By Emily Cohen
After five days of watching her brother play baseball at the Cooperstown Dreams Park in Cooperstown, N.Y., my 10-year-old daughter begged me to take her to the National Soccer Hall of Fame just down the road in Oneonta. My husband and I thought it was just what the doctor ordered for our soccer-crazy daughter on her birthday, especially since the United States would be playing Mexico that afternoon.
And when her 9-year-old friend, who had visited the Hall of Fame the prior day, said she wanted to go again because it was "so cool," we excitedly piled into the car for the half-hour drive past red barns, silver silos, and green and yellow John Deere tractors.
Having been to the National Baseball Hall of Fame three times in three days, fighting massive crowds through seemingly endless rooms of exhibits and memorabilia, I wasn't sure what to expect in Oneonta. While it does not match the baseball HoF in size and scope, the NSHoF does much more than its baseball brethren to engage kids in the museum -- and in the sport itself. From the moment we entered the museum, the girls were off and running to the interactive exhibits.
On the first floor, they could test their heading skills at "Head It!" -- with three different targets to head at with a foam soccer ball released from an overhead tube. Upstairs, the "Power Shot" area was a favorite, measuring the speed at which a ball, kicked at the edge of the exhibit, traveled off their foot and into the net. With the exhibit stating that professionals kick the ball at speeds greater than 50 miles per hour, the girls repeatedly tried to match that speed -- and were disappointed when they topped out at 39 mph.
"The Wall," at which visitors can practice penalty kicks, and "Slalom Dribble," where players can see how fast they can dribble the ball around five cutouts of professional soccer players, also held the girls' attention for quite a while. And they got to play one-on-one and practice shooting goals in a small indoor arena.
Less interesting to them was the "Great Goals" interactive area, where they could try to replicate the location in the net of famous goals in soccer history. Probably because they didn't know any of the players marked on the wall behind the net. And they walked right by the Sony Playstation and soccer foosball table because it wasn't "real soccer," as my daughter said.
As for me, I was impressed with the amount of real estate given to the women's game. The exhibits that cover the growth of women's soccer from its early days to now contain, hands down, the most signed and game-worn memorabilia in the HoF. Fans love to see this stuff. Brandi's shinguards. Mia's cleats. Tiffany's and Joy's jerseys. Plus, signed balls and programs from the Women's World Cup in 1999. The girls were ecstatic to see these items from their role models, and I, personally, walked through this area twice.
On the big screen, the United States had just gone ahead of Mexico, 1-0, and we heard a roar from the handful of people watching. We went back downstairs to take in the rest of the exhibits, which did a nice job of chronicling the history of various leagues and organizations in the U.S., but were noticeably, and sadly, lacking a "cool" factor for the kids -- no signed Landon Donovan jersey, no Tim Howard gloves, no David Beckham cleats -- except for the Pele exhibit. When we turned the corner, my daughter screamed, "Hey, Mommy! Pele!!" as she took in the life-size cutout of the Brazilian legend and excitedly told me what a good juggler he was.
But I couldn't mask my disappointment at the sheer emptiness of the museum. In the two hours we were there, only 25 people roamed the hall, and half of them were watching the Mexico-USA game. I couldn't help but think that this wonderful, educational place could do better in a more soccer-focused locale that would draw people to the museum as a destination, not as an afterthought to Cooperstown. Baseball people aren't soccer people. In fact, more often than not, they are like oil and water. And the "if you build it, they will come" mentality that works in baseball, just seems to miss here.
Coincidentally, an article appeared in a local newspaper about a recent meeting of the NSHoF board of directors and the fate of the facility. They did not rule out closing the NSHof because of financial reasons. A couple of local residents with whom I spoke said the threat to close the NSHoF is an annual ploy to raise money.
Whether it's merely a ploy or not, I admire their desire to make this wonderful facility work in its current location. But wouldn't a location with a larger soccer fan base be a better venue than one banking on "drafting" off the droves of baseball fanatics who come to Cooperstown as if it were Mecca?
(Emily Cohen is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, Calif. She is the mother of a son, 13, and a daughter, 10, who both play sports. She has been a team manager for her children's soccer, baseball and softball teams.)