TV or not TV? That was once the question, but not anymore.
The lines are disappearing between the two-dimensional realm of televisionand the three-dimensional worlds of retailing and entertainment. InWashington, viewers of the Discovery Channel can flick off the TV and explorethe channel's flagship store, which features books, videos and other goodslinked with Discovery's programming. In Atlanta, news junkies can tour theCable News Network studios and headquarters at CNN Center.
But the newest and perhaps most immersive example of this genre is ESPNZone, the sports-themed dining and entertainment "experience" that will openat 11 a.m. Sunday inside the Power Plant at the Inner Harbor, after a galapreview Saturday night.
ESPN Zone was conceived as an extension of the ESPN cable network, aleader in sports programming. Its designers were instructed to create adestination that would be the physical embodiment of what viewers see on ESPN,a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co.
The concept was developed jointly by ESPN and Disney RegionalEntertainment, a Disney affiliate established in 1996 to create entertainmentconcepts for metropolitan and suburban markets in the United States andabroad.
Unlike the nearby Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood, branches ofwell-established chains, Baltimore's ESPN Zone is the first in the world --the prototype for a series of dining and entertainment complexes.
Designing a project such as ESPN Zone is the supreme architecturalchallenge for the infotainment age: to create a three-dimensional expressionfor a medium that most people experience only in two dimensions.
The in-house designers for Disney and ESPN responded by creating asensory-rich, technologically sophisticated, high-energy environment that isequal parts nightclub, amusement arcade, restaurant, broadcast studio andsports shrine. If it were possible to dive into the TV screen and become partof the action on the other side, this is what it would feel like.
For fans of the network, one of the most gratifying features is likely tobe the Zone's distinctive personality. ESPN is known for having commentatorswho are passionate, outspoken and authoritative, and the psyche of the placeis remarkably in sync with the psyche of the organization.
This is not a sterile or generic or even particularly sanitizedenvironment, but one that reflects the wit and irreverence of ESPN and itson-air personalities. ESPN has also gone to great lengths to tailor itsattraction to the Baltimore market, paying homage to local heroes such as
Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr. and Johnny Unitas.
Plenty of roomESPN Zone occupies the lower levels of the northernmost third of thecavernous Power Plant, the early-1900s landmark on Pratt Street that CordishCompany is converting to a $30 million entertainment center. With 35,000square feet on two public levels and a mezzanine, and room for more than 500visitors at a time, it is one of the largest tenants signed up for the formerpower generating station, along with Hard Rock and Barnes & Noble bookstore(scheduled to open later this summer).
To signal its presence within the building, ESPN Zone has attached largesigns near the top and a marquee featuring a moving, Times Square-style sportsticker, satellite dishes and a (literally) flaming logo. The most unusualexterior attachment -- one that's relatively subdued compared with Hard Rock'sneon guitar -- is a monochromatic "sports kebab" made with bronze-coloredballs on a skewer. The kebab is a recurring motif for ESPN Zone, appearing oneverything from jewelry sold in the Zone Stuff souvenir shop to matchingcolumns that frame the entrance.
The interiors were designed by Disney's and ESPN's in-house designers, incollaboration with Dallas designer Charles Daboux. Just inside the entrance isa multi-story atrium that leads to two main spaces on the same level -- adining area called the Studio Grill and a tiered Screening Room, where patronscan watch sports events around the world. On the second level is a10,000-square-foot Sports Arena, a high-tech arcade.
Many tie-insWhile ESPN Zone has some features that will be familiar to patrons ofsports bars and theme restaurants, it's the way they're put together thatgives this operation its distinctive character. Everything from the graphicsto the furnishings has been designed to reinforce connections between theplace and the network.
The restaurant is designed as a TV studio and features replicas of setsfrom three of ESPN's most popular shows: "SportsCenter," " NBA 2Night" and"Baseball Tonight." Patrons may dine at separate tables or sit in the anchorchairs, if they're available. (This is a working studio and will be used fromtime to time for live broadcasts, while diners watch.) Placemats will beprinted daily not only to show dining specials but to update scores and othersports news.
The Screening Room is like a movie theater with restaurant booths insteadof auditorium seats. Set into one curving wall are 13 giant screens programmedto show sports events from around the globe. From their tables, patrons canadjust the audio to follow whichever contest they want. Along the front are 10plush lounge chairs with built-in trays for food service -- the ideal setupfor couch potatoes seeking a home away from home. For big events, such as the
Super Bowl, there will be a cover charge.
