare Aug. 23, 2014, after a long, sometimes troubled effort to build it. The attraction’s first year of operation ends with executives describing the rookie season as successful, but declining to release attendance figures.

“We couldn’t be happier with what we’ve seen and more importantly with where we’re going,” said John Stephenson, the Hall of Fame’s president and CEO.

Before the opening, annual attendance was projected at an ambitious 500,000 by consultants and the break-even point pegged at 380,000 by Hall of Fame officials. Stephenson wouldn’t say if either of those targets was achieved, but acknowledged the attraction didn’t turn an operating profit in the first year.

“We didn’t expect to,” he said. “As most start-up companies do, you expect operationally to kind of grow into your shoes in the first two or three years. Our financial plan … anticipates a gradual grow-up into profitability, which we will achieve in due time.”

In the meantime, cash reserves from corporate sponsorships sold before the opening cover operating losses, as planned, Stephenson said.

“We are in a great place financially,” he said.

He said the Hall of Fame won’t release attendance figures at this point because the numbers aren’t “stabilized.”

“We started from zero, and we’re just kind of on this gradual rise. Where it stops, who knows?” he said. “But when it does stop, that is when you answer the question of whether your consultants were right.”

Hatchell said the National Football Foundation’s board of directors is “thrilled” with the first year of operation. He cited positive feedback from visitors and larger-than-expected revenue from groups renting the building for special events (more than 250 corporate, civic and private events held there so far).

“We are extremely pleased with Year 1, which provides us a lot of momentum for Year 2,” Hatchell said. “We have learned a lot, and we are excited to capitalize on the accomplishments of the past year in the coming months.”

Stephenson said that of the nation’s 768 college football teams last season — all represented on a dramatic wall of helmets in the Hall of Fame’s lobby — 758 have had fans visit the attraction in the past year.

Visitors are asked to register their favorite team as they enter, triggering that college’s helmet to light up and customizing the fan experience throughout the building.

The interactive features distinguish the facility from traditional sports museums dominated by busts, plaques and artifacts. The elimination of enshrinement is the latest example of breaking the mold of halls of fame, which typically build high-profile enshrinement events around the entry of new members.

The National Football Foundation will continue to announce each year’s Hall of Fame class at the College Football Playoff championship game in January and to induct the group 11 months later at the NFF’s black-tie dinner in New York in December. Previously, an additional enshrinement ceremony for the group was held at the Hall of Fame the following summer or fall — awkward timing because by then the next year’s class had been elected.

“It was very confusing,” Hatchell said.

The revised plan calls for new Hall of Famers to be “saluted” at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl a few weeks after their induction in New York. During that visit to Atlanta, they also will tour the Hall of Fame and participate in yet-to-be-defined activities there.

“It won’t be an enshrinement in the traditional sense. We won’t sit down and have tables and speeches,” Stephenson said. “We want it to be very accessible for fans to come in and buy tickets and celebrate these guys being in the hall.”

Another change: Under a multi-year agreement with ESPN, the network’s “Home Depot College Football Awards” show, televised live each December for the past 24 years, will move from Disney World to the Hall of Fame. This season’s show is set for Dec. 10.

“It’s not often Atlanta gets to take something from Disney World,” Stephenson said.

The show is expected to draw 25 to 30 of the nation’s top players and the coaches of the four playoff teams, Stephenson said.

Among other plans for the second year are a Hall of Famers reunion event next summer, more national radio and TV programming, a focus on group sales for the slower months, and increased efforts to market to fans of teams traveling to or through Atlanta for games.

“There were things we couldn’t get done in Year 1 because the focus was on getting it open,” Hatchell said. “Everything is on the table now in terms of its overall promotion.”

For Stephenson, the first year was defined by such moments as a kid in Georgia Bulldogs gear being thrilled when the UGA football team toured the Hall of Fame unannounced, a father and son traveling from Seattle and a former player at Grinnell College — a Division III program in Iowa — being overcome with emotion when he saw his school represented on the wall of helmets.

“You step back and you go, ‘We’ve really created a cool thing here,’” Stephenson said.

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