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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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New Research: Leveraging Sport Heritage to Promote Tourism Destinations

I am pleased to announce the publication of “Leveraging sport heritage to promote tourism destinations: the case of the Tour of Flanders Cyclo Event.” This article, to be published in the Journal of Sport & Tourism, was co-authored with Dr. Inge Derom from Vrije Universiteit Brussel and is based off of data she collected in 2013. A limited number of free e-copies of the article are available.

From the abstract:

The conceptual framework of event leverage has been applied to cases of event sport tourism, but it has been under-examined in cases of heritage-based active sport tourism. Using the framework of event leverage, the purpose of this paper is to explore the strategic opportunities for tourism destination development associated with hosting heritage-based active sport tourism events. Quantitative and qualitative survey data were collected from participants (N = 1091) at the 2013 edition of the Tour of Flanders Cyclo event. This annual active sport tourism event has gained world-wide popularity through explicit associations with Flanders’ cycling heritage. The findings reveal significant differences between national and international event participants in terms of their socio-demographic profiles, cycling behaviours, and event motivations. Active sport tourists who travelled internationally to take part in the event were more committed to experiencing and pursuing the event’s heritage, as active participants as well as passive spectators. While sport tourism events are commonly identified as the key resource in the event leveraging literature, this paper highlights the leveraging potential of other event and destination-related resources, including event heritage, route, and atmosphere. The findings contribute to the conceptual framing of event leverage by identifying active sport heritage as an important resource to promote participation among sport tourists. This study suggests a broader conceptualisation of sport heritage as an active and embodied process. Event stakeholders are advised to create temporary and permanent transformations that can enhance the connection between the facets of the event and the context of the host to attract domestic and international participants all year round.

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This research is important for sport heritage scholars and practitioners in several ways, including that the heritage of sporting events can be an important lure for sport tourists, that sport heritage can be an active and participatory and not merely passive and consumptive, and that destinations could employ their sport heritage connections in tourism development, particularly to attract international visitors.

Athletes and the Paradox of Sport Heritage

On Friday evening, I will be going to Turner Field in Atlanta (the former Olympic Stadium which will close at the end of this season) to watch the Atlanta Braves take on the Miami Marlins. Though there are several reasons for going to this game in particular – perhaps, in part, connecting a summer leisure activity to a kind-of American traditionalism and nationalism, not to mention the fact that though I dislike the Braves immensely, I like the Marlins…and I love attending live baseball games in the middle of summer – one of my main considerations is seeing Ichiro Suzuki play one final time before he, likely, retires at the end of the season.

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Ichiro was, in many respects, baseball’s first global superstar, having established himself in Japanese baseball before joining the Seattle Mariners in his late 20s. Recently, his combined professional hits total topped that of Pete Rose – and though there is some controversy as to whether his Japanese career “counts,” there is little doubt that Ichiro changed the game of baseball, both through his playing ability and through his global reach. He is certainly a first-ballot Hall of Fame player, and arguably one of the best baseball players of all time.

I first saw Ichiro play live in Seattle in 2006. I took a seat in right field – Ichiro’s then position – and was surrounded by fans from Japan, all there to see him play. In fact, much of the in-stadium signage – as well as many of the on-field advertisements – were in both English and Japanese, suggesting just how much of a magnet Ichiro was for fans overseas. Friday’s game will be my third time seeing Ichiro (the other was a mid-April Braves-Marlins game last season), and though I don’t expect to see the same reaction as I experience in 2006, I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t a few fans there who, like me, want to see him play one last time.

