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Site Review – The College Football Hall of Fame

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The College Football Hall of Fame (CFHF) in Atlanta, Georgia (relocated from South Bend, Indiana in 2014) is, perhaps, best described as a more a place of worship than a museum. Of course, most sports halls of fame are more about veneration than education for a variety of reasons. However, the College Football Hall of Fame takes this approach to a new level, as it very much is about experiencing and celebrating the meanings, traditions, and legacies of college football. There are, relative to the size of the museum, very few artefacts, and the displays – while familiar to most contemporary museum patrons – are less about sacred treasures and more about reliving and celebrating the past and present of the sport. In fact, most of the collection – including the inductees themselves, as well as the many sights and sounds of college football – are entirely digital. Even more than that, they are personally curated based on your college football affiliation.

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To the uninitiated, college football in the United States involves – in theory – amateur competitions between institutes of higher education. However, the scale, scope, pageantry, and money (particularly for the coaches, administrators, broadcasters, sponsors, and many athletics programs) involved in college football are entirely professional. Different regions and conferences will have different football cultures – from styles of play to tailgating traditions. In addition, there are hundreds of college football teams throughout the United States – from internationally known programs like Notre Dame, Alabama, and Ohio State who fill 90,000 seat stadiums and attract millions of dollars in support, through to small division two and three programs which have limited spectatorship and financial support. Indeed, the challenge of a CFHF is that is has to be both general – in terms of representing the whole of college football – while also being specific to the recognizable teams, games, and athletes.

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The CFHF experience begins with a “log-in” procedure where your information – and fan affiliation – are recorded, both to personally curate your experience (each visitor receives a lanyard to wear that allows for swiping at interactive stations along the way) as well as collect visitor information – including contact information. Most visitors view a 10 minute video that provides visitors something of the experience of a college game day at a large stadium and university. Visitors can then view some of the famous trophies from college football, including the Heisman Trophy (awarded annually to the top player in college football). A large part of the museum space is dedicated to fan traditions, such as tailgating and team fight songs, and there is also a section on college football bands and cheer teams. Visitors then proceed through a section about college football coaches, training regiments for college football, the evolution of college football equipment, college football rivalries, and famous college football broadcasts. The one section that comes close to a broader social history is a small display about historically black colleges and universities, as well as a small display about “service” college football programs from the armed forces.

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The top floor of the CFHF is the actual hall of fame itself – which is entirely digital – and a section about players who have gone on to great careers outside of football. Finally, there is a large, indoor practice-type facility where visitors can try their football skills before exiting through the gift shop and back into Atlanta’s Olympic Plaza.

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The basic narrative of the CFHF could be boiled down to “College football is great, and it has created great games, great champions, and great men – both on and off the field.” I wasn’t expecting anything different, nor is it really set up to do anything different than celebrate college football. Again, most halls of fame aren’t particularly interested in broader social or political issues, and a visitor is not going to find much about race, gender, economic, or health issues at the CFHF. In other words, it does what it says on the tin, and is unapologetic about it. And, judging by the crowds that were there the day we visited, it is an unabashed crowd-pleaser and, it would seem, people broadly enjoy the experience.

Of course, I believe this rather hagiographic approach is – broadly speaking, and not just for the CFHF – limiting. I think there is room for places like this to be, in the terms of the new museology, forums and not just sites of worship. And, I think that forum approach need not be just about some of the broader issues in college football and university athletics, but can be celebratory as well. From what I could see, there isn’t much space for temporary exhibits, nor did there appear to be any form of public, live interpretation or other form of programming. I think this is limiting, both in terms of the broad content and presentation of the CFHF, but also its broader appeal. In many respects, once you’ve “done” the CFHF, there are not many reasons to go back – at least for several years. It is possible that repeat visitation isn’t one of their major goals, and given that the CFHF is in the tourist district of Atlanta, right near the stadium that hosts numerous college football games that attract visiting fans, it may not need to attract regular repeat visitors. In some ways, it is set up to visit every three to five years, which may entirely meet their mandate. However, I’m just not sure there is much room to grow or change its galleries, and offer something new to the annual visitor.

One of the other aspects that was pointed out to me – and one that I may have overlooked otherwise – was that the focus of the CFHF really is the “big time” college football programs, particularly from the South. Working at Clemson, we are one of those big-time Southern programs, so it all was instantly recognizable to me. However, I could understand how a college football fan from a smaller school or, say, a west coast university might not necessarily recognize the depiction of the sport and its traditions. I would also suggest that the digital approach, though interesting and interactive, also had its issues. Despite it being only two years old, many of the interactive displays were already showing some wear-and-tear, and several were down for maintenance. Furthermore, I found it difficult to find information not related to Clemson. While the personal curatorship was an interesting approach, it was a bit more challenging to find out about other athletes, games, and programs.

