John Urban believes New York City's Sports Museum of America offers something for every fan.
Whether it's touching the original Heisman trophy, an immersive high-definition view from the perspective of an NHL goalie, an up-close look at Jimmy Johnson's number 48 NASCAR, or an interactive display on the power of sports to heal communities in the wake of tragedy, John Urban believes New York City's Sports Museum of America offers something for every fan. What Urban offers the museum - which was made possible through tax-exempt liberty bonds, given to projects deemed by the city and state as being beneficial to revitalizing the section of lower Manhattan that was affected by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - is more than two decades of experience in high-profile event and venue operations, including stints operating Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden. Helped by partnerships with sports museums and halls of fame that focus on a single sport, the SmA opened in May with more than 45,000 square feet, 21 original films, 30 interactive exhibits, 1,100 photographs and hundreds of artifacts in 19 galleries. Nicholas Brown asked Urban to describe its place within the dynamic business realms of sports and entertainment.
Q: With limited space and the entirety of U.S. sports history from which to draw, where do you begin? A: We knew we had specific stories we wanted to tell in the exhibits. That involved doing outreach for artifacts from very specific places or athletes. Unlike the single-sports halls of fame that may have tens of thousands of artifacts that are not on display, we targeted things that we for the most part knew we were going to be putting out there that first year.
Q: What types of artifacts did you come up with? A: We have some amazing things - from Billie Jean King's fourth-grade report card to the American flag that Jim Craig had wrapped around him after the Miracle on Ice in the 1980 Winter Olympics. We have Brandi Chastain's famous sports bra from after her penalty kick in the 1999 women's soccer World Cup. We tend to lean toward items that are either more iconic or more personal in nature. We just did an exhibit in which we had the Super Bowl helmets worn by Eli Manning and David Tyree. Being able to see the very helmet that David Tyree pinned the ball against to make that amazing catch, it resonates with fans. They can see something like that, and remember how important that helmet was at that moment.
Q: What are some differences between operating a well-known sports facility and a new sports museum? A: Being part of an established brand such as Madison Square Garden or Radio City Music Hall is in many ways different than being part of a group that's starting from scratch and trying to bring a brand-new idea to life, especially in a place like New York. You're trying to build a company, a venue and a brand all at once - but it's invigorating.
Q: How has response been thus far? A: The response from the visitors, and even a lot of the athletes and the other people who helped put this museum together has been great. So many people say, "Why has this never been done before? With as sports-crazy as this country is, how is it that no one has ever pulled together a museum of all sports under one roof?"