In many ways, my desire to see Ichiro play reflects on our understandings of sport heritage, namely that athletes represent a kind-of “living” artefact or heritage object. Sean Gammon, in his 2014 paper “Heroes as Heritage“, argues that athletes represent a type of dual sport heritage, in that they themselves are living heritage objects and that their accomplishments and feats represent a type of intangible heritage. I wrote, in response to Gammon’s paper, that

The heroes and the sporting moments they create then, as Gammon argues, become artefacts, and though we can relive and replay the achievement (and, in a sense, preserve the moment(s) in time, perhaps through both personal memory and vicariously through media) we cannot preserve “the object” in the same way that we might other forms of tangible heritage. The relationship between the achievement and the athlete, in fact, demonstrates a paradox in sport heritage. Athletes age, change, and are no longer what they were – indeed, athletes are some of the few heritage “objects” that are not aided by the patina of age. However, their achievements may become more glorious – or heroic – as time goes on.

Ichiro is certainly not the player he once was, and though he’s had a bit of a renaissance as of late, at 42 years of age he now a fourth outfielder (essentially filling in from time to time from starting players) and is battling well down the line-up (as he often strikes out more than he puts a ball in play these days). But, I am not going to see Ichiro as he is now – I am creating anticipatory heritage for myself (the “tell my grandkids about” moment), and celebrating his past achievements – making them, and he, more glorious and heroic as we are farther removed from them.

Sport Heritage Trails

Here in the United States, we have seen an increase in the ways that heritage is presented, marketed, and sustained – particularly in rural regions. Many small towns and communities have museums, historic sites, and heritage markers that – individually – may have challenges attracting visitors and interest. The new approach – which is also seen in broader forms of heritage designation, including at the World Heritage level – is to view heritage more holistically, at least in terms of geography.

As such many sites are linking together as part of theme-based heritage “trails” in order to both adequately reflect connections between sites as well as pool resources for marketing and promotion. Theme-based trails have demonstrated some success in rural economic development and can be important catalysts for identifying, recognizing, and sustaining important aspects of culture, heritage, and industry in rural and peripheral regions. Typical themes for trails include religious and pilgrimage routes, migration and trade routes, as well as industrial, cultural, and literary routes, although food-based trails have also become popular trail theme in recent years. It is assumed that all members of trails share common goals as to the purpose and outcomes of trail development, although this may not always be the case.

In any event, though many other forms of heritage – particularly those specific to popular cultures like music, literature, and food – have embraced the heritage trail concept, there appear to be relatively few sport heritage-specific trails that link sporting attractions, sites, places, and markers together. Perhaps the best local example of this concept might be the Packers Heritage Trail in Green Bay, that links important sites in the community to the heritage of the Green Bay Packers football team. On a broader regional basis, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama is one example of a sporting trail, though the actual historical/heritage component this trail is perhaps not as prominent as would exist in other regional heritage trails like the Virginia “Crooked Road” music trail.

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The seemingly limited use of sport heritage in trail development begs a few questions. First, are there other trails besides the ones listed above that are exclusively sport-based, particularly those that are regional driving trails (i.e.: require a car) rather than a local walking trail? Second, if sport heritage is not being used as a theme for trail development, why is it not being used? Has it not been considered, or has it been considered and dismissed? Third, if sport heritage has been considered and dismissed in trail development, what were the reasons? Does it have to do with marketability, or lack of sites/attractions in a region, or something else (e.g.: competition between sites)?

Sport heritage seems like it could be a strong theme for some kind of trail development – particularly around a common theme like particular sports (baseball, basketball, hockey) or famous athletes. Yet, there are apparently few examples of sport heritage being used in trail development, and I am curious as to why this is the case.

 

Sports Venues and Historic Preservation: What the Astrodome tells us about heritage

One of the major issues facing historic preservation appears to be making the case for the preservation and protection of relatively recent sites and structures. I think this is particularly the case for buildings that were, at the time, considered futuristic or having a space-age design, or represented some kind of forward-thinking, progressive age – in fact, the polar-opposite of heritage. A recent non-sport example would be something like the site of the Kennedy Space Center, which seems to be much more about the glorious past of the US Space Program than about any kind of future discovery. Seemingly overnight, the site went from a symbol of the future to almost a relic of the past, although in some respects it still exists in a kind-of liminal space where there are still echoes of a future to come. Of course, the Kennedy Space Center still has a purpose, primarily as a tourist attraction as well as the site of occasional launches from private firms, and as such is probably spared from any real threat. However, most recent historic structures aren’t so fortunate, and it can sometimes be difficult to position them as worthy of preservation and protection.

