Former Disney exec Michael Crawford is spearheading plans to develop the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio into a full-fledged theme park, not unlike Disney’s properties around the world.
Crawford held multiple roles at Disney — his last was as the lead executive in charge of Shanghai Disneyland, and for a stint prior, he was vice president of international development.
As the chairman, president and CEO of Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment — which already built a stadium and sports complex at the Hall — Crawford envisions an immersive experience that capitalizes on football’s intellectual property that often goes overlooked outside of game days.
In total, the next phases of the project are slated to cost $300 million and be completed by the end of 2022.
One key to the plan is its August 6 acquisition of The Crown League, a Utah-based fantasy football league expected to launch in time for the 2021 NFL season. It allows fantasy football users to back fantasy teams that are controlled by professional football legends and fantasy experts, which will compete against each other on a national scale.
Front Office Sports asked Crawford about why he thinks there’s demand for a new resort right now, how it might implement innovative features like virtual reality, and how the resort could make football more accessible.
Front Office Sports: What makes you think that there’s demand for a resort at the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Michael Crawford: I’ve looked at these kinds of opportunities for most of my career — a lot with Disney, 25 years, and another career with Four Seasons. And when I was evaluating this opportunity, it’s pretty rare that you get a chance to work with what I would consider to be — and what most people consider to be — the most popular sport in America in professional football. There’s not a lot of companies that directly have the ability to leverage that sport and brand associated with the sport. So the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the NFL Alumni Association, the deal we did with them. So when I looked at what was already going on in Canton, a Pro Football Hall of Fame that is very popular, that honors all the heroes of the game and the legends that made the game great. And then you had a stadium that was already performing very well with big events, like our enshrinement event and the kickoff to the NFL preseason, and other things like concerts and festivals, and it was growing. And then a youth sports component that was added to that with the National Youth Football and Sports Complex really made an interesting collection of assets already doing almost a million people a year for those different businesses. And when you think about what could be in terms of a destination and you start adding places for people to stay and other places for people to be entertained and to dine and shop, it was very reminiscent of what Disney has done multiple times around the planet with destination resorts, immersing people in stories and intellectual property that others don’t have access to.
And I saw sort of the same thing here, that people have this passion for professional football and the fans just consume it in so many ways and, and spend money and time consuming it that it just made sense to capitalize and to grow the market is already coming. And then when I took a step back and looked at, what was that market, really, you think about Canton, Ohio and how it’s sort of strategically positioned in the Northeast and Midwest, and you got a lot of football franchises and a lot of football fans that really do love the game. And yet they don’t really get to see the game inside of a professional football stadium. The stat that just staggered me was that only 7% of fans in their entire life will ever get to see a professional football game inside of a professional football stadium. So you start adding up tens of millions of people within a sort of five-hour drive radius, the passion for the game, the intellectual property that we had to work with, and people are already coming and the ability to grow that market, it just made a lot of sense to create a destination for them to come and be immersed in and enjoy the game in multiple different ways.
FOS: So then you see the resort as a way to get embedded in football content and culture without necessarily going to games?
MC: As you think about how people consume the sport today, they do it in their homes, watching it on television. We do it at tailgate parties, with friends, they go to bars, some will go to parties that are about a specific game, like the Super Bowl or the playoffs. But a lot don’t get immersed in an environment that is surrounding the sport itself. And so through architecture, through food, through entertainment, and events and other things, we can create a very unique destination in Canton, and that’s why we decided to expand the scope of the company beyond just real estate. We can also take those brands and that specific intellectual property that I talked about, and we can start creating other ways for the fans to engage either while they’re in Canton or virtually while they’re not in Canton.
So that required a fantasy sports league that we’re in the process of rebranding and launching for the ’21 season is a good example of that, right? You can have fantasy drafts here in Canton, Ohio, or in other assets that we may build around the country as part of our offsite asset destination strategy. You can have teams, you can have media. Now our model is a franchise model where you actually create teams, just like the NFL has franchise teams. You have teams that are fantasy league teams and they can play each other and you can cover that. And so you can have a show around that. You can bet on that. So it’s really about being in particular business verticals and spaces where fans are, where they’re engaging and spending time and money on the sport of professional football.
But a lot of that leads back to creating this destination and an immersive environment. You can have, as part of this, an e-gaming facility. And as we host new sport tournaments around the country, gaming can be a part of how esports engage while they’re not playing on the field. And then you can have championships here in Canton, or you can even have an e-sports hall of fame here as well. So it’s exciting to think about — and we’ve already started to enact — a broader strategy to really build a sports and entertainment company.