As a visitor, I found it enjoyable enough, but I also have the real-deal of a big time college football program just steps from my office. I think it is a site that would appeal to both the dedicated fan and, possibly, might be of interest to someone wanting an introduction to the sport. In some ways, I could see it appealing to foreign visitors as a way of having an immersive American football experience on non-game days and in the off-season. As a heritage scholar, it is very much a corporate museum – a football museum celebrating football as a self-contained phenomenon. In other words, there wasn’t much about a broader context for developments in the sport and its traditions. The influence of corporate sponsorships were also a bit invasive (Kia branding throughout the tailgating exhibit, for example) and, I felt, detracted from the experience. Finally, if we are to understand heritage as the “present use of the past,” the CFHF celebrates all that is good about the college football experience, perhaps to mask the myriad of issues the sport currently faces – concussions and other health issues, sexual assaults committed by players and ignored by athletic and university administration, players’ labour issues, including unionization and pay, and the fact that college football coaches and administrators are almost always the highest paid employees on campus, to name but a few.

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Fútbol and Heritage in Argentina

For the past ten days, I have been in Argentina – specifically Buenos Aires and Rosario – leading a course about soccer and globalization in conjunction with the Clemson men’s soccer program. The students had a series of lectures and presentations pre-departure, mostly based off of Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of GlobalizationFoer’s thesis is that “globalization has failed to diminish soccer’s local cultures, local blood feuds, and local corruption, and may have actually increased the power of local entities.” The students have been asked to reflect on this global/local tension of soccer cultures through a series of seminar discussions and journal entries while we are in country. Upon our return to the United States, the students will have to complete a major paper that, in part, addresses Foer’s thesis as viewed through the lens of their own experiences in Argentina, including playing games against local squads (such as the reserve teams of San Lorenzo and Newell’s Old Boys, to name but two), going to local matches (including at River Plate and Argentinos Juniors), and through their own informal interactions with the sporting and non-sporting cultures of Argentina.

As you can imagine, the students have experienced many different aspects of globalization and its local resistance throughout the journey thus far, from playing an impromptu five-on-five street match against locals in the La Boca community to being swept-up in the atmosphere of El Monumental during a match.

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(Street match in La Boca)

During my conversations with the students, and perhaps because of my own research interests, the role of heritage and its relationship to Argentinian fútbol has become a focal point of our discussions. One of the aspects I pointed out to the students, particularly after we toured La Bombonera – home of Boca Juniors – and visited the team museum, is that heritage (including team traditions, history, rituals, and culture) is one of the products that is packaged and sold to fans both locally and globally. Similarly, I told them that touring team museums and stadiums was, in a sense, an entry-point for many to acquire or re-enforce their fandom. Judging by the number of students who left La Bombonera with Boca merchandise (and who said they would support Boca upon their return to the US, despite the fact we did not actually see Boca play in their home stadium), there is something to the theory that experiencing heritage may lead to support and fandom.

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(Touring La Bombonera)

The students noticed that, despite the local cultures and chants, the teams were largely sponsored by international companies – and, often, American companies like DirectTV. They also commented that most of the music played in the stadiums we went to were American or British artists.

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(Watching a game at El Monumental, home of River Plate)

However, the interesting thing that the students did mention – and related to both globalization and heritage – were the styles of play they were encountering when playing against Argentinian clubs. They noted that it was a very distinct style of play, similar to the style that the Argentinian national team plays, primarily in terms of speed and aggression. Interestingly, they noted that some of the teams they’ve played anticipated a very “American” style of play from Clemson, and were surprised when Clemson played above expectations. Similarly, they have noted both the style of refereeing to be different and, in some cases, more knowledgable than US referees (with a few exceptions). They have also been enamoured with the fact that they are immersed in a soccer culture all the time, something that they rarely get to experience in the US.

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(Clemson versus San Lorenzo, with the Estadio Pedro Bidegain in the background)

One of the interesting aspects I have noticed at each of the grounds we have visited are the murals situated outside of the stadiums. While many are fútbol-related, others appear to be more about social and political struggle.

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(Two murals, one fútbol-related at San Lorenzo, the other more politically related at Boca Juniors)

We still have a few days remaining in-country, and I expect there will be more lessons to be learned – both on and off the pitch. We have seen some of the impacts of inflation in the country, and while in Buenos Aires we witnessed several major protests right on our doorstep. The students have two more games to play in Rosario, as well as a number of non-sport activities including a city tour, and I expect we will have many more interesting discussions about globalization, heritage, and soccer.

Tourism & Sport Heritage: Help or Hinderance?

There’s little doubt that sport heritage can play an integral role in tourism development.

Of course, sport heritage attractions and experiences that are purposely positioned to appeal to tourists are part of this. Sports halls of fame and museums, behind-the-scenes stadium tours and the like can be significant in a destinations year-round tourism. Cities like Boston and Barcelona – both not lacking in tourist attractions – cite stadiums (Fenway Park and Camp Nou, respectively) as some of the largest heritage and cultural tourism attractions in their communities.

