Hall of Fame Village CEO Talks Upcoming Experiences, Ohio Sports Betting

Written By Brant James on February 2, 2022 - Last Updated on February 9, 2022
Mike Crawford, CEO of Hall of Fame Village

Mike Crawford pushed hard for the legalization of sports betting in Ohio. He’ll get his wish within a year. Now the chairman of Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment Company can finally begin turning his plans for a Rush Street Interactive sportsbook at the NFL shrine in Canton into blueprint and concrete.

Crawford spoke with PlayUSA about the next phase for the development surrounding the Hall of Fame Village, which included adding a mobile gaming company as a partner in hopes of becoming licensed to offer both retail and online bets.

Hall of Fame Village, Ohio sports betting, licenses and more

Question: What does the legalization of sports betting in Ohio mean for Hall of Fame Village?

Mike Crawford: I think we’ve always talked about sports betting being an important part of the experience that we’re going to create here, both physically and virtually. It was great to see the law go through.

I think Ohio has passed really what some are saying is one of the more comprehensive sports betting laws out there in the country, which benefits us and we’re looking forward to creating a retail sportsbook here on property at the village with our partners at Rush Street Interactive. In fact, they were just here yesterday, and we’ll be announcing the location of the sportsbook that we’ll be putting in place, and hopefully, we’ll have that up later this summer.

Of course, it all depends on the timing of the application process and then finally obtaining the license. But a really unique interactive sportsbook on property, I think, creates another compelling reason for people to come and visit. But while they’re here, it gives them something to do that enhances the way in which they’ve viewed sports. I’ve always said this – as I was growing up, throw down five bucks with a buddy or something and it just made it more fun. It made it more and more immersive and you got into the plays a bit more. And so we’re excited about creating that experience for our guests here.

And then we just announced this morning – literally at 8 a.m. this morning – a mobile partnership with a company called Genesis, a company that will be fairly new to the United States, that’s done a lot of things in Europe based out of Malta, a big company that has a really incredible mobile interactive experience. For me and for our company, I think that’s the most important thing for sure. These are lucrative business deals for us and partnerships that can create shareholder value which we’re always focused on.

But experiences, if you create a great location or a great virtual environment for fans and guests to engage with, you’re going to have people coming and enjoying those environments and so that’s what both of these partnerships do for us now that sports betting is legalized.

Rush Street Interactive will be the retail partner, but Genesis will be the mobile statewide component?

MC: Correct. We looked at one partner to do everything. But this is where we. As a company decided to make sure, as I said, that the capabilities for the different environments, we wanted to create both mobile and virtual and physical, that we had the absolute best opportunity to monetize those and also partners that were excited and enthusiastic about helping us create those environments, that our guests will enjoy.

Are you to the point where you have renderings of the retail sportsbook?

MC: We’re looking at about a 10,000 square-foot facility, so fairly sizable. We’re looking to partner the gaming experience with a compelling food experience and so we’re looking at three or four potential partners on that front, where you actually have co-branding or experienced food operators helping support Rush in delivering the overall environment that we’re going to create.

There are no renderings yet. We had had the senior executive team from Rush on the property yesterday, and there were two locations that we were looking at – both premium locations. Of course, we wanted to give them the chance to really assess from their level of expertise, where they felt like the most compelling opportunity for them would be.

We did that. We picked that location and now the renderings will start. But it can go fairly quickly. I mean, these are really great, experienced operators that deliver a high-profile, highly-interactive, immersive experience.

What made Rush Street the right choice for you?

MC: They’re great at what they do, and when I met with their CEO, he and I were both so aligned in the kind of experience that we wanted to create, high quality, not only in terms of when you walk in, the ‘wow’ factor, but the service, the level of technology, the way in which the fans can with ease interact with the sports betting environment.

They have a great presence in this particular region. They’ve also operated for many, many years, these kinds of retail sportsbooks and I would say they see the big value in creating a physical component to compliment the mobile environments that are really taking off as well.

How much influence do you think Hall of Fame Village can be for visitors from states without sports betting, persuading them that they want this back home?

MC: My background, as you may know, I spent a lot of years working with the Walt Disney Company, and there again is a company that does it incredibly well with creating the storytelling and using the intellectual property that they have created to then create environments for people and fans, guests, to have an incredible experience. I think when you come to a destination like this, you expect to see something unique and different, even if it’s Starbucks.

We’re working with them to create a different environment, maybe a slightly different menu offering. And so while you like some of the tried-and-true that you could experience where you live at home, when you go on vacation or when you go to a football game out of state or a concert or something you like experiencing new things. And so I do believe that we can set a standard for not only the environment we’re creating as a whole in the village, for these sort of big immersive destinations. But for this, in particular, the sportsbook, I can tell you, we’re completely aligned with Rush in the way that we’re thinking about this one, of a kind really immersive experience.

How disappointing is it that some estimates have sports betting in Ohio not launching until January of 2023?

