Hall of Fame faces financial losses

CANTON, Ohio -- Workers assembled the metal framework for outdoor tents in the parking lot of the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Friday, getting ready for its big enshrinement weekend -- one that won't include a game for the first time in 45 years.

It's much more than just a lost preseason game for the northern Ohio community with deep football roots.

The labor dispute between NFL owners and players forced the league to call off the annual Hall of Fame game between Chicago and St. Louis scheduled for Aug. 7.

Everything else will go as planned, including the enshrinement on Aug. 6.

It's a financial blow to the Hall of Fame, which could lose about $1.5 million out of its $20 million annual operating budget. And it's a big loss for the community, which gets more than just a financial boost from the event.

Pride also comes into play.

"We're such a football community," said Joanne Murray, director of the Hall of Fame festival for the local Chamber of Commerce. "From the staff to the man on the street, I doubt you'd find a single person who would say they're not disappointed.

"We're just going to have to get through this unusual year and embrace the other events."

A day after the game was canceled, the city was feeling the sting.

"We have more than 4,000 volunteers in the community that help with the events," said Joe Horrigan, a vice president with the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "So there are people who have been working very hard with us on game preparation -- that's their event. They're very disappointed.

"But I think it's more the feeling of losing a little bit of tradition. This is middle America here, and we like tradition. I think that's part of it."

The Hall of Fame game started in 1962, a year before the building opened. There was no game in 1966, but it has been played every year since.

Last year, nearly 20,000 tickets were sold for the enshrinement. The 22,000-seat stadium was packed for a game between Dallas and Cincinnati. An estimated 6 million people watched the enshrinement on television, and the game turned out to be one of the highest-rated shows of the week with 11.4 million viewers.

The Hall of Fame gets ticket and merchandise sales from the game, plus increased visits to the museum. The Hall is in the midst of a $27 million renovation to be completed in 2013. It's offering refunds for game tickets.

Ticket sales for the weekend were down compared to other years -- roughly 14,000 had been sold for the game and 8,000 for the enshrinement. The 2011 induction class includes Shannon Sharpe, Richard Dent, Marshall Faulk, Deion Sanders and Chris Hanburger.

Horrigan attributes the reduced demand to the uncertainty over whether there would be a game. Fans can buy packages that include admission to the enshrinement, the game and other events.

"Now that the uncertainty's gone, we expect a spike," he said.

A survey five years ago by the Chamber of Commerce estimated a $31 million annual impact on the region from the events.

"We're going to have a notable financial impact," Murray said.

Located about an hour's drive from Cleveland, the city has a rich football history. The Canton Bulldogs were formed early in the 1900s and were coached by Jim Thorpe. They won championships and intertwined the city's reputation with football.

The Hall of Fame game was the first casualty of the labor dispute. Horrigan said attendance at the Hall of Fame has been normal this summer, while players and owners jostled over a contract.

"When the Browns left town for Baltimore (in the 1990s) and when there was some labor unrest in the '80s, we saw a direct correlation with our business," he said. "We've been fairly consistent (this summer). If we're down, we're down more because the cost of gasoline spiked. I feel we have not seen a negative response from our visitors."

Unlike the locals, visitors to the Hall of Fame on Friday didn't seem to mind losing a preseason game.

"Your good pros don't even play anyway," said Ed Nettleton, a 43-year-old truck driver from the Chicago area who was watching the NFL Network's recap of negotiations. "Any of these preseason games are more limited to finding the players you want."

Ed Kusher from Rochester, N.Y., went through the Hall of Fame wearing a Tom Brady jersey. His wife, Julie, wore a John Elway Broncos jersey. Their 6-year-old son, Tyler, also had a Brady jersey.

Kusher expects the players and owners to get a final agreement soon. The protracted negotiations haven't soured him on the NFL.

"Not yet," he said. "If it held up the season, then yes, I'd be real upset."