Baltimore's ESPN Zone to close Tuesday, official says

June 09, 2010|By From Sun staff and news services

Next Tuesday will be the last day of business at the 12-year-old ESPN Zone in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, a company official said Wednesday.

Leigh Friedman, the company's regional marketing director in Baltimore and Washington, added that roughly 140 employees at the Baltimore location who are being displaced will receive career consultation services and extended medical benefits.

ESPN Zone landlord and developer Cordish Cos. confirmed the Inner Harbor location's fate earlier Wednesday, saying it has already begun receiving inquiries about filling the space, which includes the restaurant and an outdoor seating area on the water.

"The ESPN Zone location and barge are the premier entertainment venue location in not just the city but the entire region, and we will replace the ESPN Zone with an equally spectacular venue," Zed Smith, a Cordish Cos. vice president, said in a statement. "We have always had tremendous interest in the space from leading companies nationwide."

Baltimore's ESPN Zone, which opened in 1998, is an anchor of the revitalized Power Plant along with Hard Rock Cafe and Barnes & Noble. The Power Plant building was developed by Baltimore-based Cordish Cos.

The shutting down of the Inner Harbor location is part of a larger closure of ESPN Zone outlets nationwide, including locations in Chicago, New York, Las Vegas and Washington. All closures will be effective June 16, ESPN officials said. The chain's other two outlets, in Los Angeles and Anaheim, Calif., will remain open. One official with the chain cited "challenging" economic conditions in the decision.

The ESPN Zone sports bars opened to capitalize on ESPN's brand, while bringing Disney's clean, family-friendly sensibilities to the sports bar concept. The upscale joints serve burgers and brews as walls of big-screen TVs beamed baseball and other sporting events into the dining area. Separate gaming rooms, dubbed "Sports Arenas," provided access to interactive games, such as virtual golf and boxing. It would not be uncommon to see children and adults shooting free throws side by side in the Zone.

It's unclear what prompted the Walt Disney Co. to close the establishments, although the bars may well be a casualty of the recession. A poll released in March by AlixPartners found that 30 percent of consumers planned to eat out less frequently and to spend less per meal than they did the year before.

In addition, some of the ESPN Zone restaurants are located in high-priced real estate areas, such as Times Square in New York.

Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for researcher the NPD Group, said the restaurant business is undergoing its biggest decline in three decades.

"This year was horrible," Balzer said. "A restaurant meal is a very discretionary behavior. You could always eat at home and save money doing it. And going out for dinner is the most expensive food you could buy."

Balzer said casual dining restaurants such the ESPN Zone have been among the hardest hit, as consumers gravitate to less expensive chains such as Chipotle or Panera Bread, which offer sit-down dining at fast-food prices. ESPN may also have suffered from the problem that has afflicted other restaurant chains — the novelty simply wore off, he said.

"We love the newness of something," Balzer said. "ESPN had something new. But after a while, there was nothing new. We were here with Planet Hollywood. How many times can you see Marilyn Monroe's dress?"

In addition to Baltimore and Anaheim, Disney operates ESPN Zones in Chicago, Las Vegas, New York City and Washington. The Chicago Tribune reported that the list of ESPN Zones to close includes the location there.

The company licenses the ESPN Zone to a restaurant at L.A. Live. Disney closed the Atlanta and Denver locations last year.

The Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun reporters Hanah Cho and Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.

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