IT’S NO SECRET that Walt Disney World in Florida is popular. According to the Themed Entertainment Association and research firm AECOM, it had an estimated attendance of 58.4 million last year, crowning it as the world’s most visited theme-park complex. It takes more than the wave of a magic wand to draw so many people through its turnstiles in the current economic climate, but Disney has an unlikely trick up its sleeve: sport.
The scale of Disney World is mind-boggling. It occupies a roughly 40 square-mile plot of land which is around the size of San Francisco and is packed with four theme parks, two water parks, 36 hotels (26 owned by Disney), more than 300 rounds of the PGA Tour Championship. It is also home to the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, which may not be as well-known as its neighbours, but is equally fundamental to Disney’s business model.
ESPN is a behemoth of sports broadcasting. It operates eight 24-hour television sports networks in the United States and broadcasts in a further 60 countries around the world. Disney owns 80% of the broadcaster, with the remainder held by media company Hearst. However, the Wide World of Sports isn’t just an opportunity for brand exposure and it’s no theme park.
On striding through the giant gates at its entrance, it soon becomes apparent that this is not a Mickey Mouse complex. Its tall terracotta towers and sweeping archways resemble those found in Mediterranean towns and give visitors a regal sense of arrival.
There are no cigarette butts on the floor or empty beer bottles standing by the walls – as are common in some sports centres. It’s spotlessly clean and instead of having a purely functional design, it’s crammed with details. Up close it can be seen that its wrought-iron railings form the shapes of baseball bats and inside the ballpark clubhouse even the light fixtures resemble ballplayers. It sets the scene.
Attention to detail
The same attention to detail is found throughout the complex, which is no mean feat given its sprawling 220 acres, and everything from a 9,500- seat baseball park to an indoor arena big enough to accommodate 12 volleyball courts. The intricate touches give the game away about its heritage.
The complex swung open its doors in 1997 and is run by Disney World’s sports division. With initial construction costs of around $120m, it is Disney’s single biggest sports investment after its stake in ESPN itself. The facility’s revenue streams come from event registration, gate sales, merchandise, food, beverage, and event and facility sponsorship.
It was designed by the same wizards who built Disney’s cutting-edge theme-park rides, but cuddly characters aren’t as ubiquitous there as they are in the parks. An even bigger surprise comes when the games begin.
What makes the Wide World of Sports truly unique is that the vast majority of the events staged there are youth and amateur-oriented. Crucial to this strategy has been the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the largest amateur sports organisation in the US.
The AAU announced its support of the Wide World of Sports several years before the complex opened and even relocated its headquarters to Disney World. It committed to staging more than 35 national events annually at the venue and it hosts 26 national basketball events alone there each year, as well as others in baseball, gymnastics, fast-pitch softball, track and field, and wrestling. It makes the venue a honeypot for talent.
The top college coaches and college scouts from America’s National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) come to the AAU National Championships to recruit the best high-school talent before each season begins and the same is true with other sports. The events held at the Wide World of Sports range from high-school spring training and the Cheerleading World Championships to the Disney Soccer Showcase, which is the biggest youth football tournament in the US, featuring more than 500 teams from over 20 countries. In May it was even home to the Invictus Games, the multi-sport event founded by Prince Harry for wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel.
Getting these extra guests to Disney World was one of the key reasons for the creation of the Wide World of Sports, according to Disney officials. They say that research shows that the majority of the 150,000-plus athletes, coaches and fans who come to the Wide World of Sports annually would not have come to Disney World if it were not for the sports complex.
The competitors tend to visit the nearby theme parks in between matches in a tournament or after the games have finished, so it is good synergy for Disney’s business. As the athletes tend to be young, they inevitably come with their family members, which brings even more business Disney’s way. It welcomes them with open arms and even creates bespoke packages for competitors, so, for example, they can get discounted park tickets valid after 2pm, which is useful if they have been training in the morning. It’s not the only draw.
The Wide World of Sports has a prestigious patronage and the list of young athletes who competed there and went on to reach the top of their game reads like a roll-call of sports stars. They include former Wimbledon champions Lleyton Hewitt, Pete Sampras and Serena Williams, NBA stars OJ Mayo and Shane Larkin, and American soccer sensation Freddy Adu, who played in the Soccer Showcase when he was just 12 years old. However, aspiring to these lofty heights is only one of the hooks which lures kids to the complex.