However, just as often, attending a game live is one of the best ways to experience authentic local or national culture, traditions, and heritage. When I lived in Canada and was hosting an overseas visitor, inevitably we would end up at a hockey game. In South Carolina, I encourage visitors to come during the fall college football season – or, barring that, come during the spring or summer to experience minor league baseball in the Carolinas.

In general, this kind of heritage/cultural sport tourism is seen as beneficial for destinations, clubs, and visitors alike. For the destinations, visitors will come to watch matches in the tourism shoulder/off-season, there is the prestige of having global visitation (and, often, the revenue that comes from international visitors), and – in cities like Liverpool – additional local businesses and attractions can be created around visitors wanting to experience something of the club’s heritage year-round. For the clubs, the market for tickets and merchandise becomes global, additional off-season experiences – such as stadium tours and heritage-themed restaurants – can be created, and international competitions can be created. For supporters, seeing a match in the home of a particularly famous team can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

However, it’s not always so rosy. In the case of the Premier League in England, tourists form a significant number of ticket-buyers, often being motivated to experience the history, heritage, and traditions of English football. In fact, nearly 800,000 overseas visitors went to a football match in Britain (most of whom went to a Premiership match), with an estimated economic impact of £684m. Destination Marketing Organizations, such as Visit Britain, have sections on their webpages about attending football matches.

But, the influx of visitors have – in the view of many local supporters – driven up ticket prices, have not embraced local traditions (and, have created new ones, like half-and-half scarves) and created a much different atmosphere in the grounds (as visitors don’t know the chants and are, seemingly, just there to watch the spectacle).

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Recently, the chairman of the Football Supporters Federation claimed that clubs would “lose the atmosphere and link to the local community”, with match-going supporters replaced by “foreign tourists with half and half scarves taking selfies of being in an English ground”.

There is little doubt that tourism has probably driven up prices at heavily-subscribed sporting events like Premiership football, particularly at heritage-based clubs like Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal. While fans of other sports in other countries – like the NFL, NHL, MLB – have more opportunities to sell their tickets on the secondary market (like StubHub) and are able to finance going to some games by selling others at inflated prices, this is probably not as much of an option in the EPL – owing to both tradition (season ticket holders typically go to all games) and security at grounds. As such, there is probably a limited supply of tickets for tourists – and, perhaps, some of the “tourist tickets” are actually sold by the club at inflated prices. Few teams garner as much international interest as English football clubs, and with international travel being relatively easy and inexpensive as compared to previous generations, one can see how tickets to heavily supported clubs have gone up due to international demand and limited supply.

There is also the notion that tourism has changed the heritage and traditions of watching a football match. In this, English football – at least at certain grounds – is probably going through the changes that happen in many parts of heritage tourism. The line between “spectator” and “participant” is a challenge in many kinds of heritage tourism, as many heritage experiences are meaningful, important, and impactful because this line between spectator and participant does not exist. In this, the heritage tourist’s participation is integral to the spectacle – in fact, participation is integral to the heritage existing in the first place. As is the case in many kinds of heritage, the “outsider” coming in to ruin a local heritage can often tinged with a very reactionary form of nostalgia – and, of course, that could be happening here. The “good old days” of attending a top-tier football match in England are long gone, and perhaps tourists (or, particular kinds of tourists) are an easy and available scapegoat for broader social and cultural changes. That said, if tourists are “gazing” rather than participating (or feeling they can participate, which is a different thing altogether) and the number of “gazing” tourists are of a significant number, I can understand why local fans feel that some heritages are under threat.

Naturally, the idea of finding some sort of balance between maintaining heritage and tradition and welcoming tourists is as important in heritage sport tourism as it is in all other forms of cultural and heritage tourism. There have been some proposals to limit tickets to people with local postcodes, or have some other scheme by which local, longtime fans still have access to their home club. One thought might be for local or national destination marketing organizations to promote other sports and sporting experiences as “authentic” forms of cultural and heritage. In the case of Britain, perhaps rugby, cricket, or horse racing becomes the focus, rather than just football. Personally, attending a county cricket match seemed like a far more “authentic” sporting experience than any of the English football matches I’ve been to over the years. And, of course, local rugby teams and county cricket clubs would probably love the additional support! Easier said than done, of course, but actively promoting other important cultural/traditional sport might both ease the pressure on popular sports, help maintain some of the intangible heritage, and help spread the wealth a bit.

Ultimately, most organizations and destinations would love to have the heritage sport tourism issues of the Premier League. And, it goes without saying that the Premier League offers a unique heritage conservation issue that most sports do not have to contend with. By and large, heritage sport tourism is beneficial to destinations, clubs, and visitors alike. Few tourist experiences can rival the authenticity of watching a sporting event live in another country. However, as the Premier League example tells us, this has to be managed, lest local supporters (quite literally) revolt.

