Disney’s 300,000-Square-Foot Bet On Sports
On Jan. 12 ,Walt Disney World Resort opened the doors to the latest development at its resort complex near Orlando, Florida. It’s not a new theme park, show or ride but it’s just as crucial to getting guests through the turnstiles.
Mentioning Walt Disney World conjures up images of Cinderella castle, waves of wide-eyed little kids and roller coasters. Sport doesn’t usually spring to mind but it should.
Alongside Walt Disney World’s four theme parks, two water parks and more than 26 hotels is one of the world’s biggest and most innovative sports facilities. It bears the name of ESPN, the sports broadcasting behemoth owned by the Hearst Corporation and Disney, which holds an 80% stake in it.
The ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex spans 220 acres and has facilities that have hosted over 70 types of sports. There’s a 9,500-seat ballpark, 16 softball fields, 18 multi-purpose outdoor fields, a track and field complex, 10 tennis courts and three indoor arenas. It has a unique business model which has stood the test of time as the complex turns 21 this year.
The revenue of the complex comes from event registration, gate sales, merchandise, food and beverage and event and facility sponsorship but that’s just the start. The facilities at the Wide World of Sports are all aimed at youth events and there is good reason for this. As the athletes are young they inevitably come with their family members who watch them. That brings business to Disney’s on-site hotels and its parks as the competitors and their families tend to visit them once the events are over. It has had a magic touch.
The Wide World of Sports hosts more than 100 events annually with highlights in recent years including the NFL Pro Bowl Week and the Invictus Games. The events attract more than 150,000 athletes, coaches and fans throughout the year and research shows that the majority of them would not have visited the parks if it were not for the sports complex. It hasn’t just enchanted a male audience and, testimony to this, one of the biggest events held there is the Universal Cheerleaders Association National High School Cheerleading Championship.
Run by cheerleading giant Varsity Brands, it is the most prestigious event of its kind. It attracts more than 700 teams from 33 states and is the only national championship endorsed by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Indeed, Varsity’s seven major events at the Wide World of Sports are so successful that they were among the driving forces behind Disney’s new star attraction.
Despite its scale, the Wide World of Sports is still expanding and just over two weeks ago threw the doors open to an 8,000-seat 300,000 square foot multi-purpose indoor arena which is four times bigger than the current flagship there. It is one of the world’s largest venues designed specifically for hosting cheer and dance team events and is much more than just four walls and a roof.
“The configuration is very interesting,” says Faron Kelley, Vice President of Sports at Walt Disney World Resort. “We worked with our stakeholders at Varsity to design a building that would be uniquely equipped to handle the needs of their events. So there are two large adjacent buildings that they use as warm-up spaces. Each of those can actually accommodate six cheerleading groups warming up. The building itself is designed so it can be divided into four quadrants so we can have four competitions happening simultaneously then change the configuration to do finals where we have just one large space with 8,000 seats in the round.” It was born out of necessity.
Every year tens of thousands of athletes and spectators visit Walt Disney World as a result of the Wide World of Sports hosting more than seven cheer and dance team events through its collaboration with Varsity Brands and youth football organization Pop Warner. Kelley says that the Varsity national championship events alone had become so popular that none of the existing venues could host them all. Until now.
“The impetus for the new building was the cheerleading business that we have. It has grown so large that we had to erect large football field-sized tents to accommodate the event.” This stood in stark contrast to the rest of the Wide World of Sports.
The complex shares the quality standards that Disney is famous for. It was designed by the same wizards who build its cutting-edge theme park rides and it doesn’t take much time to see that this is no Mickey Mouse facility. Its tall terracotta towers, porticoes and palm tree-lined pathways resemble those found in Mediterranean towns and give visitors a regal sense of arrival.
There are no cracked tiles on the walls or flickering lights. It is spotlessly-clean and instead of having a purely functional design it’s crammed with details. Up close it can be seen that the wrought-iron railings there form the shapes of baseball bats and inside the ballpark clubhouse even the light fixtures resemble ballplayers. The new arena has a similar sparkle.
“Guests are coming here for a world championship event but because of the sheer numbers we have had them in temporary facilities for a few years. With the new arena we will be able to provide an even higher level of Disney guest service for this experience,” says Kelley. “Guest satisfaction is hugely important.”
The new arena should get competitors in the mood before they even set foot on the property. It sits right at the entrance and above its doorway is a huge sweeping arch which looks like it has come from a Roman amphitheatre.
Some of the athletes who will use it are used to the very best. In recent years, the Wide World of Sports has hosted practice events for teams in the three primary professional sports leagues including the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball team which holds its spring training there in March. It makes the complex even more special for young athletes as it gives them an opportunity to train on the same ground as their heroes.
