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Soccer Hall of Fame

In Oneonta, New York, about half an hour's drive from the massive Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, is a vastly different experience: the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Located in a beautiful big new building, with acres of playing fields, the Soccer Hall has a surprisingly small parking lot. There's room to expand it, but clearly, this place doesn't see itself attracting the throngs who come to gawk at the bats, gloves, and jerseys of the heroes of America's favorite pastime.

Baseball is definitely big business, with a big market penetration. Soccer, in the US, is the poor stepchild, even though millions of suburban kids play actively.

And yet, there's an energy here. The inductees in Cooperstown get wall plaques of static heads; you have to get the yearbook if you want action shots. But in Oneonta, the Hall of Famers are on cloth banners, in action poses. There's far more emphasis on action throughout the museum; one I especially liked was a photo of Pele leaping high in the air into a full backflip as he made a dramatic kick. In general, while there are certainly ample collections of artifacts, the focus is much more on the sport's fantastic kicks, goals, and saves.

That fluidity extends even to the organization of soccer as a pro sport in the US. Leagues form, fold, fight, and merge, unlike baseball's National and American Leagues, which have been that sport's stable organizational body for decades. The current configuration of major league soccer in the US dates only to about 1990.

The exhibits are much more participatory here, as well. A whole quadrant of the second floor is given over to activity-centered spaces, where visitors can clock the speed of their kicks (my best attempt was 40 mph), slalom a soccer ball through cutouts of opposing players, and several other activities. In Cooperstown, of course, such options would cause major traffic backups--but in the uncrowded and spacious museum to the south, it's easy to get a turn.

The participatory theme extends to the hall's marketing efforts. The day we were there, Jack Huckel, the museum's Director of Communication, spent several minutes with us answering questions, and apologized that he couldn't give us a personal guided tour, because he would be showing a school group around. The museum has a steady run of events involving visiting soccer celebrities, chances for school teams to participate in events (including an invitation to wear their team colors to the annual Hall of Fame game during the August induction ceremonies, and an appearance by Ethan Zohn, Survivor Africa winner and founder of Grassroot Soccer, a soccer-based AIDS awareness organization in his native Zimbabwe). The museum also collaborates with national media to do educational segments on soccer, including a weekly show on the Fox Soccer Channel.

So if you go to Cooperstown (see related story), swing through Oneonta as well—and see if you can kick the ball as fast as Pele or Mia Hamm.

Admission prices as of 2005: Adults, $12; students, $9; 55+, $8.50; 6-12, $7.50; 5 and under, no charge. Visit the National Soccer Hall of Fame online at http://www.soccerhall.org

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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