CANTON, Ohio (AP) — David Baker has a vision.
He sees a state-of-the-art stadium; eight fields in a youth sports complex (plus three more on campus); an indoor arena; a center for athletic performance and safety; a player care center; and a hotel. All of it — and more — surrounding the Pro Football Hall of Fame, of which Baker is president & CEO.
He envisions staging an NFL draft onsite. College championships in football and other sports. Concerts, theatrical performances and conventions. And a celebration of the NFL’s centennial in 2020.
His vision is in the process of coming to fruition, as anyone who attended this week’s induction ceremonies, Hall of Fame game and other events that make up the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement week can attest.
“If Disney (properties) are the ‘Happiest Place on Earth,’ “ Baker says, “we want to be the ‘Most Inspiring Place on Earth.’
“Football is a great metaphor for leadership, and we can play a role. The game has an incredible history, and kids can get to learn to play the game the right way. We can help build men and women the right way. We can help take care of players — former players like our ‘Gold Jackets’ (a term used to refer to living Hall of Famers), present and future players. We can enhance the experience for fans.
“The question is, ‘How can we help build through football?’ I think we have the opportunity to, if you will, help American huddle up.”
There certainly will be places at the Canton complex to do so, with a potential for the Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village to extend to 600 acres. At a cost of perhaps nearly $800 million for what the folks at Johnson Controls are calling the world’s first sports and entertainment “smart city.”
Baker calls it a “smart city with a heart.”
Baker, who as commissioner of the Arena Football League for 12 years helped grow team values from $175,000 to as much as $32 million, knows something about building a brand. Since he assumed his role at the Hall of Fame, Baker has enhanced the Canton shrine’s profile among football fans, NFL team owners and — perhaps a necessary evil these days — sponsors.
This year, while the overall village project moves forward, he’s gotten the league to move the Hall of Fame game to Thursday night, thus allowing the inductions on Saturday to culminate the week of activities. However, the turnout for the inductions appeared much smaller than in recent years.
After a nasty pratfall last summer when the game was canceled because of an unplayable turf, Baker oversaw the installation of a new turf, which includes field markings sewn into the surface, as part of the construction of the new Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
That stadium itself has undergone a major transformation from, basically, an uncomfortable high school arena to what Baker believes will be a destination venue seating “an intimate 23,000,” he says with a smile. Locker rooms that some youth teams would have balked at using are gone, with upgrades “in every area of comfort” for 102 players each.
Already, the NCAA Division III football championship game is coming to Canton in 2020 and 2021, and the Black College Hall of Fame Classic will be played there. (That HOF will make its home on the site, too.)
The Ohio State high school football championships will return, leaving the Buckeyes’ Horseshoe in Columbus.
An 80,000-square-foot indoor performance center already has booked the Division III men’s volleyball championship in 2022. It will have a full-size football field and a configuration for basketball when it opens in 2020.
That’s where Baker hopes an NFL draft will land.
His enthusiasm — and Baker is a very enthusiastic guy — peaks when he discusses The Center of Excellence, the Player Care Center and the Hall of Fame Experience.
The center will house a coaches’ university, and officiating institute, an academy of corporate excellence and a center for athlete performance and safety.
The player care center will have a wide range of health services. Legends Landing will be a 143-bed independent living or assisted-living and memory care facility for retired Hall of Famers and other members of the NFL community. It also will have a 15-bed surgical hospital and areas for behavioral science, and an addiction center.
“We have the opportunity to take care of players who are going to play, do play or did play the game of football,” says Baker, whose son, Sam, played tackle for the Falcons for seven seasons, retiring after 2014. “We have an opportunity to make a difference in the health of players, and not just our Gold Jackets.”
As for the Hall of Fame Experience, well, that is the closest to the Disney model that the village will get: an indoor amusement park themed around football.
“Fans will be able to experience everything, from what it feels like to be suited up for a game to having their own competitions,” Baker explains.
Somehow, it also will have a football-themed water park inside.
By the time the Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village is completed with its 10 components, Baker is hopeful the centennial celebration of pro football in America on Sept. 17, 2020, also will call Canton home.
“After all,” he points out, “Canton is where it all started.”
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