Most of us no longer consider it remarkable that downtown Knoxville’s eastern skyline is rounded out by the world’s largest basketball. After all, it’s been a full decade since a crane lowered the 10-ton crown jewel of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame atop its throne of steel-and-glass netting. Even a unicorn tethered to a hitching post on Gay Street would lose its novelty after that long.
That’s the paradox of erecting a museum in any corner of the world. No matter how sparklingly unique it is, once that red ribbon is cut, the shot clock is set: It’s only a matter of time before the initial wave of interest subsides and the museum’s true character is revealed. Can it evolve into a self-supporting tourist attraction?
With the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame reaching its 10th anniversary year, it’s time to ask such questions. With a $550,000 annual budget and limited access to public money, how is the Hall sustaining itself? And what is its game plan for long-term success?
Statistically speaking, the Hall’s popularity appears to be intact. It received about as many visitors—45,000—in 2008 as it did during its first year of operation, and that number has remained more or less steady over the past decade.
The difference is the demographic of visitors. Whereas it used to be individuals and families walking through the door, they now arrive as groups and teams. Game days are the exception, as the museum is a natural destination for out-of- town basketball devotees with a few hours to kill before they head to Thompson-Boling Arena.
On this weekday morning, though, the Hall’s white corridors are conspicuously devoid of human life. Muted December sunlight seeps into through the atrium’s glass windows, illuminating a 17-foot bronze sculpture of three women engaged in a game of hoops. From somewhere deeper within the museum, the pulsing backbeat of a rock anthem—Van Halen’s “Jump,” maybe—wafts through the air.
The Hall is as much a playground as it is a time capsule. Multimedia presentations—video-taped huddle speeches and swashbuckling showdowns caught on film—lie in wait around every corner, and the lower level is a grid of play courts where visitors can put their own shooting, dribbling, and passing skills to the test. Each exhibition, be it a collection of vintage basketball jerseys or Olympic gold medals, is accessible enough to snatch the attention of sports fans and good sports alike.
And then, of course, there is the Hall of Honor itself. Its roster currently includes 103 coaches, players, referees, and other contributors to the sport, with six more women scheduled to be inducted in June 2009. The inductees are selected by the Hall of Fame Board of Directors and, as it is with the rest of the museum, there is no favoritism given to the University of Tennessee.
Knoxville’s museum is the only hall of fame in the world created solely to honor the achievements of women. Without it, countless chunks of history—like the stretch limo in which the All-American Red Heads Basketball League toured, which was found abandoned in a field and painstakingly restored by the Hall of Fame—might be lost forever to attics and landfills.
While the Hall’s ticket booth may rarely see a line, the museum’s mission to “honor the past, celebrate the present, and promote the future” of women’s basketball doesn’t go unappreciated. The facility still receives its share of visitors, confirms Museum Operations Manager Josh Sullivan, especially on game days, when it caters to tourists with extended hours of operation. “One couple who came in before a game last week arrived at 3:15 in the afternoon and stayed until we closed at five,” Sullivan recalls.
But the sale of $7.95 admission tickets alone isn’t enough to keep the Hall of Fame’s doors open. As a result, when it comes to attracting revenue, the museum has more than a few balls in the air.
Resourcefulness has long been a necessity at the Hall of Fame. The original concept for such a museum was birthed in the early ’90s by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, which formed a board of directors to get the idea off the ground.
The board originally envisioned that the Hall would be built in Jackson, Tenn. But when fundraising efforts fell short, the non-profit Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation (then the Knoxville Sports Corporation, which merged with the Knoxville Convention & Visitor Bureau in 2002 to form KTSC) stepped in with the intention of rescuing the concept and bringing it to East Tennessee.
The cause was near and dear to the heart of KTSC President/CEO Gloria Ray who, as the former Women’s Athletic Director of the University of Tennessee, oversaw the Lady Vols’ first national championship. She spearheaded fundraising efforts and, drawing support from Knoxville and beyond, helped to attract the $9.3 million needed to build the international museum.
“They [the board of directors] were so passionate about the game, they loved it so much, but they weren’t very businesslike or strategic,” Ray explains. It made sense, she says, for the KTSC to manage museum operations, leaving the board in charge of the selection of inductees.
Other assistance arrived in the form of land, the majority of which was donated by local businessman Pete DeBusk. The city of Knoxville contributed a second parcel, Knox County Commission authorized a bond, and by 1997 the project was off and running. “Building it in Knoxville made since, considering who lives here, who plays here and the tradition,” Ray says. “We promote Knoxville as being unique, and the Hall of Fame isn’t a cookie-cutter type attraction.”
Ray says that visitation-wise, the Hall is comparable to other museums in the area, like the East Tennessee History Center, James White Fort and Blount Mansion. It makes ends meet—“We’re somewhere between breaking even to making a little bit of a profit ($149,970 in 2007), nothing to write home about, each year, which is similar to most sports halls of fame across the country,” Ray says—but not without an effort.
The Hall’s overhead, mostly a combination of program services and everyday management and maintenance, is significant; in 1997 the Hall’s total expenses came to $587,958 according to federal tax forms filed that year. (The Hall’s taxes are publicly filed since it’s 501(c)(3) non-profit.) And public money is limited; the Hall received $13,367 in grants in ’97 and none in ’96. “It’s a struggle,” says Hall of Fame Director of Basketball Relations, Karen Tucker, “but we pride ourselves on the fact that we’re self-supporting. A lot of non-profits don’t have that luxury.”
The Hall relies on a multi-faceted business model. “Without 500 people coming through every day, we have to be creative,” Tucker explains. “We feel like we have a lot to offer, and we’re always looking for ways to share and expand.”
Of course, the museum still welcomes individuals and families and is highlighted in KTSC marketing materials. Ray says she is continually amazed at the variety of visitors the museum draws. “It’s not all hardcore basketball people,” she explains. “It has so much more scope than just basketball. Motivation, inspiration… It’s fun to see kids ‘get it’ in their eyes when they go through there.” As a result, the Hall has put several community-wide health and educational programs in place that use basketball as a platform for teaching skills ranging from math to self-confidence.
Another making-ends-meet strategy involves renting the facility out for special events: wedding receptions, birthday parties, reunions, proms, grade-school motivational huddles, basketball camps, or corporate team-building events. According to its federal tax filing, facility rentals accounted for $14,875 in revenue in 2007.
Fundraisers, especially basketball events and the annual induction ceremony, are another source of revenue, garnering $131,299 and $43,523 respectively. The Hall has also had some luck securing the support of individuals, be it through the purchase of a membership or a $100 engraved brick. The bricks, with their personalized inscriptions, are inlaid in a basketball-shaped courtyard outside the South Rotunda.
The museum’s other major lifeline is an impressive roster of corporate sponsors, ranging from BlueCross BlueShield to Eastman Chemical Company. Tucker talks about the Hall’s supporting cast of corporate sponsors, private donors, visitors, and administrators with the enthusiasm of a coach addressing her team in the locker room at half-time. “We’ve made it through the first 10 years,” she says. “Now we’re preparing for the next 10, looking toward the organizations and patrons who will help us grow for the next decade.”
Ray says that if she has one regret, it’s that not everyone in Knoxville has taken advantage of the Hall of Fame. “If you haven’t visited it yet, you should,” she says. “You’d be surprised.”