Many sports stadia and venues from the recent sporting past also exist in a kind-of liminal space, particularly as cities and communities struggle with whether the multi-use, multipurpose venues built in the 1960s and 70s are worthy of designation, protection, and repurposing. I have argued many times – both in this forum and in academic publications – that nothing is so dead as an unused and abandoned stadium. A stadium can’t often simply exist to exist, as other historic properties might. In many cases, such as in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Philadelphia amongst many others, multipurpose venues were simply demolished. However, the case of the Houston Astrodome, and the current debates over of what to do with it, might add to the broader debate about the preservation of recent sites and buildings.

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The history of the Astrodome is well documented, though needless to say it has arguably been the most important sporting structure – in events, design, and legacy – in the US in the past 50 years. It is undeniably an important building in telling the story of American sports since the mid 1960s, and if it were a more conventional building the debate over its preservation wouldn’t be in doubt. However, because it is a large, abandoned sports venue, it becomes a little more complicated. There remains an ongoing debate about what to do with it, from the unusual suggestion of maintaining it as site for “ruin porn” tourism to the more conventional adaptive reuse options, but the fact that it hasn’t been torn down and that there are various proposals about what to do with it is encouraging – not just for those who value the building itself, but for proponents of a much broader understanding of historic preservation. The idea that sports venues are not only icons of place but repositories for memories and intergenerational bonding, sites where spectacular feats happened and amazing people performed, and sources of all kinds of artistic inspiration, are not new. However, the notion that the much-riducled multipurpose sports venue also possess heritage qualities is unique, and might make us re-think all kinds of structures from our recent past. Of course, we probably don’t want to save every stadium or every building built since the early 60s – this is simply neither feasible nor desirable. But, the example of the Astrodome demonstrates that historic properties come in all shapes and sizes, and that heritage value is much more than simply a case of a structure being particularly old or particularly ornate.

Commemorating the Discarded Stadium

As many sports organizations have realized, heritage is an asset that can be used for a variety of needs and in numerous circumstances. We have seen many kinds of ways heritage have been used in sports, from throwback apparel and uniforms to retro stadiums to nostalgia-based events and experiences (like fantasy camps). Many teams, such as the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, also view their historic stadiums as assets which provide both cultural capital as well as economic benefits (the Red Sox have the second highest revenue generating ballpark in MLB, despite the capacity, in large part because of Fenway’s history and heritage).

When a team moves venues, often for economic reasons, there is normally a celebration of the old venue. Often, as in the case of Yankee Stadium, Anfield, or the Montreal Forum, the old stadium was beloved and reflect the fact that – paraphrasing sports geographer John Bale – sports stadiums are more than utilitarian structures and many supporters feel a strong sense of attachment to them. In the case of both the new Yankee Stadium and the Molson Centre (which replaced the Montreal Forum), care was taken to provide a blend of old and new – where the new venue has either direct references or explicit echoes to the previous stadium (as Anouk Belanger notes, the Montreal Canadiens had a parade of ghosts from one venue to the other). There was generally an acknowledgment by the teams that, though fans loved the old venue, the new venue would provide the club much needed benefits while also maintaining the sense of place and tradition.

However, this year there are two examples of teams celebrating the final seasons at venues that – to employ an overused phrase – they “threw under the bus.” The Edmonton Oilers, who are set to move to the new Rogers Place in Fall of 2016, are celebrating the final season in their longtime home, Rexall Place (nee: Northlands Coliseum; Edmonton Coliseum; Skyreach Centre).

