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ESPN's fun zone Entertainment: The first ESPN Zone, a venture with Disney, promises to be on the cutting edge of interactive sports entertainment.

March 08, 1998|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

From its satellite dishes outside, to the sports bonanza on multiple televisions in the screening room, to the "Zulu" countdown clock on the facade, the ESPN Zone intends to provide customers the chance to immerse themselves in everything sports -- more specifically, everything ESPN. Being in the zone, for an athlete, is the feel a batter gets when he's having a terrific streak, or the basketball player who's sinking one three-pointer after another, or the Olympic skater who has just skated for gold.

"One of the things we talked about was when you're in the zone it's a special experience. Sometimes it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Bill Freeman, vice president and general manager of ESPN Zone, who is in charge of everything from marketing to menus for the project. "It's an experience you don't want to leave because you may not get back there real soon."

Added Disney's Levitt: "When you're in the zone, you're in the zone. Everything comes together at the right time in the right place. The stars align. We're trying to recreate that experience."

To do that, Disney is bringing some of the physical features of the Bristol, Conn., headquarters of ESPN to Baltimore. But more important than the few satellite dishes (to mimic the 32 at ESPN), or the clock, or even the set of the popular sports program called SportsCenter, is the ESPN attitude.

"What we're trying to ensure is that anything in ESPN Zone reflects the personality of ESPN and that's passionate, outspoken, and authoritative," said Judy Fearing, senior vice president of marketing at ESPN in midtown Manhattan.

The ESPN cable network, started in 1979, has become a virtual trademark for sports, and the small Connecticut town where it is based is sometimes referred to as "Mecca."

Disney's Levitt came up with the idea of an ESPN/Disney project half a dozen years ago when he worked at Disney's Pleasure Island in Orlando, Fla. He and his staff were trying to find ways to augment the attraction's entertainment, which included jazz, country and rock music.

"My idea was literally to put an ESPN experience in Disney World," said Levitt. "I just thought that ESPN had the combination of a really strong culture and it had entertainment. We thought it would be a great mix for us."

Conversations began with ESPN, but the idea didn't get off the ground immediately. Levitt left for a job at Hard Rock. What Disney came up with in 1996 was a modest project that became the ESPN Club sports bar at Disney World.

That original ESPN Club was not a blockbuster success, according to some in the business. "Commentators in themed entertainment thought it was underwhelming," said Andy Halliday, senior vice president of strategic business development for the Simon DeBartolo Group in Indianapolis. "This is Project II, to take another stab at it."

The Orlando venture is about 13,000-square-feet of television screens, interactive games and restaurant.

As Disney executives are quick to point out, that project is very different in scale and clientele. There is a big difference between appealing to a captive audience in a theme park and inspiring tourists and local residents to visit.

Whatever its shortcomings, the endeavor did show that combining the ESPN brand with Disney entertainment experience could draw crowds.

The impetus for the current ESPN Zone project came from the top. Shortly after Disney bought Capital Cities/ABC Inc, which includes ESPN, Disney chief Michael D. Eisner said he wanted to bring the company's entertainment concepts to metropolitan and suburban locations around the world. He tapped Levitt, telling him: "Go build a team to make it happen."

It wasn't surprising that he turned to Levitt. During Levitt's first tour at Disney, he served as vice president of resorts and special projects, in charge of Pleasure Island, the Disney Village Marketplace and the Disney Village Resort.

While working as president and CEO of Hard Rock Cafe International, he managed the business worldwide, including the opening of 20 units from South America to Asia.

Levitt, 40, assembled a team to develop ESPN Zone that has grown to 14 people. The project has been in the works nearly three years.

Recently Levitt discovered that a Baltimore-area entrepreneur once had an idea for a sports complex similar to the ESPN Zone. Lynda O'Dea, now a Bethesda-based consultant in interactive entertainment for themed restaurants and entertainment centers, spent four years trying to bring Sports Center USA to Baltimore's Power Plant in the early 1990s.

Working with Capital Cities/ABC Inc., the $33 million sports complex was ti have virtual reality experiences along with restaurants and retail stores selling sports-related goods. But O'Dea was unable to obtain the financing, and the project never got off the ground.

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