Rob Ridley takes a look at why the proposed Xero Gravity Action Sports and Entertainment Complex in Florida is set to become an action sports mega-hub unrivalled anywhere else in the world.
Picture the scene: action sports icon Shaun White faces off against surfing ace Filipe Toledo and skateboarding superstar Nyjah Huston in a series of challenges, all under one roof.
That is the kind of potential being offered by a first-of-its-kind project that aims to create a Mecca for action sports that gives fans a theme park experience.
Scheduled to break ground in the first quarter of 2016 – with a targeted opening in the first half of 2018 – the Xero Gravity Action Sports and Entertainment Complex is set across a 75-acre site in Orlando, Florida.
Xero Gravity chief executive Larry Walshaw says Orlando was chosen for the maiden venture due to the city’s reputation as a tourism and sports hub, with the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex located just four miles away.
“Our main focus for this project is to provide action sports and amateur sports activities for and to the masses. Whether it’s professionals or amateurs, we want to give them somewhere, all under one roof, to play, compete and watch various action sports,” Walshaw told SportBusiness International.
“Right now there are lots of different sporting activities that people do, but they are all catered for by separate facilities. This is kind of like Disney World for active people.”
This is kind of like Disney World for active people
The centrepiece of the $309-million project will be a 140-foot tall ‘Snow Mountain’ using Snowflex technology across 150,000-square-feet of land. Other offerings will include five acres of real surfing with up to 10-foot waves; a 25,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor skateboard park; a USA BMX-sanctioned race track; two skydiving pods; a 20,000-square-foot indoor dodgeball trampoline arena; and rock climbing to up to 140 feet.
“What really sets us apart is our 14-storey ski hill, developed by Snowflex, whose products Olympians use for training purposes,” says Walshaw. “Along with this iconic feature, the real surf park will feature waves of eight to 10 feet. Surfing is aiming to be in the Olympics and the way to do that is to have a consistent wave that everyone can train and compete on.
“We want to be the place where athletes come and train, and we’re looking to hold national and international competitions at all of these facilities.”
In addition to the sporting facilities, Xero Gravity is expected to have a 250-room Hyatt hotel, a 2,500-seat amphitheatre for music events, swim-up bars and grottos, swimming pools, cabanas and a day spa. An International Action Sports Hall of Fame is also planned, along with a sports medical clinic and a dedicated training facility for the sports featured at the complex.
“The thing about putting all of these venues together under one roof is that it significantly reduces the cost for the patron,” adds Walshaw”. If you want to go to a skydiving pod, for an hour or so you’re going to pay over $100. The reason you have to pay that is because there’s not enough throughput.
“With our facility you can get in for as little as $38 for the day. Then it goes up to $68, $98 and $145, depending on what you want to do.”
With property having been secured and the county’s blessing received, Xero Gravity is currently engaged with the capital market in a bid to raise equity for the project.
Walshaw says he is in talks with a number of “private equity entities and wealthy individuals…but when you’re the first one out of the box, there’s a difficulty in seeing what a project can be”.
“Those that are on board with us are the ones that have vision, who see that the trends in action sports and amateur sports are continuing to increase and the market demand is here now,” he adds. “So the hardest thing for us has been educating people – and those with the financial resources to partner with us – so we can move forward.
“We’re projecting cash-on-cash returns of 44 per cent on this project. In just the first stabilised year, we’re looking at over $50 million EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortisation).”
Walshaw and his team are fully convinced they have a winning business model and, looking to the future, have a stated a goal of five additional parks globally.
“We’ve had discussions in the United Arab Emirates, China and France with regards to taking this product global. We think global expansion is going to be here sooner rather than later, based on the worldwide market trend and the response from the market,” he adds.
“We have built a strong team from across the hospitality, marketing and sports industries. From our perspective, we can go anywhere with this product, but for right now it’s Orlando.
“In terms of the long-term future, frankly, we’ll probably have someone make a ridiculous offer to buy us. Through our projections in just five years the company is going to be worth $800 million.”
Centre of the Action
Xero Gravity is seeking to create sports programming to sell to the media market. It also plans to align itself with various outlets locally, regionally, nationally and internationally by putting on events in various action sports categories.
Walshaw says initial negotiations have been held with the likes of ESPN’s X Games and NBC’s Dew Tour – along with the events arms of drinks giants Red Bull and Monster Energy – about bringing their events to the complex.
“We’ve had a positive response, but the biggest reaction is that we can’t wait until you build it,” he adds. “That’s the thing. We have to build it and show the world it can be done.”
Xero Gravity is also working with the Central Florida Sports Commission to attract events, along with the IMG agency, whose remit will be operating competitions, as well as handling athletes and sponsors. On the latter, Walshaw says early talks have already been held with several major multinational companies.
Competitions will also be held on a daily and weekly basis at selected venues across a range of skill levels, which Walshaw says will tie in with America’s competitive culture of “liking to see winners and rooting for the champion”.
“We can hold major events at our park because the venues will be of a world-class size. And as it’s such a large facility, we’ll have enough people in the park to view these events,” he adds.
“That means we’ll be able to go after and bid for various action sports properties, as well as create our own, which is the really exciting part about this.
“We’ll have some made-for-TV sporting events. For example, imagine if Shaun White could go up against a number of other athletes in surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding. We have the facilities to do that at the park.
“Who would be the best across these three events? This hasn’t been done before because there hasn’t been a facility that could offer it.”