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Rexall Place, architecturally, is unimpressive, but as a venue that has hosted numerous notable events – particularly as a hockey venue – it undoubtedly has broad historic value. However, in securing a new arena deal, the arena was denigrated as “antiquated and outdated“. In fact, there appears to have been little mention that the venue had any heritage value at all until the “Farewell Season” commemorations were announced.

Similarly, the Atlanta Braves are set to commemorate the final season at Turner Field during the 2016 season.

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The Braves inherited Turner Field, as it was previously built for the 1996 Olympics then converted to a baseball stadium. As such, the Braves were never particularly fond of the stadium or location, and so a celebration of the final year at a (shockingly recent) venue is a bit odd.

Celebrating the final season at a venue can have benefits for both team and spectator. For the team, it can provide an additional revenue stream through memorabilia, as well as an incentive to come to games that season. For fans, it allows them to experience the venue one more time, relive memories, and provides a transition to the new stadium. The tone of both the Oilers and Braves commemorations are a little different though, in that neither organization will shed a tear for their old venues given the apathy and, in the Oilers case, hostility towards their former homes. While I suspect the teams would have had commemorations anyway, the fact that both are teams have had or are expected to have little success in their final seasons, the heritage angle to “visit one last time” is probably an effective motivator for fans to go to games, purchase merchandise, and perhaps acquire memorabilia like seats, turf, signage and the like after the final out/whistle. It is the one season when, very likely, “just being there” rather than victories is incentive enough for fans to turn out. That said, these two celebrations this year come across as slightly hollow, particularly when compared to how other teams have seemingly handled these occasions.

The Global Recognition and Protection of Sport Heritages

Sport heritage has been, until recently, a relatively obscure topic. People working at sports sites and museums have formed professional associations such as the International Sports Heritage Association, while a small, international group of academics (including the author of this blog) have been engaged in sport heritage-based research. Anecdotally, public interest in sport heritage appears to be growing, given the proliferation of sport heritage-based sites, attractions, and experiences, while there has been a steady growth in interest and research output about sport heritage in academia.

However, two recent developments point to a growing interest in sport heritage – in particular, the recognition of sport heritage as an important cultural practice that, in some cases, may require protection.

The first major development is that ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites – which “works for the conservation and protection of cultural heritage places” – has declared “The Heritage of Sport” as its theme for the 2016 ICOMOS International Day on Monuments and Sites. This declaration is an extraordinarily significant form of recognition for sport heritage as a field. ICMOS is a very well known and well regarded international heritage agency, and is probably best known for its considerable work with the UNESCO World Heritage program. Details about the “Heritage of Sport” day – which is on April 18 – have yet to be released, but it will nevertheless an important milestone in sport heritage.

23 June 2010; Daire Plunkett, Dublin, in action against Paul Murphy, Kilkenny. Bord Gais Energy Leinster GAA Hurling Under 21 Championship Semi-Final, Kilkenny v Dublin, Nowlan Park, Kilkenny. Picture credit: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

The second major development is the fact that the Gaelic sport of hurling is likely to be added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. In an article in the Irish Times, the Irish government looked to the inscription as “provid(ing) a significant opportunity to showcase the uniqueness of hurling, uilleann piping and Irish folklore beyond our national boundaries.” Although several other sport-based cultural practices are on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, such as Taekkyeon – a traditional Korean martial artChinese Dragon Boat races and festivals, and tugging rituals and games in Southeast Asia, sport is not the primary focus of these inscriptions. However, hurling is a popular, codified, spectator sport that also has cultural meaning. In other words, the sport component is of primary significance in its potential inscription on the List.

These developments at UNESCO and ICOMOS raise some intriguing questions for sport heritage scholars. Will these efforts lead to sport being properly considered an important part of global heritage? Will heritage recognition and protection of sporting practices enhance or detract from the sport? Can the sports adapt and change over time, or will they ossify? Certainly, as a sport heritage scholar, I welcome these developments, and I look forward to seeing how sport is recognized by the global heritage community.