Call it SportsCenter meets the Lion King.

The hyperkinetic energy of the 24-hour ESPN sports channel is getting ready to make its debut in the crowded market of family-oriented, themed restaurants. Walt Disney Co., with its knack for getting the most out of its brands, tomorrow will open its first ESPN Zone, a sports-themed restaurant and entertainment complex, at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

The 35,000-square-foot restaurant at the landmark Power Plant building will be an interactive playground for sports enthusiasts and their families. While waiting to get a table, customers can test their skills in sports trivia against a touch-screen computer hidden inside the legs of a two-story scoreboard. Sports fanatics can sit in leather recliners before a 37-foot TV screen and scoreboard to watch the game of the day.

And children can empty their parents' pockets at a 10,000-square-feet game arcade where they can emulate the Orioles' Brady Anderson's swing in a batting cage or Michael Jordan's patented jumper in a shoot-around game. In the words of ESPN SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott, "It's as cool as the other side of the pillow."

Yet ESPN Zone is merely the latest sports-theme restaurant to enter a crowded field of players who are using sports with hopes of holding the attention of fans for longer than one visit. Some analysts already are warning about the likelihood of oversaturation. Sluggish sales have hit popular entertainment-theme restaurants, including Planet Hollywood's Official All-Star Cafe. Earlier this year Planet Hollywood said it would cut back on the number of All-Star Cafes it opens.

NASCAR, the governing body for stock-car racing, recently opened Nascar Cafes in Tennessee and South Carolina. The National Football League plans to build at least nine NFLX entertainment complexes filled with games. The National Basketball Association has signed a deal worth $90 million with Hard Rock Cafe International to license its name and team logos for restaurants to be built over the next three years.

The themed-restaurants segment "has gotten so competitive over the last 10 years," said Mark Bucher, director of operations for FranData, which tracks the restaurant industry. "There is so much competitive pressure on the consumer dollar that all of a sudden establishments have had a hard time keeping customers and receipts up." In addition, Wall Street has cooled toward restaurants, limiting the availability of money for chains to expand.

The abundance of sports restaurants led the NFL to opt for entertainment centers where food and beverage service is limited, said league spokesman Chris Widmaier. The league is planning to open its first entertainment complex by 2000 in either New York or Orlando.

"We're well aware of how competitive the sports-theme restaurant industry has become," Widmaier said. "What we've found in research is that fans keep telling us they would like to get closer to the game. Can you deliver this through a restaurant or store? We don't think so."

But as the distinction blurs between sports and entertainment, Disney smells an opportunity to make more money from all its brands including ESPN, which the company purchased in 1996 as part of its deal for Capital Cities/ABC Inc. ESPN and Disney have spent millions of dollars developing the ESPN Zone concept. The concept, called "eatertainment," will serve as the vehicle in which the owner of the popular sports channel can use the network's brand name to appeal to more consumers.

"The idea is that not everybody can go to {Disney's} theme parks every year. We want our consumers to be able to experience our brands on a more regular basis," said Scott Dickey, director of marketing and sales for the ESPN Zone concept. The theme-restaurant concept is "about taking the attributes of ESPN and building a three-dimensional extension of the brand, {where} it gives fans a place to reach out, touch it and experience it."

Analysts said some restaurants have run into difficulties because their themes aren't as popular in smaller cities. "Just 'cause it works in New York, doesn't mean you can take it to Indianapolis," said Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., which tracks the restaurant industry. "There is a certain amount of saturation when you leave the top three markets" of New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

And as the segment gets hotter, companies may find picking the right location carries a hefty price tags. "It's a real estate game," FranData's Bucher said. "If the real estate gets too expensive, it's the demise of the segment." Disney won't say how much it has invested to build the Baltimore restaurant, although one analyst put the price tag at $20 million.

But entertainment restaurants with sports concepts is one segment of the market where analysts expect to be strong growth, estimating that revenue in the $2-billion-a-year segment will grow by nearly 20 percent a year.

Analysts anticipate Disney will succeed in this new realm because of the company's financial resources and keen instinct for entertainment trends. The company already is planning a second restaurant in Chicago.

"Disney is so good. They know they're limitations -- even the precise moment when to pull a video off the shelf," Bucher said. "They're not going to go into a market until the customers are going to drool for" the restaurant.

Disney also is betting that Baltimore, with its fiercely loyal sports fans, will be a winning location for the ESPN Zone restaurant.

"Baltimore is an incredible sports town with great heritage in professional and amateur sports," ESPN's Dickey said. "The city has a personality and culture that is closely aligned with the personality of ESPN -- die-hard fans."

The restaurant pays homage to the city's sports personalities whose on-the-field heroics seemed to personify the life of the guy seated in the stands. A mural hanging in the restaurant's main dining hall depicts Baltimore legends such as Colts defensive tackle Artie Donovan, Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas and Orioles' third baseman Brooks Robinson participating in the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The restaurant and entertainment complex also will cater to tourists coming to the Inner Harbor who may have loyalties to other teams. For Chicago Cubs fans, there is a replica of Wrigley Field built with the gum wrappers in reverence to the club's former owner, William Wrigley Jr., and the family business.

In the bar, in a tribute to the ultimate Green Bay Packers fans, known as "cheeseheads," a New York artist created a bust of the legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi that looks as if it were carved out of Wisconsin cheddar.

For $250, ESPN Zone management snagged the X-ray of Muhammad Ali's broken jaw after a battle with Ken Norton in 1973. "We try to pay tribute to certain sports moments with a little reverence and humor," said Rob Perez, ESPN Zone's director of operations.

And then there is the inescapable imprimatur of ESPN. Football analyst Chris Berman's witticisms abound. You know, "Jose Don't take me on a sea' Cruz." There's even a full replica of the SportsCenter set where management expects some live broadcasts to take place. A LOOK AT ESPN ZONE Business: Sports-themed dining and entertainment complex Opens: On Sunday at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. A second restaurant will open in Chicago next summer, with other sites to follow. Operated by: Disney Regional Entertainment Size: 35,000 square feet Site includes: Five 10-foot satellite dishes and four 24-foot satellite dishes 40 satellite receivers 10 video cameras 221 speakers, 49 amplifiers 211 video monitors, including more than a dozen in bathrooms State-of-the-art radio studio with live TV broadcasting capabilities. SOURCE: Department of Commerce CAPTION: A kinetic golf sculpture, above right, is outfitted with items from Arnold Palmer: hat, glove, club and autographed shoes. The sports-themed complex will be housed in the Power Plant at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. CAPTION: Bill Freeman, general manager of ESPN Zone in Baltimore, stands in front a bank of TV monitors showing sporting events from around the world.