FOS: Virtual reality is also something that has been mentioned in relation to the resort. What do you envision developing in that space, and how will it engage fans?
MC: I think that, like most of the world, people are wanting to go beyond a passive experience where they’re just watching something. And Disney was very much this way as well, where earlier years you were riding in a boat and just watching animatronic figures. And now, it’s placing you in the story and allowing you to engage personally with whatever that ride or that attraction or that show is. And so, think about professional football, what most people are never able to do because they’re just not great athletes or even just average athletes. You don’t ever feel what it’s like to be in a huddle. You don’t feel what it’s like to line up and run a play, or be tackled, or any of those kinds of things. Media has tried to give us angles and try to make us feel a part of it, but you’re not really in the game. And so you can imagine creating virtual environments where you feel much more engaged and much more interactive and you can control the players. And that’s why I think games like Madden Football really resonated with new generations, right? Because, while they’re not out on the field playing, they can call the play, they can control where the athletes go, they can make the pass, they can score the touchdown. That’s the kind of thing I think that we want to continue to create as environments for people to enjoy.
FOS: You mention being able to give people an experience in sports they wouldn’t otherwise have. How does that relate to financial accessibility, which is a big issue in youth sports right now? Have you thought about accessibility as it relates to the cost of visiting a place like the Hall of Fame Resort?
MC: We’ve always considered that this needs to be something that everyone can do. We’re not necessarily part of how the teams get here. We find that those are typically the communities, the schools, the organizations themselves that are doing the fundraising. We do have a plan and have already engaged with companies like Zenith to sponsor the activity that we have on-site, making it more affordable for kids. And a lot of that has to do with making sure that they have the right equipment, in some cases, the areas that they’re playing on — the fields — are in great condition, that we have our Hall of Famers or other NFL alumni being able to come in coach and educate these kids. That’s part of what we can do that really no other company can do. I mean, ‘We are professional football,’ as I like to say. We have the alumni association as a partner and the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a partner. And those athletes, some of them grew up in very extreme surroundings and they understand what it’s like to speak to kids and make sure they get the benefit of their learnings.
And they come back and invest their time. And so we’re doing all of those things so that we can help grow the next generation of great athletes, both on the field and off the field, with their character development as well. The last thing I’d say is, we’re not creating a destination that’s based on luxury experience. We’re creating a destination that’s based on experiences that are more affordable. So we’ll certainly have restaurants that are very nice that have great food and beverage. We’ll also have restaurants that are very affordable and something for the family and the kids. Our hotel, while it’s a premium hotel, is also onsite and is designed to accommodate the athletes and their families. There could be a vision into the future where we have more athlete, dorm-style accommodations. So we’re thinking about all of that. We want to make sure we’re available for everyone and have the ability to have an impact on kids’ lives.
FOS: Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your vision for the site at all, from how you envision people getting there to potential public wariness about going to crowded places?
MC: Ironically, it sort of validated one part of our thinking, which was that we would become more of a regional drive destination. And again, that’s where we looked at our surrounding areas that have great football franchises, but are within a very reasonable drive. So you can come and spend a couple of days or a weekend. People are shifting more to those drive types of vacations. Do I think that will be forever? I certainly hope not. I hope that there is a vaccine and a better treatment and people feel comfortable getting on planes and doing all of those things that make their lives great, however they want it to be. But I think the reality is being adjacent to a large population in the Northeast and Midwest really does give me comfort that even during the most extreme times, people still have the ability to get to us.
We, just like every other company, have considered all of the operational improvements, safety improvements, cleanliness improvements, and work with health agencies and government bodies to ensure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to make an environment where not only fans, but athletes, feel very comfortable to play in. It did accelerate some of our view towards virtual environments, even though part of our strategic plan was to get into the gaming space, including fantasy. It allowed us to have a greater focus on, and be opportunistic around, partnerships and getting involved with some of those business verticals probably a little sooner. Certainly, media is a big part of what we’re doing with all of the live sport activities that we have, and the intellectual property that we have in our Pro Football Hall of Fame archives to work with to create stories. That’ll be something I think that we’ll continue to do. But fortunately for us we hadn’t started building the destinations. We’re still hoping that it can fall into the Q4 timeframe.
So for us, I won’t say it’s a good time — certainly not good for anyone — but to build when people aren’t going to destinations as much and to open when I really believe there will be such a pent up demand for this kind of entertainment and this type of immersive experience, I think hopefully we’ll be in that position.