ESPN Zone playing to packed houses

Original: Baltimore's popular ESPN Zone has been the prototype for ESPN Zones elsewhere. One opens today in New York's Times Square.

September 15, 1999|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

When the ESPN Zone opened in the Power Plant last summer, people sometimes waited in line for three hours to get in.

More than a year later, lines -- though shorter -- still snake out the door of Baltimore's Inner Harbor attraction.

The sports entertainment complex has done twice the business expected, according to its creators, Walt Disney Co. -- more than 1 million visitors.

"It's really surprised us at every level," said Art Levitt, president of Disney Regional Entertainment Inc. "From the tourist to the local level, it's been well received. I think people felt we were the ultimate place to view sports."

The two-level complex, designed to feel like a stadium, allows 200 customers to play actual and virtual games on the upper level at the same time. A screening room gives guests the chance to sit in faux leather chairs and watch televised sporting events on a 16-by-13-foot screen flanked by a dozen smaller screens.

Baltimore's site has served as the prototype for ESPN Zones that have followed. Disney opened a Zone in Chicago's River North District in July. And today, ESPN Zone opens in Times Square in New York with a 42,000-square-foot facility at 42nd Street and Broadway.

"Baltimore was magic," Levitt said. "If Baltimore hadn't been as successful as it was, we wouldn't have proceeded."

Soon to come will be ESPN Zones in Atlanta in time for the Super Bowl in January, and in Washington in the spring.

"I think they're very happy," said Larry Haverty, an entertainment analyst with State Street Research and Management Co. in Boston. "This is one of their full-speed-ahead projects. The fact that they're placing the flag on expensive real estate in Times Square shows that this is a winner."

Disney has declined to provide financial details, but Haverty has predicted that the ESPN Zones will have revenue of $100 million a year within five or 10 years.

Dave & Buster's, a sports bar and restaurant concept with the same type of games as ESPN Zone's, offers some comparison, the experts say. Dave & Buster's 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot facilities generate about $15 million a year in gross revenue.

Such businesses have a good profit margin built in because playing and watching games mean extended stays, said Timothy S. Sales, a partner with Adventure Studios, a Los Angeles entertainment development company.

He described the ESPN Zone as one of the best products in the location-based entertainment business.

"Sports bars are not new," he said. "What's new here is that the quality of it is exceptional. It's very repeatable. You can go there again because it's all about what's hot in sports. It's changing, vibrant, all-the-time different."

Michael Rubin, president of MRA International, a Philadelphia consulting and development company for the entertainment industry, attributed the Zone's popularity in part to the capability for guests to interact by watching and playing sports. The quality of food and service are also good, Rubin said.

But he cautioned that those same waiting lines that serve as a gauge of success are likely to present one of the greatest challenges for Disney.

"How do you deal with queuing to get into any of these Disney attractions?" he asked.

"I think ESPN is doing extremely well," Rubin said. "It's different from what we typically think of as a themed restaurant in that it really ties into the event of sports. There's always a sense of renewal and new programming that keeps the experience fresh."

For instance, the Baltimore Zone has attracted such celebrities as Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken, model Tyra Banks and running back Jerome Bettis of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"You never know who you're going to see at the Zone," said Bonnie Downing, marketing manager of the Baltimore attraction. "That generates excitement."

Disney managers are well aware of what they're up against in the crowded entertainment market.

"We have repeat business, but the question is can we maintain it," Levitt said. "We held our breaths a little bit when we hit month 13 in Baltimore. The challenge is to maintain that -- to continue to be creative and show innovation."

Pub Date: 9/15/99

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