Plagued by financial instability, the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y., is in jeopardy. A museum that once hosted then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and inducted legends such as Mia Hamm and Pele is no longer open to the public on a daily basis. It has laid off two-thirds of its staff.
And it might soon be packing up its archives.
Plagued by financial instability, the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y., is in jeopardy.
A museum that once hosted then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and inducted legends such as Mia Hamm and Pele is no longer open to the public on a daily basis. It has laid off two-thirds of its staff.
And it might soon be packing up its archives.
“Certainly, it’s a distinct possibility,” Hall of Fame President and Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Ullman said. “I’m not in position to make a declarative statement about the future in Oneonta at this time.”
Income and expenses tell the story. Honoring great athletes is simple; getting paying customers to show up is quite another.
At the soccer hall, the annual attendance most years would barely fill a good-sized indoor arena, despite the fact that tens of thousands of young people nationwide play soccer.
So last month, the hall cut six of nine jobs. It also will open its doors only on the rare days when events take place on adjacent fields, such as next month’s high school championships.
Now, a 19-person board of directors is evaluating the hall’s options.
“Everything is on the table,” Ullman said, including relocation and a greater commitment to outreach where artifacts and Hall of Famers visit Major League Soccer stadiums and large tournaments around the country.
Oneonta Mayor John S. Nader is concerned about the hall, which he said gives the city “part of its identity.” He said the board of directors appears to be uncertain of what direction to take.
“It’s not clear to me that they have a clear vision of what they expect of the institution going forward,” Nader said. “I would love to have the Hall of Fame stay here. Time will tell.”
For fiscal year 2005-06, the Hall of Fame claimed total revenue of nearly $3 million. That figure dropped to less than $1 million the following year. In 2007-08, the revenue was back up to $1.79 million, including more than $100,000 of government grants.
Ullman said the annual budget is roughly $1 million.
“We need to offset the expense figure,” Ullman said. “Where we’ve fallen short in the past is we’ve never had the wherewithal to fund or to reinvest in the experience.”
In 2007-08, the Hall of Fame expenses were $1.56 million, but only $739,171 was brought in from admission fees and event and facility revenue. That leaves a great need for fundraising and other revenue sources.
Then-President Steve Baumann earned $177,788, according to U.S. Internal Revenue Service Form 990 disclosures. A previous president, Will Lunn, had earned $63,649 in his final year.
Ullman said Baumann’s salary was not out of line because his “remarkable experience” made him uniquely qualified to lead an American soccer museum. Baumman played in the North American Soccer League in the 1970s. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in education and has a background in museum work.
“We’re not where we are today because of one person having a salary twice as much as his predecessor,” Ullman said. “In and of itself, it wasn’t going to sink us.”
Lunn had worked at the hall for 16 years, 10 of those as president during which it broke ground for its current location known as the Wright National Soccer Campus on Route 205.
Ullman, who took over in May when Baumann resigned after 21 months, said the revenue spike in 2005-06 occurred because the hall received $1 million from U.S. Soccer and a one-time gift from benefactor Brian Wright, a Binghamton attorney who donated money for the complex that bears his name.
Not enough support
Ullman said the hall’s attendance has averaged only 17,000 since 2004 and never topped 20,000 since the building opened in 1999.
“I think simply there are not enough fans going through the museum and the hall on a regular basis to generate the revenue needed,” Nader said.
Ullman said the American Youth Soccer Organization, the National Intercollegiate Soccer Officials Association and the National Soccer Coaches Association of American have donated an average of about $50,000. Until recently, though, the Hall of Fame has not counted heavily on support from national organizations.
“Historically, it’s been local- and state-driven efforts,” Ullman said.
Ullman said the hall has relied on $75,000 to $100,000 from the state, but assistance has been harder to secure in the current economic climate.
Lunn noted in an e-mail that insufficient support for the Hall of Fame among national organizations left the museum isolated from the sport’s fan base. The annual Hall of Fame game drew large crowds and was televised nationally, but U.S. Soccer and MLS pulled their backing, he said.
Chicago-based U.S. Soccer, the sport’s governing body in the U.S., once had a closer working relationship with the Hall of Fame. U.S. Soccer supported the hall financially but no longer does, spokesman Neil Buethe said.
The national organization assists in promotional work on behalf of the hall when a U.S. player is inducted.
“It’s an interesting situation,” Buethe said. “They are their own entity.”
The boys state championship contract runs through 2010, and Ullman said the contract will be honored this year. Hall of Fame elections will take place this fall and next year’s inductions also will go on.
Boys state soccer coordinator Mike Andrew, who met with Ullman earlier this month to discuss the state championships, said the hall’s plan is to “lock the doors” for restructuring after the November championships.
Poland Central boys soccer coach Greg Haver had multiple opportunities to take his teams to the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Poland’s seasons ended there in 2005-2007.
“It’s kind of sad for us,” Haver said. “It’s somewhere close, we’ve enjoyed going to and we’ve been fortunate to play there. The fields are great.”
Other Halls of Fame
The Soccer Hall of Fame isn’t the only one in trouble. The National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, N.Y., also is saddled with financial difficulties and did not hold inductions this summer for the third time in six years.
Previously, Boilermaker Executive Director Tim Reed, who also heads the hall, cited a lack of revenue as the reason. For years, the running Hall of Fame has been supported by money brought in from the Boilermaker Road Race, which annually has more than 11,000 entrants.
It’s a tricky but critical balance, said Ed Brophy, executive director of International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y.
“I believe the biggest challenge that relates to all Halls of Fame, including baseball, football and basketball, is the challenge to be able to guide the growth of the project with the income that can be generated,” Brophy said.
Brophy started the Boxing Hall two decades ago. Since 1989, its induction ceremonies in early June have drawn significant crowds to Madison County.
The region also is home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., the granddaddy hall of them all. The baseball hall draws in loads of visitors year-round, in part because it has been steeped in lore for generations.
In Oneonta, the mayor points out that soccer lacks a deep tradition in the United States such as those enjoyed by other sports such as baseball and football.
“Soccer is a participant sport, not a spectator sport, and museums appeal to spectators,” Nader said.
By the numbers
Here are some facts and figures about the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta:
ATTENDANCE: Has averaged 17,000 over the last five years and never topped 20,000.
2005-06: Nearly $3 million
2006-07: Less than $1 million
2007-08: $1.79 million