A Winning Strategy Needed for the Hoop Hall of Fame

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which has certainly seen better times, especially from a public-relations standpoint.

First, there was the story in the local press revealing some dire financial straits and accounts of a letter sent to the hall’s trustees several weeks ago informing them that if things didn’t improve, and quickly, the shrine might be forced to sell its memorabilia, file for bankruptcy, or close the doors. Within that same story there were comments from the hall’s director, John Doleva, that things had already improved since that letter and that such dire consequences were not likely, but the news had been broken and the response locally was that the hall was in trouble — again, or still.

There was then the expected follow-up comments from area tourism officials downplaying the grim forecasts and expressing hope, and confidence, for a strong summer season for the hall. But soon, there were calls from columnists to stage campaigns to seek donations from millionaire NBA players and former players to save the hall, and even letters sent by Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno to state and federal leaders seeking some kind of financial help — aid that Doleva says isn’t needed.

Then there was some criticism in the media that hall officials had lost out on a golden opportunity to bring some badly needed attention to the shrine by refusing to move off a Sept. 11 date for the 2009 induction ceremonies — featuring a very strong class headlined by Michael Jordan — thus likely precluding a visit from President Obama, an avid basketball fan.

Amid these somewhat conflicting reports, it’s hard to gauge just what kind of financial shape the hall is in, but what seems clear is that the facility needs for some good things to happen — soon and for the long haul. It needs to have a very strong summer to stabilize its financial picture and calm the doubters, who are many. Then, it must make the very most of the opportunity presented by the induction of Jordan this fall. He is, in many respects, still the face of the game of basketball, and when he comes to Springfield to be enshrined, the world will be watching.

But the hall needs more than a strong finish to 2009. It needs some long-term stability that can only be gained from attaining a better, higher place in the region’s psyche. The hall has always been a part of the Pioneer Valley’s cultural and business scene, but it has never approached the level of recognition and importance achieved by the baseball and football halls of fame. In fact, in many circumstances people don’t even say ‘Baseball Hall of Fame’; they simply say ‘Cooperstown,’ the town in Upstate New York where that shrine is located.

How does Springfield gain such status, or something approaching it? It will likely take a strong branding, or rebranding, effort to make the city synonymous with basketball. Right now, it’s a long way from that place, in part because of past history and the city’s connection with manufacturing and, especially, the Springfield Armory, but also because of recent history and the city’s many financial and image problems.

Turning things around will take a concerted effort on the part of the hall, city and state tourism officials, elected leaders, and even area residents and business owners who must understand that the hall is not just another tourist attraction.

Local tourism officials have a lot on their plates and many priorities — including an underperforming convention center that has become the focus of a broad, new marketing effort called ‘Springfield First.’ But a stronger focus on Springfield, the Hall of Fame, and the game of basketball is something that’s needed.

In the end, donations from NBA players and emergency support from federal and state sources are not going to put the hall on solid financial footing for the long term. Only a strong, committed effort to permanently and forcefully connect Springfield with basketball can do that.-

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