© 2022 WKSU
Public Radio News for Northeast Ohio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The Disneyland of Football? How Canton’s Hall of Fame Village is Betting Big

Hall of Fame Village rendering
Pro Football Hall of Fame Village
This rendering shows what the potential campus of the Hall of Fame Village in Canton could look like.

In mid-September the Pro Football Hall of Fame Village in Canton broke ground on the second phase of the project.

It will include a sports research and development center, multiple hotels, shopping and dining, and even an indoor water park. And it’s all slated to be completed in 2022.

CEO Mike Crawford, who’s a former executive with Disney, said he sees the Hall of Fame someday becoming the "Disneyland" of football.

It might sound like a crazy idea, but for Crawford, building an event destination in Canton akin to Disney or Universal Studios is an opportunity to tap into a region with the right mixture of land and sports passion.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for these types of assets to grow and blossom and become pretty special destinations. We’ve got the intellectual property and the brand partnerships to do it with,” he said.

That’s been in Crawford’s sights since he took over the Hall of Fame Village in 2018 and guided it into a nearly $1 billion venture.

Deals with energy giants Johnson Controls and Constellation have helped.

Then there’s this summer’s successful push to take the company public when the Hall of Fame Village merged with Gordon Pointe Acquisition Corp.

What’s in the next phase of the project?

Crawford won’t reveal specific plans for the third phase of the Hall of Fame Village but said entertainment will be key.

“I always like to say, ‘You never build a destination complete.’ You always want to have the room in the master plan to react to guest demand and trends,” he said.

Crawford wants to be able to change course or invest in new ideas. Think sports betting or using the popularity of video games like the Madden Football franchise to drive people to Canton.

“We want to give ourselves the flexibility over the next year-and-a-half or so to plan things that are going to be really impactful and give our guests a chance over and over again to come back,” he said.

Power of pro football

Crawford makes no bones about leveraging America’s most popular sport into a completely unique destination.

“(The NFL) is by far the most profitable sports league,” he said.

It’s also the most watched.

“I think it just makes sense that when you look at a company that can build off of that popularity, you want to continue to grow assets. But you also want to continue to grow experiences,” he said.

Crawford even teased someday taking the Hall of Fame Village experience on the road.

“Themed asset destination is certainly a part of what we’re doing starting here in Canton. But we envision that to be able to be something we take offsite. And maybe smaller versions of what we’re doing here in NFL franchise cities as an example,” he said.

If you build it, will they come to Canton?

Crawford is drawing on his time as a Disney executive to envision a landscape where Canton could be the next Orlando.

“As you grow the city and the county, even the state, are more willing to make investments in enhancing infrastructure because they see the benefit, right?,” he said.

He cites potential trickle-down benefits of a growing Hall of Fame resort: more job creation and more tax revenue.

But right now Canton is not Orlando or another destination resort city, so the key phrase is "potential."

Much of Crawford’s billion dollar project is either just beginning construction or years away from even that.

Canton is not the "Disneyland" of football. At least not yet.

Mark Arehart joined the award-winning WKSU news team as its arts/culture reporter in 2017. Before coming to Northeast Ohio, Arehart hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He previously worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.