On the Road With the National Wrestling Hall of Fame

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A $6-million fundraising campaign is underway to restore and re-energize The National Wrestling Hall of Fame. The campaign is set to conclude in 2014, with plans for a total renovation of the current HOF in Stillwater, OK, a revamping of the Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo, IA, and the purchase and operation of the organization’s first mobile museum.

“We’re in the heritage business,” says Lee Roy Smith, the executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame (NWHOF), a 15,000-square-foot facility abutting the legendary Gallagher-Iba Arena and newly renovated T. Boone Pickens football field on the campus of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, OK. “Wrestling is a big deal in Oklahoma, and this is our home.”

The facility was built in 1974 and sits on Hall of Fame Drive. In 40 years, the structure has yet to undergo a significant structural improvement, but the walls are filled with displays dedicated to the greats of wrestling. Unlike the UFC, which has yet to distinguish why members have been inducted, the NWHOF breaks inductees into the categories: Order of Merit (advancement of wrestling: coach, broadcaster, etc.); Medal of Courage (wrestler who overcomes insurmountable odds: Anthony Robles); Outstanding Americans (wrestlers with notable careers, billionaires, executives, and actors); Officials (lifetime achievement); and Distinguished Members (great wrestlers: Dave Schultz, Dan Gable, etc.).

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In addition to the plaques and statues in various wings of the facility, there are dozens of busts, more than 50,000 pieces of memorabilia, and countless books, magazines, and documents, the last of which are housed in an antiquated, but cozy library.

Despite the quality of the content, after 40 years of service, the NWHOF is basically falling down. The dated facade and lack of modern technology are much of the reason that Lee Roy Smith, who belongs to the famous wrestling family that includes two-time Olympic Champion John Smith and four-time NCAA Champion Pat Smith, is leading the $6-million fundraising campaign.

image desc“We want wrestling fans to engage in the sport,” says Lee Roy, who foresees matches on video displays and a booth where fans can “Make the Call” as a referee in a controversial match from history. “The fans need to do more than just look around, we want to use technology to connect and get closer to a sport they already know.”

The mobile museum will cost anywhere from $1.5 to $2.5 million, depending on how many full-length tractor-trailers the board determines is needed to carry wrestling mats, a gift shop, and all the displays and interactive booths.

A longtime resident of Oklahoma who also spent several years living and working in Europe, Lee Roy recognizes the need to reach a new generation of fans, while also meeting the needs of wrestling’s older fans who desire storytelling and artifacts. There is a balance between new and old, solid and mobile, that Lee Roy believes the NWHOF can strike.

“The mobile museum came out of the need to build a new future. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to invest in more square footage for our permanent facilities when everything is so mobile today. We still have our sacred spaces in Stillwater and now Waterloo, but I think we can take enough of that sacred space to the people and get them interested in visiting the permanent facilities,” says Lee Roy.

Unlike the UFC, which can blast messages to millions of media savvy fans around the world via Twitter and Facebook, wrestling is a mostly formless entity that lacks a full-time PR agent. The NWHOF wants to change that. It wants to convert casual fans interested in the success of their sons and daughters into purchasers of modern products, like video streams and premier information services. The NWHOF will be sending the mobile museum to wrestling tournaments around the country and complementary events, like UFC or Bellator.

If they’re successful, Lee Roy believes this unique mixture of information and in-person contact with the sport will be the type of mobile integration that will keep fans excited about the sport.

“We’re in the heritage business and the business of recruiting new fans, but this could be our best weapon to help our sport grow in America,” says Lee Roy. “We need to connect to the kids and please our base. Now, we just need to raise the money and hit the road.”

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