Hall pres­i­dent sees a foot­ball ‘Dis­ney’

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL/NFL -

CANTON, Ohio — David Baker has a vi­sion.

He sees a state-of-theart sta­dium; eight fields in a youth sports com­plex (plus three more on cam­pus); an in­door arena; a cen­ter for ath­letic per­for­mance and safety; a player care cen­ter; and a ho­tel. All of it — and more — sur­round­ing the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame, of which Baker is pres­i­dent and CEO.

He en­vi­sions stag­ing an NFL Draft on­site. Col­lege cham­pi­onships in foot­ball and other sports. Con­certs, the­atri­cal per­for­mances and con­ven­tions. And a cel­e­bra­tion of the NFL’s cen­ten­nial in 2020.

His vi­sion is in the process of com­ing to fruition, as any­one who at­tended this week’s in­duc­tion cer­e­monies, Hall of Fame game and other events that make up the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame en­shrine­ment week can at­test.

“If Dis­ney [prop­er­ties] are the ‘Hap­pi­est Place on Earth,’” Baker said, “we want to be the ‘Most In­spir­ing Place on Earth.’

“Foot­ball is a great metaphor for lead­er­ship, and we can play a role. The game has an in­cred­i­ble his­tory, and kids can get to learn to play the game the right way.

There is the po­ten­tial for the John­son Con­trols Hall of Fame Vil­lage to ex­tend to 600 acres. At a cost of per­haps nearly $800 mil­lion for what the folks at John­son Con­trols are call­ing the world’s first sports and en­ter­tain­ment “smart city.”

Baker calls it a “smart city with a heart.”

Baker, who as com­mis­sioner of the Arena Foot­ball League for 12 years helped grow team val­ues from $175,000 to as much as $32 mil­lion, knows some­thing about build­ing a brand. Since he as­sumed his role at the Hall of Fame, Baker has en­hanced the Canton shrine’s pro­file among foot­ball fans, NFL team own­ers and — per­haps a nec­es­sary evil these days — spon­sors.

This year, while the over­all vil­lage project moves for­ward, he’s got­ten the league to move the Hall of Fame game to Thurs­day night, thus al­low­ing the in­duc­tions on Satur­day to cul­mi­nate the week of ac­tiv­i­ties. How­ever, the turnout for the in­duc­tions ap­peared much smaller than in re­cent years.

After a nasty prat­fall last sum­mer when the game was can­celed be­cause of an un­playable turf, Baker over­saw the in­stal­la­tion of a new turf, which in­cludes field mark­ings sewn into the sur­face, as part of the con­struc­tion of the new Tom Ben­son Hall of Fame Sta­dium.

That sta­dium it­self has un­der­gone a ma­jor transformation from, ba­si­cally, an un­com­fort­able high school arena to what Baker be­lieves will be a des­ti­na­tion venue seat­ing “an in­ti­mate 23,000,” he said with a smile. Locker rooms that some youth teams would have balked at us­ing are gone, with up­grades “in ev­ery area of com­fort” for 102 play­ers each.

Al­ready, the NCAA Di­vi­sion III foot­ball championship game is com­ing to Canton in 2020 and 2021, and the Black Col­lege Hall of Fame Clas­sic will be played there. (That HOF will make its home on the site, too.)

The Ohio State high school foot­ball cham­pi­onships will re­turn, leav­ing the Buck­eyes’ Horse­shoe in Colum­bus.

An 80,000-square-foot in­door per­for­mance cen­ter al­ready has booked the Di­vi­sion III men’s vol­ley­ball championship in 2022. It will have a full-size foot­ball field and a con­fig­u­ra­tion for bas­ket­ball when it opens in 2020.

That’s where Baker hopes an NFL draft will land.

His en­thu­si­asm — and Baker is a very en­thu­si­as­tic guy — peaks when he dis­cusses The Cen­ter of Ex­cel­lence, the Player Care Cen­ter and the Hall of Fame Ex­pe­ri­ence.

The cen­ter will house a coaches’ univer­sity, and of­fi­ci­at­ing in­sti­tute, an academy of cor­po­rate ex­cel­lence and a cen­ter for ath­lete per­for­mance and safety.

The player care cen­ter will have a wide range of health ser­vices. Leg­ends Land­ing will be a 143-bed in­de­pen­dent liv­ing or as­sisted-liv­ing and mem­ory care fa­cil­ity for re­tired Hall of Famers and other mem­bers of the NFL com­mu­nity. It also will have a 15-bed sur­gi­cal hospi­tal and ar­eas for be­hav­ioral sci­ence, and an ad­dic­tion cen­ter.

“We have the op­por­tu­nity to take care of play­ers who are go­ing to play, do play or did play the game of foot­ball,” said Baker.

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