The Rise and Fall of ESPN Zone

Written by Sports

Jeff Ash laments the decline of the restaurant he calls “Chuck E. Cheese for sports fans” — but he isn’t surprised.

Visiting the new ESPN Zone in downtown Chicago for the first time a decade ago, in its glory days, we had the feeling we’d been there before. It was Chuck E. Cheese for sports fans.

By sports fans, we mean guys. By guys, we mean young guys, say 35 and under. (Most of the women in the place either had been dragged there by their boyfriends or were moms rather loosely chaperoning their kids.)

The ESPN Zone was part sports bar and grill, part game room and part live show, offering “a taste of ESPN.” The fellas could not get enough of it, especially when ESPN did live TV or radio from one of the booths.

Listen up, you jock-sniffer.

It was major league.

You can get up close.

It was big time.

You can get up real close.

It was showtime.

You can almost be one of the guys.

And the fellas were buying it.

There were ESPN Zones in D.C., in Vegas, in Times Square, in the shadow of Disneyland.

Visiting the ESPN Zone in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor one cool spring day, the wait was so long that even our 10-year-old son agreed it was a good idea to go a couple of doors down and get a hot dog instead.

But Chicago was 10 years ago and Baltimore was five years ago. Both are closing next week, as are three other ESPN Zones. Only the ones in L.A. and near Disneyland will remain open.

Did the novelty wear off? Did the taste of ESPN go stale? Some analysts think so, but there’s never a shortage of young guys dazzled by what they perceive as cool and willing to hand over pockets full of money, checking out the ESPN-branded merch on their way to their table.

Certainly, the recession has taken its toll. ESPN Zones sit on prime real estate, and that costs lots of money. Fewer people are going out to eat, and mid-priced casual dining places like ESPN Zone have been hardest hit.

Perhaps the most telling observation is this, from Darren Tristano, an executive VP at Technomic, a food industry consulting firm in Chicago:

“All of us have these big-screen flat LCD TVs in our living rooms now,” he told the Baltimore Sun, “and that is direct competition.”

Now that we’ve made our homes into ESPN Zones, why go out?

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