Museum professionals say the sports halls suffer from rural locations, exhibits that aren't interactive enough, weak online presences and image problems stemming from players' use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Next year, the National Baseball Hall of Fame will celebrate its 75th anniversary with a performance by the Boston Pops and a commemorative U.S. coin. But last year the Cooperstown, N.Y. museum only had about 260,000 visitors, its lowest attendance since the mid-1980s.
"The hope is that we've bottomed out," said Jeff Idelson, president of the museum, which houses nearly 40,000 baseball artifacts.
Before the Nascar Hall of Fame opened in Charlotte, N.C., in 2010, a consultant predicted that it could draw 800,000 annual visitors. It attracted 278,046 in its first year, before dropping to 216,525 in 2011 and 184,771 in 2012, according to a representative.
The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto drew 500,000 annual visitors 20 years ago, but attendance has hovered around 300,000 for several years. The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, has seen its attendance drop below its longtime average of 200,000 visitors.
Attendance at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts actually rose in 2011 and 2012, however, after a decade of 200,000 annual visitors.
Meanwhile, American Alliance of Museums surveys show attendance has risen nationally with about 61 percent of museums saying attendance rose in 2011, up slightly from 57 percent in 2009.
The sports museums are trying to adapt. The basketball museum is expanding its web presence, and the football hall is expanding its space. Both museums plan to take their collections on tour.
At the basketball museum, attendance only accounts for 25 percent of revenue. The hall rents out portions of its Springfield building for events and parties around 200 times per year.
At Cooperstown, the ongoing exhibit "¡Viva Baseball!" features Latin music and a dance floor, and the museum hosts children's sleepovers.
"If you think about it, once you go through a hall of fame, you've kind of seen it," John Doleva, president of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame told the Wall Street Journal. "You can't appeal to kids who are 10 or 12 or 14 years old by always looking backward."