It's a big deal for kids to play on the same hallowed turf as their idols, but that's just the start
The Wide World of Sports has hosted practice events for teams in the three primary American professional sports leagues and in February every year the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball team holds its spring training there. The list of stars and athletes who have trained or visited the complex reads like a roll call of champions, including Lionel Messi, Kaká, Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Kevin Durant, Tim Tebow, Andre Agassi and Justin Gatlin.
It’s a big deal for kids to play on the same hallowed turf as their idols, but that’s just the start. The ESPN brand is displayed on digital boards and Jumbotron screens around the facility, which show clips of the matches there. Competitors can even end up on television outside the complex, as the action is streamed to both the ESPN3 website and a dedicated channel which is available in more than 27,000 Disney hotel rooms nearby. This alone is believed to reach at least 10m people annually.
The feed is put together by a team of around 40 staff in a 2,500 square-feet broadcast centre onsite and they are aided by a wealth of high tech wonders. Littered around the complex are 42 robotic HD-quality cameras, which can be remotely controlled from the broadcast centre. This eliminates the need for multiple camera operators at each event, which makes it cost efficient to produce shows there.
ESPN has made the most of this by building a new broadcast studio, which incorporates a replica of the table ESPN’s anchors sit behind when presenting their SportsCenter show. Analysis of the events at the Wide World of Sports is done there and spliced with footage of the games. The video packages can then be sent to competitors, so that they spread the word about being featured on ESPN.
With more than 100 events staged annually at the Wide World of Sports, they don’t just take place when Disney World is busy, but are also cleverly timed to coincide with the slowest times of the year. In December there’s the Soccer Showcase, while in January and November Disney World hosts on-site marathons.
The company’s race organising division is known as runDisney and the magic touch to its marathons is that they wind through its theme parks.
To avoid disruption to guests, the races tend to take place before the parks open or after they have closed, so runners have them all to themselves. Disney’s first foray in this field was in 1994 with the launch of the Walt Disney World Marathon, which is now presented by health services organisation Cigna. Since 1994 Disney has expanded to hosting races through its Disneyland resort in California and in September the first one will take place at Disneyland Paris.
Each race has a different course, different pre and post-race entertainment, and usually a name based on blockbuster Disney franchises. There’s the Princess Half Marathon Weekend at Disney World, the Star Wars Half Marathon at Disneyland and a second one at Disney World. The light hearted names are a nod to another crucial difference which separates runDisney races from their rivals, as there is no required qualifying time for them.
Jul 30, 2016 at 8:33am PDT
The average runner is aged between 25 and 54 years old, and about 70% are women, according to Disney Sports. Indeed, the Princess Half Marathon is considered to be the second largest female-focused race weekend in the United States, with approximately 40,000 participants.
In 2014 approximately 209,000 runners signed up for Disney races, with another 251,000 spectators joining them. They pack a powerful punch.
Recent research has shown that the Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend drives approximately $20m to $30m in additional economic activity locally, attracting thousands of out-of-area runners to Southern California. Likewise, the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend in January is believed to be one of the largest race weekends in the country, with more than 50,000 runners and the same number of spectators.
It attracts runners from 65 countries, which translates to a lot of hotel stays. The more guests Disney gets, the higher the attendance is likely to be in its parks. In turn, that is likely to increase the sales of high-margin food and beverages, which boost Disney’s profits
In contrast, the runDisney races themselves come with significant costs, as it takes more than the wave of a magic wand to pull them off. On average, around 2,000 workers alone are required for each race to go ahead. Each runner gets complimentary transportation to and from a Disney hotel, a commemorative race shirt, a virtual gift bag, a personalised race bib, on-course refreshments, live tracking for friends and family, and a one-of-a-kind finishers’ medal.
At around $185 per runner, Disney’s half-marathon registration fees are comparable to other major half-marathon weekends in the US and have helped to drive annual revenue at the Wide World of Sports to a couple of hundred million dollars. Its ability to push more guests into the theme parks is worth even more. This is because the higher the parks’ profits, the more money Disney has at its disposal to invest in the Wide World of Sports and that gives it more potential to push guests into the parks. Now that really is a happy ending.