Who knew that America's soccer legacy was stored in Hillsborough? | Soccer | Indy Week
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Who knew that America's soccer legacy was stored in Hillsborough? 

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(For more than a decade, there was a Soccer Hall of Fame in New York. What happened? Here's the story.)

Cooperstown or bust

The largest city in Otsego County, N.Y. is Oneonta, situated amid the northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains. While the Susquehanna River forms Oneonta's southern spine, the waterway's source flows from 23 miles north in Cooperstown, Otsego's county seat and, since 1939, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

In 1977, Oneonta Mayor James Lettis posed a question to Albert Colone, a lifelong Oneonta resident then serving as supervisor of the town's recreation department, during one of their weekly Thursday meetings.

"He had gotten some correspondence from alumni at in-town Hartwick College and Oneonta State wondering if there was such a thing as a National Soccer Hall of Fame," Colone recalls.

In 1950, the same year the U.S. upset mighty England in the World Cup, the Philadelphia Oldtimers Soccer Association, a small group of former professional and amateur players, formed their self-declared National Soccer Hall of Fame. Over the ensuing three years, the Oldtimers inducted 50 people before transferring oversight to the U.S. Soccer Football Association. However, this hall of fame lacked any physical presence or means to provide ongoing honor.

Enamored with Cooperstown's example, Oneonta decided to push forward with a soccer counterpart in 1979. After not receiving any immediate response to their hall of fame bid from U.S. Soccer, by mid-1980, the ad hoc Oneonta Soccer of Fame committee, chaired by Colone, began proclaiming the town home to the National Soccer Hall of Fame. That declaration and the accompanying publicity it generated began fostering a self-fulfilling endeavor.

"As soon as the soccer public became aware of what we were attempting to do, it was remarkable," Colone recalls. "People started sending us stuff... Things started to come in that were absolute treasures to soccer's history."

Soccer organizations and regional soccer halls of fame contributed items. Longtime U.S. soccer historian Sam Foulds donated his formidable archives. When the original NASL disbanded in 1983, former player Howie Charbonneau, then working in the league's front office, passed along the NASL's archives, including hundreds of reels of match footage.

But for Colone, the crown jewel was famed photographer John Albok's invaluable catalog, which includes hundreds of pristine photos of soccer in 1930s New York City as well as rare color film of soccer being played in such places as Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds.

In 1983, Oneonta finally received two essential sanctions: an educational charter from the State of New York and, in August, the official imprimatur of U.S. Soccer.

Located along Ford Avenue in downtown Oneonta, the hall subsisted on donations from visitors, gift shop revenue, state grants, local contributions and entry fees from area soccer tournaments.

"From the day I became involved on a day-to-day basis and for the 19 years that followed, there wasn't a day in our lives at the Soccer Hall of Fame that I would call financially secure," Colone says. "But we stayed alive. Somehow, someway we stayed alive."

The Hall of Fame secured a $4.5 million challenge grant in 1993 for the next phase in its development. However, it couldn't leverage the funds unless matched by public/private sources. In January 1997, the museum temporarily closed its doors due to financial woes. That month, Colone left his post.

"With the prospect of this challenge grant coming down the pike, operating in the red, along with this anticipated growth of the project," Colone says, "there were some philosophical issues that I found myself in a position that was contrary to other members of our organization."

"The Hall of Fame was kind of at a standstill, how it was going to progress," recalls Jack Huckel, then head soccer coach at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "I believe there was a feeling in Oneonta that if we don't do something, then nothing's going to happen. It was a struggling museum then, barely making funding and having visitors in the range of 3,000 or so a year. This was a chance to put it on the map."

In 1998, owners of At-A-Glance, one of the largest manufacturers of time management products located in nearby Sidney, N.Y., became the largest of numerous capital donors to a new 35,000-square-foot National Soccer Hall of Fame museum project, which broke ground in November 1998 on a nearby 61-acre plot.

