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Philip Schwalb 86C

Courtesy the Sports Museum of America

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Sporting Chance

Alumnus Philip Schwalb’s Sports Museum of America seemed like a sure thing. So what happened?

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By Paige P. Parvin 96G

Philip Schwalb 86L’s birthday is September 10, and on that day in 2001, he gave himself an unlikely present: a trip to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.

A lifelong basketball fan, Schwalb loved seeing artifacts like Wilt Chamberlain’s hundred-point jersey and the hall’s renowned Center Court. The only shadow on the day was that he and his wife, Evelyn, felt oddly lonely, since there were few people there. On the train ride home to New York, Schwalb found himself wondering why there wasn’t a more central place to celebrate sports—all sports.

The next morning, airplanes flew into the World Trade Center, and the thirty-nine-year-old Schwalb joined the ranks of New Yorkers changed for good. Gripped by a new, adrenaline-fueled abandon and the generally shared sense that life is unpredictable and there is little to lose, Schwalb decided to launch a sports museum. And so began the game of a lifetime—one in which Schwalb would play his heart out, and ultimately lose.

“The experience of 9/11 kind of propelled me psychologically,” Schwalb says. “It probably would not have happened otherwise. There was this post-9/11 mindset that if you have a dream, you have to do it and do it now.”

At that point, the relatively conservative Schwalb had never built a business from the ground up, but he had enjoyed ample exposure to a succession of steel-nerved entrepreneurs.

After finishing law school at Emory, Schwalb had little interest in practicing at a firm. He went to work instead for an Atlanta legal newspaper, the Fulton County Daily Report, where he started as an editor but quickly drifted over to the business side. The paper was owned by media mogul Steven Brill, the founder of CourtTV and American Lawyer magazine (and later the 9/11-born and ill-fated company Verified Identity Pass). “That was a formative work experience that got me excited about business,” Schwalb says.

Schwalb built on that experience during the 1990s, working for the Arena Football League and for a movie financing company that helped to bankroll Thelma and Louise and Rocky V. He also served as COO for a couple of fast-growth tech firms. In 2000, he was hired by Edwin Schlossberg, the husband of Caroline Kennedy and an idea man known for conceiving and designing interactive experiences like the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Schwalb did market exploration for the family-owned company The Perfect Client, a holding tank for inventive ideas and patents that was especially focused on developing interactive technology for museums and attractions.

“I just kind of absorbed the museum world,” Schwalb says.

Thus inspired, Schwalb was bound to start thinking about his own venture; the question was when—and what.

As the sports museum idea took hold in the weeks following 9/11, Schwalb made the decision to kick off the project with Jerry Maguire–style flair: in one day, he maxed out all his credit cards, gathered $120,000 in cash, and deposited it into an account for a new company, then called the National Sports Museum but later the Sports Museum of America.

“It was kind of rambunctious,” he admits. “In that economy, I didn’t think going to banks and asking would have worked. I had perfect credit, but after I took out the first $20,000, I started to worry that the other banks would notice and lower my credit limit, so I decided I should do it all in a day.”

That move set the tone for the gutsy, creative financing and planning that would ultimately become a $100 million showcase. By November of that year, Schwalb had met with officials from New York City and state and had begun securing support and partnerships. Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg both endorsed the project, which helped position Schwalb for a giant step forward: the ability to compete for financing from federal Liberty Bonds, the tax-exempt securities legislated after the World Trade Center attacks to help spur development and revitalization in lower Manhattan. Liberty Bonds are for private development, which helped cinch Schwalb’s decision to establish the sports museum as a for-profit institution. All told, a little more than half of the $100 million raised came from the bonds.

The other half came from about eighty private investors, many from Wall Street’s top-tier boardrooms. “It was a lot of very high-profile business people,” Schwalb says.

He also built relationships with some sixty-two athletic leagues and institutions, such as NASCAR, the International Boxing Hall of Fame, the Heisman Trophy Trust, the United States Tennis Association, the Hockey Hall of Fame, the World Golf Hall of Fame, and the one that started it all, the Basketball Hall of Fame.

