Volume 21, Number 10 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | July 18 - 24, 2008
Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Zachary Gacer, 12, posed for a shot with Don Mattingly at the Sports Museum of America Monday.

After a slump, museum begins to rally with All Star game

By Julie Shapiro

Opening a new attraction in a city saturated with places for tourists to spend their time and money is not an easy job. Well-known museums already abound in Manhattan, from the Statue of Liberty to the Empire State Building, so convincing visitors to part with an afternoon and an entrance fee to check out a new attraction takes promotion.

That’s what Philip Schwalb, founder of the Sports Museum of America, has learned since he opened his museum nine weeks ago at 26 Broadway.

“It’s hard,” Schwalb said of attracting over-booked tourists to the museum. “This is the busiest city in the world, and we’re brand new.”

Schwalb believes he has a unique attraction: A museum that combines mini-documentaries, interactive exhibits and artifacts to tell the story of all the sports he could fit under one roof. But attendance started off slow, with only several hundred people on weekends and fewer on weekdays. Now the museum sees about 750 visitors a day, an improvement over last month but still short of Schwalb’s goal of 1,500.

On several recent afternoons the museum was almost empty — “I expected to see more people,” visitor Lou Fernandez remarked — but Schwalb said each week is better than the one before it. The museum holds special events and autograph signings to attract visitors, and the sports-lovers in town for the All-Star game this week bumped Monday and Tuesday’s attendance up to the highest the museum has seen so far.

At $27 for adults and $20 for kids, the Sports Museum of America’s admissions fee is one of the highest in the city. To lower the price, Schwalb distributed $5-off coupons that he said are “very hard to miss,” bringing the typical admissions price down to $22. He equates that with the price of two movies, and he said the museum offers a much better value.

“We didn’t feel and still don’t feel that the price is a big issue,” Schwalb said.

Visitors to the museum appear to agree.

“It’s reasonable, especially for New York,” said Joyce Okey, 41, who was in town from San Diego with her family. “Nothing is cheap here.”

Okey liked that the museum focused on the players’ backgrounds, giving all the information she doesn’t see when she watches sports on TV.

“They really covered it all,” she said.

Her daughter Savannah, 12, liked the interactive exhibits, especially the NASCAR pit stop where she practiced changing a tire using an electric drill.

“I want to go again,” Savannah said after exiting the last exhibit.

Will Gonzalez, 44, also thought the museum was worth the price. He visited on the afternoon of the All-Star game decked out in Yankees gear from his T-shirt to his earrings. With the game’s first pitch just hours away, he regretted having to rush through the museum’s exhibits and said he could easily spend a whole day there. His favorite gallery was baseball, where an interactive feature allowed him to see different views of famous stadiums.

Gonzalez’s brother stopped by the museum the day before to get former Yankee Don Mattingly’s autograph, but the entrance price stopped him from seeing the exhibits, Gonzalez said. Now, Gonzalez planned to convince his brother to pay the money.

“It’s so big and there’s so much to do, now I understand why [the price is $27],” Gonzalez said.

Much of the museum’s collection comes from the dozens of sports museums and halls of fame scattered throughout the country. Each year, the Sports Museum of America will donate $3 million to these museums, in exchange for rotating use of some of their artifacts. The Sports Museum of America also promotes its partner museums at computer kiosks, where visitors can sign up for more information and plan future trips.

For Schwalb, the museum’s founder, the highlight of the past few months came Monday when Mattingly spent four hours at the museum, taking a tour and signing autographs.

“To know Don Mattingly thought the baseball room was ‘just awesome,’ in his words, that counts for a lot,” Schwalb said. “Every visitor is important to me, but to have Don Mattingly go through and just love the baseball gallery was really meaningful.”





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