Less than eight months later, on June 12, 1999, the official grand opening ceremony was held for the new $5.5 million Soccer Hall of Fame museum. Among the dignitaries in attendance were U.S. Soccer Secretary General Hank Steinbrecher, as well as soccer stars Tony Meola, Eric Wynalda and Mary Harvey.

However, one person was conspicuously absent from the occasion: Al Colone. Although he was praised from the podium that day, Colone set foot inside the new Hall of Fame only once over the ensuing decade.

"It wasn't mine anymore," says Colone.

Soccer City RIP

In May 2000, Huckel left Skidmore College to become director of museum and archives at the Soccer Hall of Fame. The high points of his tenure range from simple—speaking to kids about the sport—to lofty—the annual hall of fame induction ceremonies, always festive, well-attended and emotional events.

But from the start, the hall's finances were uneasy. The Soccer Hall of Fame operated as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and reported yearly expenses averaged around $1.5 million. But lacking steady and sturdy revenue streams, the hall's annual losses gradually grew to $700,000 for both fiscal years 2009 and 2010.

That sort of funding crunch made for some creative curating on Huckel's part. He remembers his first stab at assembling an exhibit was one commemorating the United States' victory in the 1999 Women's World Cup. Huckel contacted Sports Illustrated seeking permission to incorporate their iconic cover image of Brandi Chastain celebrating her game-winning penalty kick. Instead, the magazine demanded a licensing fee of $10,000, "which was more than I had in the budget for the whole dang thing." So, Huckel decided to mount the magazine itself inside the display case, "and keep three more [copies] in the back."

"I think initially Will [Lunn, the hall's president] thought [the hall] could survive as a business," Huckel says. "After a couple of years, I came to understand that it would not and that we needed a more robust plan to drive donation revenue, develop a sugar daddy or create an endowment. For a relatively modest endowment—somewhere in the range of $10 million and living off the income from that—we probably could have survived ... That would have kept our doors open."

Steinbrecher boils the hall's financial struggles down to a simpler diagnosis: traffic.

"You can't have a sustainable hall with a staff and everything it takes to keep it up with only 17,000 visitors," says Steinbrecher. "There was a lot of analysis about, 'Well, you're only 15 miles from Cooperstown, why can't you sustain it?' Oneonta is a hard place to get to, it's not a travel destination, and the sustainability of the hall is what ultimately led to its demise."

Grants quickly evaporated as admissions did not match projections and, moreover, those with the resources to bring about long-term financial security for the hall remained unapproached or uninterested.

"I don't question motives. I just see what happened," says Huckel. "What happened was that those involved in soccer who had the deep pockets to do that, for whatever reason, chose not to even though we, in apparently ineffective ways, approached them.

"Lamar Hunt and Phil Anschutz were visitors to the Hall of Fame. I know they had conversations with the president regarding funding. Lamar was a member of the board, so he was well aware of the financial condition of the museum in 2005–06."

For years, people solicited Colone's opinion about the hall's ultimate fate. And for years, he declined public comment.

"But, if I had to say what may have been their demise, I have to say it may have been they forgot why they were in business," the now-68-year-old Colone contends. "Every time I read an article in the local paper after I left, it was either about them raising money or spending money. Very little was written about history or the core principle of the organization."

In February 2010, the Soccer Hall of Fame announced it was permanently shuttering the Oneonta facility. In October, the bulk of the hall's archives was shipped south to North Carolina.

The most distinctive physical feature of the Soccer Hall of Fame building was a giant soccer ball measuring nearly 18 feet across, sculpted so it appeared to be exploding through an exterior wall. The motif served as the backdrop for induction ceremonies and other events.

When Ioxus, a technology manufacturer, purchased the former Hall of Fame facility in 2011, the exploding soccer ball was removed.

During the time the National Soccer Hall of Fame was in operation, the Otsego County Tourism Office was located along Main Street in Oneonta. Their website's domain name? VisitCooperstown.com.

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