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Disney to transform Wide World of Sports to pair it with ESPN
ESPN Wide World of SportsWalt Disney World is about to transform its Wide World of Sports athletic complex to link it with ESPN, the Walt Disney Co.’s cable-sports juggernaut.

In a multimillion-dollar rebranding effort, Disney is outfitting the 220-acre venue with dozens of high-definition video cameras and display screens, two jumbotrons, an audio system, and a broadcasting center with a satellite uplink to ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn.

The goal, said Ken Potrock, senior vice president for Disney Sports Enterprises, is to make the 250,000 or so athletes who compete at the facility each year — the vast majority of whom are amateur competitors — “feel like, ‘We’ve made it to the big time. We’ve made it on ESPN.’ “

Disney World hopes the association with ESPN — one of the best-known sports brands on the planet — will help it lure larger and more varied athletic events to Wide World of Sports, which the resort opened in 1997 as a way to drive new traffic to its theme parks and hotels. Disney says it annually draws nearly 2 million athletes, coaches, family members and spectators to its sports facilities, including Wide World of Sports and five golf courses.

“It’s really an exciting marriage,” Potrock said.

Disney unveiled details of the changes Thursday. The redesigned and renamed “ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex” will debut Feb. 25.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the pairing is that it didn’t happen sooner. ESPN is among the most profitable businesses in the Disney Co., which has a long history of cross-pollination between its broadcast and movie studios and its theme parks.

But while Disney has had some success with the annual “ESPN the Weekend” in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, ESPN’s presence at Wide World of Sports has been largely limited to televising a handful of high-profile events, such as a college basketball tournament and spring-training baseball.

Potrock called the limited crossover up to this point “a miss.” “Part of being good business people is recognizing what you do well, but also what you can improve,” he said.

ESPN’s absence is about to end. Once the rebranding is complete, the broadcaster’s sleek, red-lettered logo will be splashed throughout Wide World of Sports’ venues — including the massive roadway sign at the entrance to the facility.

But the overhaul will include much more than new signs. Disney says it is also installing 42 high-definition video cameras at its different venues, another 10 handheld cameras, and 20 high-definition video screens — including jumbotrons above a welcome center and in the 11,500-person Champion baseball stadium. It is also adding a complex-wide audio system.

ESPN Wide World of SportsTo tie it all together, Disney is building a 2,500-square-foot, state-of-the-art broadcast center with eight edit bays where technicians will able to produce professional-grade highlight packages and event recaps that will be played on screens throughout the venue. With the uplink to Bristol, Disney says it will even be able to use some of ESPN’s popular on-air commentators to introduce highlight reels.

Disney will also add in each of its nearly 30,000 hotel rooms a cable-TV channel devoted to events at Wide World of Sports. And the former “All Star Cafe” restaurant in the complex will be transformed into a themed eatery called the “ESPN Wide World of Sports Grill,” which will feature even more high-definition screens airing highlights from games and events.

Disney declined to say how much it is spending on the overhaul. “It’s millions and millions of dollars,” Potrock said.

Bill Sutton, a professor in the University of Central Florida’s DeVos Sports Business Management graduate program, said ESPN’s high-profile presence will provide a substantial boost for Wide World of Sports as it competes for both professional and amateur events.

“I think it ups the perception of the quality of the sports package at Disney. …The perception is that sports at Disney is something different — adding the ESPN brand is going to legitimize it,” Sutton said.

But Sutton said using the ESPN brand means Disney will now have to meet higher expectations from athletes and sports fans. “It will definitely ratchet everybody up,” he said.

For ESPN, developing a bigger presence at Disney World is part of a broader effort to reach out to younger athletes and sports fans — all potential future viewers. It dovetails with ESPN Rise, a Web site and magazine covering high-school sports.

Wide World of Sports is “a great opportunity for us to reach hundreds of thousands of youth athletes,” said Chris Brush, ESPN’s vice president of marketing. “It’s part of a much bigger youth strategy for us.”

The near-constant and varied stream of events Wide World of Sports — Disney says it annually hosts more than 200 events in nearly 60 different sports — also serves as something of a petri dish for ESPN to test new on-air technologies, such as a “ball track” system used to follow the flight of balls in home-run derbies. ESPN has moved a handful of employees in its emerging-technology group to work in a newly built “Innovation Lab” at the Disney complex.

Combining Wide World of Sports and ESPN hasn’t been without challenges. Obstacles have ranged from ensuring all of the outdoor television monitors don’t reflect the glare of the Florida sun to blending the retro appearance of the complex’s sporting venues with ESPN’s ultra-modern, tech-heavy look.

Adopting ESPN’s highlight- and personality-driven culture could be somewhat risky for Disney World, where being on the wrong side of a big play — one that is then broadcast on dozens of high-definition TVs — could sour some families’ visits to the happiest place on earth. For every batter that hits a home run, after all, there is a pitcher who gave it up.

Disney also does not want to abandon the Wide World of Sports name entirely in favor of ESPN. Although the ABC program for which it was named is no longer a powerful icon in sports, Disney says the Wide World of Sports facility has developed its own brand identity that it does not want to lose.

Lucy Clark

Marketing Director and Photographer for Realtors, Jane and Alan LaFrance

'Mickey Homes - Central Florida Real Estate Agents - Your source for Homes for sale near Disney World'

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Posted: Thursday, December 3, 2009 9:55 AM by Mickey Homes


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