When the complex was only in the planning stages the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was so convinced by its potential that it relocated its headquarters to Disney World and committed to staging more than 50 national events there annually. The AAU hosts 26 national basketball events there every year as well as others in volleyball, baseball, track and field and wrestling. It makes the venue a honey-pot for talent.
The top college coaches and college scouts from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) come to the AAU national championships to recruit the best high school talent before each season begins. The Wide World of Sports is even home to the NBA’s new Jr NBA World Championships, a first-of-its-kind global youth basketball tournament for elite boys and girls from around the world aged 14 and under. It is because of this ethos that many famous sporting names, such as former Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt and ex-NBA star Yao Ming, began their careers competing there in youth events.
The list of stars and athletes who have trained or visited the Wide World of Sports reads like a roll call of champions including Lionel Messi, Kaka, Serena and Venus Williams, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Mia Hamm, Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan. They are some of the most discerning stars in sport which is why the facilities are of such a high standard.
The complex is covered with nearly 105 acres of Bermuda sports turf but this isn’t any old grass. With daily downpours common in Orlando’s clammy climate, the turf has a 1% slope to enhance drainage systems which can remove 2 to 3 inches of rainfall per hour. The venue even has two data tracking weather stations to provide up-to-the-minute information about meteorological activity which could affect play.
Inside the three arenas it is similarly state-of-the-art. The sports flooring in the HP Fieldhouse arena is made from two types of imported environmentally protected hardwood incorporating a shock absorption system and the venue is cooled by two of the largest air conditioning units in Walt Disney World. Kelley says the same level of thought went into the new arena.
“What’s interesting about the new facility compared to the other two is that they both have permanent hardwood floors for basketball, volleyball and that type of thing so we are not able to put ice on top. Here we have a concrete floor so should we decide to get into ice sports we have the possibility to do that.”
Ice hockey is one of the few sports which doesn’t currently have a home at the Wide World of Sports but that’s not the only reason why the new arena is on track to become its new MVP. It is also big enough to host more than six regulation basketball courts, six regulation volleyball courts or concerts with space for spectators in the central court as well as the seats.
“It is exciting because it isn’t just cheer, it’s basketball, it’s volleyball and e-sports. We are absolutely looking at e-sports and it’s a wonderful venue for that,” says Kelley.
Indeed, in addition to having the services of the Wide World of Sports at its disposal, the arena is kitted out with multi-purpose facilities. There’s an attached box office, built-in loges and judges’ boxes with seating for approximately 70 people, seven concession stands and 35 concession points of sale which will offer specialities such as hazelnut churros and Greek Dogs.
Kelley says the success of the new arena will be judged on the events held there. It doesn’t just allow the Wide World of Sports to host more events but also larger ones which weren’t previously possible. “When we say we can offer more than 18 basketball courts or volleyball courts on a single site location, event partners are like ‘there aren’t very many places in the world that can do that.’ So it’s that volume play matched with the quality play. That is the real differentiator for us.”
Its appeal stretches far outside Florida. “The three biggest sports from an international standpoint are cheer, soccer and baseball,” says Kelley. “That’s where we see our biggest international draw. We have an international soccer tournament and an international baseball tournament. Both of those draw from 20 to 30 different countries. Cheer can draw from up to 40 different countries. There are cheer tournaments where we have teams coming from Asia and all across the world.”
Disney welcomes the competitors and their families with open arms and even creates bespoke packages for them. For example, they can get special packages at a discounted group rate which helps to make it more affordable for athletes, coaches and families to come to Disney World.
It has given Disney a slice of the sports tourism market which is one of the fastest-growing sectors in travel. Estimated visitor spending associated with sports events in the United States came to $10.5 billion in 2016 according to the latest ‘Sport Tourism: A State of the Industry Report’ by trade body the National Association of Sports Commissions. It revealed that total spending on sports tourism accelerated by 10% on the previous year and by a staggering 26.1% between 2012 and 2016.
The Wide World of Sports hosts events throughout the year but it maximises the impact by cleverly timing some them to coincide with the slower times of the year.
For instance, in November and December there’s the Disney Soccer Showcase which is the biggest youth soccer tournament in the US featuring more than 500 teams from over 20 countries. Then, between January and November, Walt Disney World hosts four endurance events which are known as runDisney race weekends. Their official titles are the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend presented by Cigna, the Star Wars Half Marathon – The Dark Side, the Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend presented by Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon Weekend presented by MISFIT.
These events don’t just attract a crowd which wouldn’t otherwise visit the parks, they boost attendance when it would usually be quieter and that really is a happy ending.