Almost anywhere you look in the District, you're apt to find a sports fan -- from Redskins devotees and new Mystics enthusiasts to the cults rooting for the Georgetown Hoyas and Maryland Terrapins. So it was probably not surprising that Walt Disney Co., with its knack for squeezing the most out of its brands, announced last week that it will open an ESPN Zone in the heart of downtown.
The company said that next spring it will open one of the sports-themed restaurants and entertainment complexes just blocks from MCI Center and the site of the new convention center.
The 41,000-square-foot facility -- complete with video games, simulators and giant TV screens -- will be at 11th and E streets NW, making it the fifth ESPN Zone to emerge in a market that analysts have said is already saturated with dozens of similar competitors.
But Art Levitt, president of Disney Regional Entertainment, the division responsible for developing Disney's entertainment centers and related concepts, doesn't see a problem. Levitt said the area is perfect for such a project because the District is, after all, the destination for so many vacationing families.
"And look at the number of colleges and universities in the area," he said. "Those teams and the professional teams make for lots of fans."
Disney purchased the 24-hour ESPN sports channel in 1996 as part of its deal for Capital Cities/ABC Inc. ESPN and Disney have spent millions developing the ESPN Zone concept.
Levitt would not disclose the projected investment in the D.C. establishment.
The first ESPN Zone opened last summer in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, where business has been great, Levitt said.
The District location will be second in size only to an ESPN Zone scheduled to open in New York's Times Square later this summer.
Disney's job includes finding a way to keep ESPN Zone customers coming back, an area where other themed restaurants, including Planet Hollywood, are having trouble. Last week, Planet Hollywood's president and chief operating officer, William Baumhauer, resigned abruptly after one year when he was unable to turn the struggling company around.
Barbara Cappaert, a financial analyst with KDP Investment Advisors in Chicago, said there are simply too many "Planet Hollywood-type places."
In the past year, Planet Hollywood International has closed some locations, among them part of its chain of sports-themed Official All-Star Cafes.
But such problems have not disillusioned others hoping to build a presence in the market. NASCAR, the governing body for stock-car racing, recently opened Nascar Cafes in Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida. The National Basketball Association has signed a $90 million deal with Hard Rock Cafe International to license its name and team logos for restaurants to be built over the next two years. The National Football League plans to build at least nine NFLX entertainment complexes next year. The locations will be filled with games and simulators and concentrate less on food and beverage service, said league spokesman Chris Widmaier.
Analysts said sports-themed establishments generally perform better than other themed restaurants and are able to attract repeat customers.
"With sports restaurants, there is always something different going on, like a different game every night being shown. People go to watch the game and socialize," said Ron Paul, president of District-based Technomic Inc., which tracks the restaurant industry.
CAPTION: The planned ESPN Zone, shown in an architect's rendering, will occupy 41,000 square feet at 11th and E streets NW.