Disney is said to be closing most of its ESPN Zone restaurants
The sports-themed restaurants operate in seven cities, including L.A. and Las Vegas. The Anaheim outlet is expected to remain open.

By Dawn C. Chmielewski, Los Angeles Times
June 9, 2010

Walt Disney Co. is shutting down most of its ESPN Zone stores, a chain of sports-themed restaurants in seven cities, according to a person familiar with the matter. The only outlets to remain open are those tied to a Disney property, such as the Downtown Disney shopping district in Anaheim.

ESPN Zone opened in 1998 to capitalize on ESPN's brand, while bringing Disney's family-friendly atmosphere to the sports bar concept. The upscale eateries serve burgers and brews as walls of big-screen TVs beam baseball and other sporting events into the dining area. Separate gaming rooms, dubbed "Sports Arenas," provide access to interactive games, such as virtual golf and boxing.

It's unclear what has prompted Disney to close the establishments, although the bars may well be a casualty of the recession. A poll released in March by AlixPartners found that 30% of consumers planned to eat out less frequently, and spend less per meal than they did the year before.

In addition, some of the ESPN Zone restaurants are in high-priced real estate areas, such as Times Square in New York.

"Since their inception, the Zones have served sports fans very well," said an ESPN spokesman, who declined to comment further. "But from a pure business perspective, the economics have been challenging."

Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for research firm NPD Group, said the restaurant business was undergoing its biggest decline in three decades.

"This year was horrible," Balzer said. "A restaurant meal is a very discretionary behavior. You could always eat at home and save money doing it. And going out for dinner is the most expensive food you could buy."

Balzer said casual-dining restaurants like ESPN Zone have been among the hardest hit, as consumers gravitate to less expensive chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill or Panera Bread, which offer sit-down dining at fast-food prices. ESPN may also have suffered from the problem that afflicted Planet Hollywood, which closed several restaurants — the novelty simply wore off, he said.

In addition to Anaheim, Disney operates ESPN Zone restaurants in Baltimore, Chicago, Las Vegas, New York and Washington. The company also licenses the ESPN Zone brand to a restaurant at the L.A. Live shopping and entertainment complex in downtown Los Angeles. It's unclear whether that location will remain open. Disney closed the Atlanta and Denver locations last year.