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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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Just as Baltimore's Harborplace was a leader in the wave of festival marketplaces that swept the country in the '80s, the Inner Harbor again will serve as proving ground for a new dimension in family entertainment.

Opening in the Power Plant this summer will be the ESPN Zone, Walt Disney Co.'s latest entertainment concept, a production that's part high-tech dining room, part sports arena.

If the idea of using Disney wizardry succeeds during its high-profile trial run here, the company will expand the restaurant-playground idea nationwide. It's already planned for Chicago by next summer. Then the pace will accelerate to a new Zone every three months, until there are 15 or 20 across the country within five years. Eventually, it may go international.

Recently, in a press conference that seemed more like a pep rally, Disney and ESPN executives gave Baltimore's business community a glimpse of the coming sports attraction, using a model with the signature sports kebab -- a collection of sports balls on a skewer.

To Disney executives, Baltimore is the perfect place to launch their venture: an enthusiastic sports town, a site that's already a downtown landmark, a location near two stadiums and a thriving waterfront.

"We argued quite a bit back and forth about where we would go first," said Art Levitt, president of Disney Regional Entertainment Inc. "We looked all over the country."

Baltimore offered another advantage -- it's easier to open here, and work out the kinks before moving on to larger markets. It is sort of like trying out a play on the road before attempting Broadway.

"Sometimes you don't want to roll something out in New York because it's so high profile and it's so unforgiving," said David Malmuth, senior vice president at Trizec Hahn Centers, a real estate developer in San Diego who spent eight years doing similar work for Disney. "They want to be able to tweak it."

ESPN Zone will be a 35,000 square-foot sports entertainment complex with two levels, designed to feel like a stadium and to hold 550 people. Occasionally, the ESPN cable sports network will broadcast live from the Zone.

Customers will be able to dine in the restaurant and bar, watch their favorite sports in a special screening room or play actual and virtual games in a 10,000-square-foot arena. More than 200 video screens will cover the walls and hang from the ceilings.

Disney is keeping specifics about the games a secret until the opening is much closer, fearing the competition may get the jump on them. But they promise the games will be unique.

Although Disney Regional Entertainment is behind the project, the Zone won't be filled with the usual Disney characters -- the mouse and his friends will be nowhere near. "The only thing you'll see that says Disney is, hopefully, the quality of the execution," Levitt said.

Disney executives are doing what many are doing -- capitalizing on the public's appetite for ways to blur fantasy with what's real, in a form of hyper-reality. The idea is to connect with customers in a way that creates an experience and keeps them returning.

There are plenty of examples: Dave & Busters, a chain of adult fun centers with virtual golf, race-car and motorcycle simulators; Sega Gameworks, a project of Universal Studios Inc., and SKG Dreamworks and Sega Enterprises, packed with virtual reality and more in a 1940s game factory theme; Niketown, a New York retail project with museum-quality exhibits in a high-tech format that inspires applause from visitors.

But the ESPN Zone is being launched as consumer interest in themed entertainment is declining, said Dan Sheinin, professor of marketing at the University of Maryland. Recently, for example, Planet Hollywood and Rain Forest Cafe Inc. had to retrench after disappointing financial reports.

"Once one of these places opens, it doesn't change," Sheinin said. "So the main problem has been getting people to come back. Food is not reason to come back, as most people know."

Themed restaurants are a big investment, costing about $12 million to build, experts say. While Disney won't provide financial details about the Zone, an analyst who follows Disney projects the cost at between $10 million and $15 million.

Although consultant Pat Esgate described Disney as "the king of brand extension," she cautioned that "theming, money and brands are not necessarily a given for success."

"You have to create a connection with the guest that goes farther than the brand," said Esgate, president of Esgate and Associates Inc. in Nyack, N.Y. "That takes a lot of work."

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.

"The reality is that the project was a little ahead of its time," she said in an interview. "This is not them copying the idea. It's more that the industry evolved since I made the original proposal, and now ESPN and Disney feel comfortable with the technologies and the marketplace being ready."

Despite the stature of the Disney and ESPN names, the ESPN Zone is up against tough competition.

The Zone will compete with Hard Rock Cafe, also in the Power Plant, and Planet Hollywood a stone's throw away in Harborplace.

But the sports complex will be bigger than those two combined, and analysts said the proximity of competition may be an advantage to all three, bringing even more people to the Inner Harbor.

For Disney and ESPN, the challenges will be to distinguish their product from that of competitors and stay fresh, University of Maryland's Sheinin said.

Disney's Levitt understands the need to stand out. "It's the ESPN culture that will differentiate us from anyone else out there," he said. "That is the secret to the success."

Disney is banking on daily changes in the sports world to keep every visit to the Zone unique. Staff members will receive 20-minute briefings of condensed sports news before each shift so that everyone from the sous chef to the bartender knows what's going on in the world of sports. Place mats will be updated daily with current sports information -- sort of like mini-newspaper sports page. Sports programs exclusive to the Zone, memorabilia and games also will constantly change.

Disney's strategy of capitalizing on the ESPN cachet fits into an established tradition, according to Steven Watts, a professor at the University of Missouri.

"I think it's a very old and profitable impulse in the Disney Company," said Watts. "It's always put them on the cutting edge of marketing and merchandising."

As far back as the 1930s, Disney was marketing items related to its early movies, "Snow White" and "Pinocchio," Watts said.

"By the '50s and '60s, they had practically made it into an art form," he said. "The real genius of Disney is marketing. They can market what they do better than anyone else in practically this whole economy."

Baltimore has a lot riding on Disney's success with the ESPN Zone.

The project is a key component of the work of Cordish Co. and of President David Cordish's vision for revitalizing the once troubled Power Plant. In the bigger picture, though, the new endeavor plays a significant role in the future of the Inner Harbor.

"I think what it says is that Baltimore is becoming a world-class city," said Mary Jo McCulloch, president of Maryland's Hotel and Motel Association. "Those folks are expecting Baltimore to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors; otherwise they wouldn't come here."

Baltimore will have the exclusive on an ESPN Zone for about nine months. Those guaranteed to visit include people in the location-based entertainment business and major sports advertisers, according to tourism and marketing authorities.

"There will be literally thousands of people who make the trek to see what Disney has put there," predicted Halliday, the developer. "It certainly will put you on the map."

Other likely visitors are fans who watch ESPN religiously and will see promotions for the Zone on cable, says Halliday. "In the Baltimore-Washington area, you'll see a lot of people who'll travel 30 to 50 miles to this. But it's not going to move the needle on tourism nationally."

Even if Baltimore's exclusive status doesn't inspire tourists to come specifically to see the Zone, many believe the project will prompt visitors to stay longer.

The Baltimore venture is a distinct new dimension in the Disney and ESPN empire, but Watts insists not the last.

"It's one more step in the Disneyfication of the world," he said. "I wonder if by the time I die, Disney will own everything that has to do with popular culture. I wouldn't bet against Disney. They're able to do just about anything they want in this day and age."

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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