When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg formally inaugurated the Sports Museum of America May 7, Sameer Ahuja saw a dream transform into vibrant reality.
The nation's first and only interactive, multi-media all-sports museum experience proved an instant hit, with people lining the street before its 26, Broadway entrance, just across the street from the Statue of Liberty ferry, to get in. The building had earlier housed the Standard Oil Company, founded by John D Rockefeller.
"One person spent all night on the street, so he could be the first visitor to enter the museum," the Delhi-born Ahuja, the museum's Chief Operating Officer and its co-founder with Philip Schwalb, said.
"The museum celebrates sports, all sports. There are millions of fans for various sports. The museum houses them all. There is no place like this anywhere," a proud Ahuja said. The museum lives up to the billing he gives it: It houses more than 600 artifacts, 1,100 photos, and 20 original movies within 19 galleries. Visitors get to experience various sports, and related memorabilia, through interactive multimedia presentations, and end up spending hours studying the detailed histories of big-ticket sports events.
The museum is unmissable: Tourists coming out of Battery Park after paying obeisance to Lady Liberty are stopped in their tracks by 24-foot photographs of baseball legend Babe Ruth, stories athlete Jesse Owens and other iconic names from the annals of American sport.
The interior of the 100,000 square feet museum is manna for the sports fan; seminal exhibits range from tennis icon Billie Jean King's school report card through memorabilia celebrating historic moments from baseball, basketball, football, hockey, bowling and other sports; the sports bra soccer star Brandi Chastian famously exposed after slotting in the title-winning penalty kick in the 1999 World Cup; car Number 48 that Jimmie Johnson drove to the 2006 NASCAR series title; the diary Jesse Owens kept during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, when he single-handedly demolished Adolf Hitler's dream of showcasing Aryan supremacy, and the invitation for lunch that Owens subsequently got from the queen of England.
"It is not always the actual sport that takes centre-field," Ahuja said. "Sometimes it's the athlete's journey that provides a greater reward, and that's why these legends are celebrated."
Through cutting-edge interactive exhibits, SMA harnesses the latest technology to put visitors in the game. In the Fan Culture gallery, for instance, visitors can test their skills against legends of sports broadcasting, when they get to broadcast a play-by-play from the famed Shot Heard 'Round the World, or other key moments in sports history, in the Broadcaster's Booth.
The Olympic exhibit tells the stories of America's greatest athletes and teams throughout history. In addition to gold medallist Sarah Hughes, swimming wonder Michael Phelps, 'first lady of sport' Jackie Joyner-Kersee and dozens of others highlight the two interactive databases that visitors can access and explore.
Ahuja expects a million visitors to the museum in its first year, which will ensure SMA ends year one as a profitable enterprise.
The idea first came to Museum CEO Schwalb, who has a background in the sports and entertainment world, while visiting the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, on his 39th birthday, one day before the tragic events of 9/11.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, as New York fought to pick itself up from the rubble and rediscover its famed buzz, Schwalb developed the idea, and soon got support from New York city authorities.
At the time, Ahuja was a banker with JP Morgan. Intrigued by the proposal, Ahuja wrote to Schwalb. They met for the first time March 29, 2002 and a "wonderful relationship" began, Ahuja said.
His experience in the financial world came in handy, as the two set out to raise $40 million from major corporations and another $60 million through bonds issued by the city to reinvigorate the Lower Manhattan region, that had borne the brunt of 9/11.
Though the project seems, on the surface, a no-brainer for a sports-hungry nation, Schwalb and Ahuja point out that various sports already have individual halls of fame, and a national museum of the kind that they set out to build would automatically create for such halls the fear of possible conflict.
Schwalb and Ahuja cracked the problem by forging partnerships with individual sports museums, ending up with over 60 such alliances that included single sports Halls of Fame, national governing bodies and other top athletic organizations. Partners include USA Football and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, NASCAR, USA Basketball and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the NCAA Hall of Champions, USA Hockey, the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, US National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and Museum, USA Track & Field, and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. Through these tie-ups, the two got the exhibits, memorabilia, film clips, stories and heroes that would resonate with fans of all ages.
The museum will also house the Billie Jean King International Women's Sports Center, home to the Women's Sports Foundation International Women's Sports Hall of Fame, which is the only hall of fame dedicated to the athletes and pioneers of women's sports. It offers interactive exhibits and educational databases highlighting female accomplishments in sport, and their impact on the story of sports in America.
A measure of the museum's worth lies in the stars who have signed on as founding members: 7-time NBA All-Star Jason Kidd; Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie; Olympic Hall of Fame gymnast Mary Lou Retton; former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Joe Frazier; racing legend Mario Andretti; tennis great Martina Navratilova and Basketball Hall of Famer Julius 'Dr J' Erving.
Ahuja and Schwalb point out that making money was not the central driving force in establishing it. "We wanted to celebrate sports," Ahuja said. "We wanted to do something to help the growth of sports, and create more interest in sports."
Ahuja is happy the dream has finally come alive; so too is Paramatma Saran, a professor at Baruch College, City University of New York, and father of Ahuja's attorney wife Sima, who confesses to some "initial doubts" when his son-in-law first spoke of the ambitious project.