One of Schwalb’s staunchest supporters was Victor Avis, a classmate from Duke University and a close friend. Avis remembers when Schwalb first began brainstorming the museum idea in his living room. Avis and his father were soon Schwalb’s first investors, followed by Avis’s daughter, who became the youngest when she put her bat mitzvah money into the venture.

“I supported the project from the get-go because I thought it was a great idea,” Avis says. “Phil had a wonderful passion.”

When Senator Bill Bradley called and left a message on his personal voicemail on a blistering day in August 2003, Schwalb was instantly transported back to his childhood, when Bradley was one of his particular heroes.

Schwalb inherited a love of sports from his dad, a Brooklyn native and lifelong fan of the old Dodgers team. “He wasn’t particularly emotional, but the only time we ever saw him cry was when Jackie Robinson died,” Schwalb says. “I think that says a lot about how a sport can weave its way into your youth and have an impact on your whole life. It’s emblematic of how emotionally resonant sports can be.”

Born on Long Island but raised in Orlando, Schwalb liked just about all sports, although basketball was his favorite and the Knicks and Bradley were the posters that papered his room. He says he mainly played in his own driveway, joking that his three high school teams were math, chess, and quiz bowl.

Joking aside, though, Schwalb was a brainiac who went to Duke when he was sixteen. He soaked up plenty of basketball but not much more of the college scene, being, he points out, a little too young for the full university experience. When he came to Emory for law school at twenty, he was more prepared to take advantage of all the campus had to offer.

“Emory, for me, was really the formative experience,” he says. “It was like my college experience combined with grad school. I was crazy active in intramural sports. I enjoyed the city, Virginia Highland, all the things that came with Emory. I really blossomed there.”

Not surprisingly, Schwalb’s most esteemed sports heroes are those who combine athletic prowess with an active mind. He especially admires Paul Robeson, a Renaissance man who was a star of the stage and screen in the 1920s, a noted scholar and attorney, a powerful speaker and social justice activist, and became the second black All-American football player in the country in 1917.

“Robeson embodies what I love about sports, which is not the jock part—he was a real thinking man’s athlete,” Schwalb says. “An Emory grad who also embodies that mix is Bobby Jones, who was not only a great golfer but had a Harvard degree in literature and designed great golf courses. He loved sport and the beauty of it in a really artistic and grand way. That’s kind of what the museum concept that drove me was all about.”

So Schwalb got a spine-tingling feeling when he got a call from another icon, Bradley, the former Rhodes Scholar and three-time All-American basketball player who went on to play for the Knicks before becoming a U.S. senator. Schwalb was working out of his apartment at the time, starting to survey possible museum sites with a real estate firm. But Bradley had other ideas.

At his invitation, Schwalb went to visit Bradley, and the two men spread out a map of New York. “From talking to him, the idea became to get as close to the Statue of Liberty as possible,” Schwalb says. “I took a walk through Battery Park, and right at the top of the park is the building we chose, with his help.”

The site was the Standard Oil Building, built in 1885 by John D. Rockefeller when the company moved to New York from Cleveland. The elegantly curved, thirty-one-story building was designated a landmark in 1995. It is on New York’s famous tickertape parade route, which has plaques akin to Hollywood’s star-lined Walk of Fame, and it seemed like a good sign to Schwalb that the plaques right in front of the sports museum’s future home were for Bobby Jones and the first woman to swim the English Channel, Gertrude Ederle.

Far more important, the building is surrounded by other public attractions: the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Wall Street, and the World Trade Center Memorial site. Schwalb and his partners calculated a potential audience of twenty million residents and forty-four million tourists a year.

“Part of my mission was to try to make a difference in the area of the World Trade Center,” Schwalb says. “The 9/11 memorial was on schedule to be built before the museum, but when we opened, the memorial and visitor center still weren’t done. It would have helped enormously. We had a really good relationship with them.”

When the Sports Museum of America opened on May 7, 2008, no one could have imagined it would close its doors less than a year later.

It was a near-perfect kickoff. Alongside the mayor and other city officials, about fifty of the world’s legendary athletes were on hand to cut the ribbon, including some from each Hall of Fame: Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, Mario Andretti, Eli Manning. Media coverage was enthusiastic. “Think Smithsonian, drenched in sweat,” read the New York Daily News.

