National Soccer Hall of Fame on verge of leaving Oneonta
At a time when the U.S. men's national team has reached uncharted territory on the international stage, MLS is moving closer to profitability and youth participation levels are at an all-time high, it didn't seem in tune with the script when the National Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum in Oneonta, N.Y., announced that it was closing its doors to the public after nearly 30 years.
Surely this was impossible, right?
The only living monument dedicated to celebrating the history of a game largely ignored during its 140-plus year existence in the United States revealed in September it is no longer able to operate on a daily basis thanks to declining revenue and poor attendance, opting instead to welcome visitors only during special match days and tournaments played on its grounds.
The current museum, which has been the Hall's home base since 1999, houses a lifetime's worth of history, artifacts and memorabilia unbeknownst to many -- and dare I say most -- American soccer fans. But whether it's a New York Cosmos game jersey worn by Pele, the ball that propelled Brandi Chastain and the U.S. women's national team to World Cup glory in 1999, an exhibit documenting the first recorded American match played in 1863, or the Ohio Open Cup trophy displaying a 1923 triumph by the Lorain Eagles (hometown alert), there's something of interest within the facility's walls for every soccer fan.
For the time being, at least.
In addition to the museum, Hall of Fame and library, the expansive, 10-year-old structure houses the offices of the small handful of employees left lying in wait as the Hall of Fame's board of directors decides the organization's future direction.
Poor attendance and declining revenues have ravaged the Hall's bottom line and left everyone involved racing to find a solution, which could include leaving tiny Oneonta after 30 years of residency.
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Over the past five years, the Hall has averaged only 17,000 visitors despite the upswing in the game's popularity in the United States, leaving many left to wonder if cities such as St. Louis and Philadelphia aren't better fits for the ever-growing game.
"This is pretty heady stuff we're talking about. We're talking about 'How is the organization going to move forward into the future?'" said National Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum president and COO Jonathan Ullman. "So I think it is fair to say that the board has great urgency, as do we, about reaching a decision."
What could ultimately make sense is a move elsewhere.
"Relocation is certainly a possibility," Ullman admitted.
That prospect would see the Hall ripped from a city that fought like mad to have it in the first place.
Located a stone's throw from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the enterprising citizens of Oneonta -- still riding the wave of local schools Hartwick College's and SUNY at Oneonta's success on the pitch during the 1970s -- had an idea to lure some of the baseball crowd to their fair city for another, albeit different, Hall of Fame experience.
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The formal bid was made in 1979, and the official clearance was awarded by the United States Soccer Federation in 1983. Oneonta beat out St. Louis, Santa Clara, Calif., and the Meadowlands in New Jersey as the official site of the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
At one point on the four-year journey, while waiting for official word from the USSF, a 23-member ad hoc Soccer Hall of Fame committee proclaimed Oneonta the site of the Hall before later obtaining an official charter from the New York State board of regents to ensure it was their prize to lose.
"This is what Oneonta did," said museum and archives director Jack Huckel, who has been with the Hall since 1999. "They took what was forgotten and brought it back to life. And now it's our responsibility to find a new way to keep that history of soccer living and breathing so the past is not lost again."
But unfortunately for Huckel and Ullman, the final decision is not in their hands. And the two are left to twist in the wind while the board of directors decides the Hall's fate.
"The board's still talking, is what it boils down to," Huckel added. "And we're kind of frustrated by that because we know we have no control."
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"We certainly understand there's a balance to be struck here. On one hand, you don't want to be in this state of flux for any longer than you need to be, and the uncertainty makes it very difficult for people who want to support the organization to get behind it," conceded Ullman, who took over after former president Steve Bauman stepped down earlier this year. "You're not going to attract donors or sponsors if they don't understand what your plan is -- whether you intend to reopen next summer or if you intend to have a presence somewhere else. Until you do that you don't have any momentum and support."
And so everyone waits, with the vague promise of "weeks" before a decision will be made that could possibly end the 30-year marriage between a small town and the game it fought to give a home.
"We have a tremendous debt to the Oneonta community for creating this organization and the impact that will be felt will certainly be felt here," Huckel said. "But it's also really important to underscore the fact that the Hall of Fame is not closing. The Hall of Fame as an organization is not going away. We are at a juncture in our evolution as an organization and the future is likely going to be a very different way of operating from the way in which we've operated in the past but we will continue to exist."
Just maybe not in Oneonta.
Ethan Donaldson is an assistant editor for ESPN.com.