Those close to Rick Cleveland have started calling him “Rotary Rick.”
It’s appropriate. A visitor hadn’t been in Cleveland’s office at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, where he’s been the executive director for six months, before he pulled out a calendar that was marked up with black and blue ink.
“The ones in black are speaking engagements,” he said, and there were plenty.
Cleveland has become a sort of traveling salesman, speaking to any group that wants to hear him espouse the benefits of the Hall of Fame and what it will take to modernize it.
What it will take, Cleveland said, is money. Lots of it. The Hall of Fame, which is wholly funded by private donations, took a big step in that direction in mid-October, when it hosted a roast of legendary football coach Jack Carlisle. “It’s been the most rewarding thing in my short time here,” Cleveland said.
Two-hundred people paid $100 a plate, and there were corporate and other sponsorships. Cleveland said his goal for the roast was $20,000, which the paid attendance met, but wouldn’t disclose the total amount raised.
He already has a plan for that money. Cleveland has compiled a list of more than 20 things at the Hall of Fame that need addressing — some require immediate attention, some do not.
Near the top of it is updating the museum’s interactive kiosks, which were installed when the facility opened in 1996. “They’re not high-definition, they’re slow,” Cleveland. “We can do so much better. We need to better.”
That will be cheaper said than done. That one item on Cleveland’s list would cost $44,000, twice what the ticket sales for the Carlisle roast — one of the most financially lucrative events the Hall of Fame will host this year — represented.
The backlit photos of Mississippi’s Olympic medal winners have faded. That exhibit is also outdated because it doesn’t include names from this past summer’s Olympic games in London. That would be another $11,000, which doesn’t factor in additional space to house it.
Updating the 16-year-old theater show — not only for content, but to make it high-definition — would cost $150,000. Three items on Cleveland’s list he considers nonnegotiable have a price tag of more than $200,000. The paid attendance of 10 Carlisle roasts would get close to paying for that.
But those three aren’t as important as replacing a display the museum had, and lost. The plexiglass model of Mississippi’s all-time NFL team — which had names like Manning, Rice and Payton on it — is gone. It once stood in the middle of the same banquet room that held the Carlisle roast. Exactly what happened to it is unclear. Cleveland said the story goes that a child visiting the museum several years ago bumped into the model, tipping it over and shattering it.
“I’ve got a great idea for something to replace it, which will actually be better,” Cleveland said. “I want a big football exhibit that is mobile, so we can move it when we need the space for banquets.”
That upgrade, at $30,000, would be relatively cheap.
So how does Cleveland prioritize what gets first shot on his list? Figuring that out — and how to raise the money to pay for it — will be on the agenda at a retreat Cleveland and members of the Hall of Fame’s board of directors will take in late October or early November.
It’s clear the Hall of Fame has a steep financial hill to climb. The good news is there have been some major steps taken this year.
Cleveland, without disclosing numbers, said the Hall of Fame has had its best year revenue-wise in 16 years of operation. There are a couple of reasons for that. The most obvious is that the Hall of Fame did not have to pay an executive director for six months, between Michael Rubenstein’s death late last year, and Cleveland’s arrival in May.
New events have helped, too, things like the Fourth of July Watermelon Run that had 1,800 participants. The Hall of Fame Induction Banquet and the presentation of the Ferriss Trophy each had more attendees than they had been averaging in recent years.
“We’ve had a good year, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Cleveland said. “That’s the message I’m trying to get out. I need to hit a homerun with a couple donors. We’ve got a 16-year-old museum with 16-year-old technology. Look at your cell phone now and think about what you had 16 years ago.”
“I knew it was going to be a different job for me, but I had no idea, being on the other side looking in, that it was as big as it is. But we’re going to get it done.”