The Geography of Celebration

There are moments in our lives that we anticipate will be memorable – graduations, weddings, the birth of children, the death of those close to us, and so on. We typically take steps to plan these events, both from a practical standpoint but also because we know that these events will be milestones; moments that either we want to remember and cherish (particularly if these are positive events) or know that we will remember, even if they are painful.

More collectively, memories tend to be reactive. That is to say, an event (normally a shocking or unexpected one) happens which becomes a memory; a “where were you?” moment like September 11, 2001. Certainly, in sport, there are unexpected moments – victories (or defeats) that will be recalled and rehashed for decades to come. However, sport also does often offer the opportunity to plan a memory, knowing that a particular moment will likely form a part of a collective biography. As I wrote about last spring, there is a tendency to form an “anticipatory sport heritage” whereby we rapidly assess the impact of a sporting event either in its immediate aftermath or, at times, before the event has even happened. As such, some events are thought to be “memorable” before they’ve event occurred.

This evening is the National College Football Championship, played between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers. As a faculty member at Clemson, we were provided instructions by our Provost – Dr. Bob Jones – on how to academically approach the following couple of days, knowing that many students, staff, and faculty would either venture to Arizona for the game or, at the very least, be distracted (if not a little fatigued) whether the Tigers won or lost the game. In the Provost’s words from an email sent to all faculty, staff, and students on January 2, he notes:

“A national football championship is, for most of us, a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience a key part of American higher education culture. This is true for students, staff, and faculty. It is a special opportunity. We have an obligation to facilitate participation, so long as it does not diminish the core academic mission of the university.”

Of course, it is quite impossible to say whether this event that (at the time of writing) will be “once in a lifetime”, or that we can instantly assess its significance in our own lives or the legacy of our university.

But, we can probably guess that it will be important, regardless of the result. Perhaps if Clemson loses, and perhaps wins in the coming seasons, the “once in a lifetime” will be contextualized in terms of an era of success. Or if they lose, and never return to the Championship, the memory will be bittersweet. If Clemson wins, perhaps it will be something that the Clemson community will view as an integral part of its history; something to be shared, recalled, and nostalgized for years to come.

One of the aspects I will be interested to see, should the Tigers be victorious, is the Geography of Celebration. That is to say, which areas in or near Clemson become the focus of public celebrations? I expect that it will probably be the College Avenue area, which is the main street of Clemson leading up to Bowman Field and the “entrance” to the university:

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Most of the bars in Clemson are on College Avenue, and there is the icon of the Tillman Hall/Old Main building at the end of the street. However, there is not much at this location that is specifically related to football in particular (although the field itself, historically, was once the football field). There is nothing like Auburn University’s Toomer’s Corner in this area, which has become a part of football lore and tradition:

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There are football-related icons in Clemson, particularly Howard’s Rock and the Esso Club:

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Both are near the College Avenue area and, in the case of Howard’s Rock in particular, are symbolic of Clemson football. As such, it will be interesting to see if there are several different celebration locations in Clemson itself, or if they ultimately meld into one particular place.  Added to this geography, however, is the fact that the largest remote viewing party is at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, approximately 30 miles from Clemson University. It is possible, then, that the celebration will be quite diffuse.

Of course, with such a large area – and several different iconic locations – it is possible that, win or lose, there will be a large area to monitor and potentially police. Many sports celebrations, or reactions to defeat, have sparked antisocial behaviours, most notably in Vancouver in 2011:

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Perhaps it is no coincidence then that Clemson’s President, Dr. Jim Clements, sent the following email this morning to the entire university:

“Whether you plan to watch in Arizona, at a viewing party or from the comfort of home, please remember that we are all representatives of our great university. I’m glad that the Clemson family knows that just like our student-athletes and coaches, we win or lose with class, dignity and good sportsmanship.”

Of course, one hopes that such incidents won’t occur. However, the idea that we must plan for many eventualities does have to take place. Furthermore, in the age of mobile technologies, celebrations (or any form of public gathering) can be dynamic; they can form and disperse quite quickly.

From a heritage standpoint, there is something to be said that many public celebrations tend to take place at or near icons of place (many, if not most of which, could broadly be considered heritage). It is also interesting to see which icons are “chosen” as sites of celebration, and for what reasons. In Clemson’s case, I imagine that the College Avenue/Bowman Field area will be chosen in large part because it is central, well-known, has amenities (mainly bars), and, perhaps, because it is next to an icon and symbol of the university. However, it will be interesting to see that, if tonight and the coming days, other symbols and icons – such as Howard’s Rock – become the sites of a broader, collective celebration. Similarly, if they lose, which icons become the sites of mourning and why?