The first level of the ESPN Zone also has a VIP room, radio broadcastingbooth for use before and after local games, and "video library" to handleoverflow crowds from the bar or private parties.
The second-level arena, meanwhile, is the most participatory part of theoperation, with dozens of video games. From there, patrons can look down intoa circular command center, from which ESPN staffers select the images thatappear on more than 200 video monitors around the building.
Open space in a boxAlthough most patrons may be too busy to notice, ESPN has made remarkablyefficient use of the Power Plant. The space has been gutted and subdivided sothere seems to be plenty of room, even when hundreds of people are in thebuilding. Rooms are attractive, comfortable and quite varied, and it's easy toget from one area to another. All in all, it's a clever use for what isessentially a windowless box.
Learning a lesson from its theme parks, Disney has made a concerted effortto minimize the amount of time people must wait in line by giving them plentyto do at every turn. If patrons want to dine in the restaurant and it's full,for example, they can go to one of several bars or up to the arena, andthey'll be paged when a table is ready. They can also replay classic sportsmoments on computer touch screens or check scores on electronic sportstickers.
While computer technology is clearly one key to making this operation hum,there are also more than a few low-tech touches designed to amuse andentertain. As part of the interior design, ESPN commissioned several dozenworks of art that convey sports themes appropriate to Baltimore and the PowerPlant.
There's a painting that looks from a distance like Colonial leaderssigning the Declaration of Independence, but it's really Art Donovan, BoogPowell, Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson in powdered wigs.
On a wall near the dining area, hotdog-shaped glass tubes contain soilfrom each of the Major League ballparks. A life-size bust of Vince Lombardilooks like it's made of cheddar cheese. A scale model of Chicago's WrigleyField is made entirely of Wrigley chewing gum wrappers.
Walls in one set of rest rooms are designed to look like lockers of famousathletes ( Gordie Howe, Phil Jackson and Joe Namath in the men's; and VenusWilliams, Mary Lou Retton and Dennis Rodman in the women's).
At the entrance, New York artist Steve Gerberich has created a kineticsculpture about golf titled "Practice, Practice, Practice." It depicts awhimsical stick figure whose arms and legs are made (( of spindles fromwooden furniture, and whose head and torso are made from recycled kettles.He's standing on a putting green made with hundreds of green tees with theirends pointed up, like blades of grass, and he's wearing gloves and shoes and acap all signed by golfing great Arnold Palmer.
"We didn't want to take an Arnold Palmer-signed hat or an ArnoldPalmer-signed flag and just put it in a glass case," said Scott P. Dickey,director of marketing and sales for ESPN Zone. "That wouldn't be ESPN. So wetook it to the next level, not just displaying memorabilia but creating art."
Some of these touches are more effective than others. Together, they helpprovide the multilayered environment that sets ESPN Zone apart from a typicalsports bar. They also help create the sense that this is a place with a voice,an edge, a welcome point of view.
The layers of detail also help make ESPN Zone an environment that is sovisually rich that patrons are likely to discover something different eachtime they come in. And while Baltimore is featured prominently here, it's easyto see the potential for promoting sports figures and subjects in Chicago, NewYork or other markets where ESPN may open a Zone.
The ultimate keepsakeIn one corner of the upstairs Arena, patrons will be able to deliver thenews on a mock "SportsCenter" set. For a fee, staffers will make a video oftheir "broadcast" to take home.
This is just one of the ways ESPN has managed to blur the lines betweenthe TV world and the real one outside the Power Plant.
From here, it's not hard to imagine the shopping mall of the 21st centuryas a three-dimensional television of sorts, with media outlets serving as mallanchors instead of restaurants or department stores. Rather than buying goodsand services, consumers will purchase fun and entertainment.
By all indications, Disney and ESPN are leading the way. They have fit anamazing amount of activity into a relatively tight urban space. ESPN Zone isan ambitious concept that hits the mark on a variety of fronts -- retailing,food service, pop culture, sports.
The test now is whether visitors will really feel as if they have walkedinto a different world and whether they like that world. One might quibblewith any number of details -- from the clarity of certain video screens to theselection of beers on tap. Quality of service and ease of parking will bechief factors in determining how often people come back.
But there's no denying that this high-tech/high-touch approach representsthe wave of the future in retailing and urban entertainment -- a step abovethe theme environments that aren't nearly so participatory. Starting Sunday,it will be open for all to see. And Baltimore, for once, will have a front-rowseat.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times