“We were really happy with the event, the press, and the product,” Schwalb says. “The designers we used had built the Spy Museum in Washington. We started off on track in terms of popularity.”

“On opening day, Phil really was the toast of New York,” Avis says. “There were great athletes on the podium paying tribute to Phil and what he had done.”

The Sports Museum of America consisted of about one-third athletic artifacts, one-third sports films (twenty in all) that were custom-made for the museum, and one-third high-tech, interactive exhibits. The six-hundred-plus artifacts featured standouts like the car Jimmie Johnson drove to victory in the 2006 NASCAR series, the diary kept by track star Jesse Owens during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and the flag draped over the shoulders of U.S. hockey goalie Jim Craig after the team won gold at the 1980 Olympics. Craig had declined other appeals for the famous flag, but, “This is the right spot for it,” he told Sports Illustrated in an interview. “This isn’t just a hall of fame. It’s about America, passion, and dreams.”

An entire wing was constructed for the original 1935 Heisman Trophy, which had been kept at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club but lost its home when the club closed after September 11. And the museum also was the official site of the first Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, a pet project of Billie Jean King.

“I loved the women’s section, which is so important for young kids to see, both girls and boys,” says Julie Foudy, who was captain of the Women’s National Soccer Team for thirteen years and gave memorabilia to the museum. “It is so important to understand the history before you, to know the pioneers in different sports.”

Against this sweeping backdrop, Schwalb and his team basked in the glow of success. But it faded more quickly than Schwalb would have thought possible. “The fanfare was great, but literally from the first week it was clear how hard it was to compete in the New York City marketplace,” Schwalb says. “We put so much of our money into making the best possible museum, I don’t think we envisioned just how tough the battle for visitation was going to be.”

Things only got harder as the summer of 2008 wore on, with the chill beginnings of an economic decline just starting to make themselves felt. Schwalb was banking on a second round of financing from the museum’s investors to boost much-needed marketing efforts, but when the financial crisis exploded in the fall, it became clear that wasn’t going to happen. Most of the private investors were from Wall Street firms that were hardest hit.

“There was a dual impact,” Schwalb says. “We were fighting the worst recession in fifty years as a brand-new entity, and the investors we were counting on were watching their economic lives fall apart.”

There also were mounting tensions among the museum’s stakeholders. According to Avis, Schwalb could see that not enough money was being spent on marketing and visibility, but he had conceded much of the control of the enterprise to big-money investors who didn’t share his vision.

“When you have to take money from Wall Street, you lose some control over the management,” Avis says. “There were a number of times when I think Phil felt he was selling his soul to make sure it all happened. He had to diversify, and I think it was that loss of control that was the undoing of the museum.”

By the end of the year, Schwalb was beginning to resign himself to the inevitable, like a coach in a losing game watching the clock wind down. The Sports Museum of America closed on February 20, 2009.

“It was emotionally very difficult,” he says. “At the same time, I was watching a lot of people I knew lose their entire net worth. There were people going through greater hardships, so I tried to put it into perspective.”

All but a few of the museum’s investors were understanding. Asked if he was disappointed, Avis said, “It was minimal compared to my disappointment for Phil. He is what he seems—he was never about money or fame or glory, he really had a passion for telling athletes’ stories. He put his life into this thing. So the fact that I lost some money was nothing compared to the heartache of seeing Phil lose all that he had worked for.”

More than a year later, Schwalb is remarkably philosophical about the museum’s trajectory and untimely end. This might have something to do with the fact that the same week he decided to close the museum, his twins were born. He and Evelyn have since relocated to Florida, where she took a position at Stetson College. He is considering some small business opportunities and deciding what to do next.

But Schwalb hasn’t given up on his dream—not yet. He has tasted the magic of the Sports Museum of America, and it was just too sweet to forget.

“The basic concept is that sports are incredibly popular. It’s a $200-billion-a-year business,” he says. “There are museums celebrating everything from minerals to aviation, and there should be one that pays homage to the beauty and grace and grandeur of sports. I would like to think that it will find its way again.”

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