MC: Well, we were thrilled to just get it right, I mean, the excitement around having legalized sports betting when every state around us already had it was great news for us and, frankly, for our shareholders, because these are meaningful deals that we’ve signed in terms of value-creation from a monetary point of view and also from an experience point of view.

I think that the Ohio Casino Gaming Commission will work diligently to try and expedite how the rules, the application process, everything sets out. My crystal ball is as good as anybody else’s. The outside date I believe was January 1 of ’23. But everybody knows that football is the most popular sport in America, I mean, in 2021, I believe, it was nine out of the 10 top-rated television shows … and so the opportunity for maximizing revenue to the state, to us and others really does get enhanced if we can launch this for the football season.

The betting opportunity is so expansive and as technology is enhanced, the concept of this prop betting where you can bet on the field goal make-or-miss bet or a player run-or-pass play, this micro-betting concept, I think that’s really going to take off and allow people to, as I always say, engage and be excited about what they’re watching without putting at risk significant dollars.

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Are you a little bummed the Bengals couldn’t have waited until sports betting was legal in Ohio?

MC: Well, there’s always interest in the state when any home hometown team is winning. I’m excited for Cincinnati. I grew up more toward northeast Ohio so I have to admit the Browns live in a little more special place in my heart and the season wasn’t quite what we had expected.

But anytime you have a team from your state doing as well as they are, I mean, you know, [Bengals quarterback Joe] Burrow is a great quarterback. They’ve got a team that’s gaining momentum. They’re a dangerous team, right now, so yeah, I think sports betting would be interesting in the state right now had it been legalized and up and running.

Will Hall of Fame Village apply for a sports betting license as a professional sports venue?

MC: That’s a good question. So as you might have read, the sports franchises and the casinos, racinos were identified as those that had preferred opportunity for a license here in Ohio. There is an open application process, but the applicant has to meet several different criteria, the majority of which is economic development and economic uplifting, creation for the city, the county, the state. We meet all of those criteria. We feel very good about our opportunities to obtain the two different licenses that we’ll need.

The mobile gaming license is a different license than the retail license. And so, as we’re developing our company, as we’re growing the footprint here, the economic impact we’re having on the city of Canton and the surrounding area is incredible. I’d like to handicap our chances – no pun intended – as being very good at obtaining the licenses that we need.

Care to take some credit for sports betting happening in Ohio?

MC: I wish I could take more credit. We have an incredible team that works very closely with legislators and lobbyists. I give them all the credit. They really worked on understanding how this was maturing, giving thought, input to that, and is our responsibility as a company, but also our responsibility as a corporation here in Ohio.

We were fortunate that the legislators were open to that. Look, Mike Crawford isn’t going to take credit for that. The legislators, I think, really put together a sound bill both the House and Senate could feel comfortable with – and the governor – and it passed.

Is there be some advantage to having former NFL Hall of Famers are future pitchmen?

MC: Well, it’s funny you say that. We do a twice-a-year update for our Hall of Famers on what’s going on with the village and the Hall of Fame Resort and Entertainment Company, because, as you know, we develop media and we have these gaming environments as well. A lot of excitement. And they are a big reason why our company exists and why we’re having success.

Our partner sponsors, they love the fact of our connection with professional football or our relationship and partnership with the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and so, you’re right. I will tell you, though, there are a lot of folks that come here that are within the realm of football but outside of the realm of football as well, and I’m excited about what we can bring our fans. The celebrity of it all gets people jazzed and they like to be around people who play the game.

What is the next big thing at Hall of Fame Village?

MC: I think we definitely need to stand up the village and that’s what we’re doing. If you were here today … the construction just is going at breakneck speed, so I’m excited about what fans are going to see in the summer and the experiences they’re going to have. We have more deals that are on the horizon in terms of being announced with partners that will have a physical presence here.

You may have seen, we announced a partnership with another Hall of Famer, Isaac Bruce, to do a really unique cookie ice cream concept that he’s come up with and, of course, Don Shula’s is going to be here as well. But our media group has got some very interesting projects that we’re working on and hoping to announce.

Is your job easier when the NFL is your starting point?

MC: It really is. Football has that action. It has that fan base that really transcends the sport. It gives you that sense of community that people rally around  … I talked with [Commissioner Roger Goodell] a couple of weeks ago, was talking to him about how exciting the playoffs were.

He was excited about what we were doing, looking forward to coming and visiting us in the near term. I’ll probably see him in Los Angeles at the Super Bowl so there’s a lot of connective tissue there that I’m very much looking forward to growing and strengthening as we get bigger and have the ability to continue to support what they’re doing.

Photo by Hall of Fame Village Resort and Entertainment
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Brant James

Brant James is a veteran journalist who has twice been recognized in the Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, most recently in 2020. He's covered motorsports, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball among a myriad of others beats and written enterprise and sports business for publications including USA TODAY, ESPN.com, SI.com.

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