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Disney sounds the buzzer on ESPN Zones sports bars

June 8, 2010 |  3:02 pm

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The Walt Disney Co. is shutting down most of its ESPN Zone stores, a chain of sports-themed restaurants located in seven cities, according to a person familiar with the matter. The only outlets to remain open are those tied to a Disney property, such as the Downtown Disney shopping district in Anaheim.

The ESPN Zone sports bars opened in 1998 to capitalize on ESPN's brand, while bringing Disney's clean, family-friendly sensibilities to the sports bar concept. The upscale joints served 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 Disney 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% of consumers planned to eat out less frequently, and spend less per meal than they did the year before.

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

"Since their inception, the Zones have served sports fans very well," said an ESPN spokesman, who declined further comment. "But from a pure business perspective, the economics have been challenging."

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 like 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 afflicted Planet Hollywood -- 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 Anaheim, Disney operates ESPN Zones in Baltimore, Chicago, Las Vegas, New York City and Washington. The company licenses the ESPN Zone to a restaurant at L.A. Live. Disney closed the Atlanta and Denver locations last year.

-- Dawn C. Chmielewski

Photo of sports fans watching the controversial new Tiger Woods Nike advertisement from the ESPN Zone in New York's Times Square. (Photo by Mario Tama / Getty Images)

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