Disney to close Chicago’s ESPN Zone sports bar

Posted June 8, 2010 at 6:42 p.m.

By Dawn C. Chmielewski | The Walt Disney Co. is shutting down most of its ESPN Zone stores, a chain of sports-themed restaurants located in seven cities, including Chicago, 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.

The ESPN Zone sports bars opened in 1998 to capitalize on ESPN’s brand, while bringing Disney’s clean, family-friendly sensibilities to the sports bar concept. The upscale joints served burgers and brews as walls of big-screen TVs beamed baseball and other sporting events into the dining area. Separate gaming rooms, dubbed “Sports Arenas,” provided access to interactive games, such as virtual golf and boxing. It would not be uncommon to see children and adults shooting free throws side by side in the Zone.

It’s unclear what 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 percent 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 were located 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 further comment. “But from a pure business perspective, the economics have been challenging.”

Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for researcher the NPD Group, said the restaurant business is 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 the ESPN Zone have been among the hardest hit, as consumers gravitate to less expensive chains such as Chipotle or Panera Bread, which offer sit-down dining at fast-food prices. ESPN may also have suffered from the problem that afflicted Planet Hollywood — the novelty simply wore off, he said.

“We love the newness of something,” Balzer said. “ESPN had something new. But after a while, there was nothing new. We were here with Planet Hollywood. How many times can you see Marilyn Monroe’s dress?”

In addition to Anaheim, Disney operates ESPN Zones in Baltimore, Chicago, Las Vegas, New York City and Washington. The company licenses the ESPN Zone to a restaurant at L.A. Live. Disney closed the Atlanta and Denver locations last year.

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  1. John Q Public June 8, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    I quit all Disney related enterprises when they upped the admission price and lowered the age for kids at the theme parks.
    I have no use for that outfit.

  2. joeb June 8, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    Good riddance to this tacky tourist trap. The food, service and just about everything else at this place were awful and with typical Disney prices to boot. This dump will not be missed.

  3. Scott June 8, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    Means more people out of work at the restaurants but I’m sure more in the corporate sector of Disney and ESPN will lose their jobs too. As far as the one here in Chicago, we went for my son’s birthday the waiter said they could put his name on the TV’S announcing his birthday. We said great. Well this misspelled his name not only once but twice. I new then it wasn’t going to last. Reminds of the commercial for your favorite team, you know “Wear what the pros wear” I told my kids when I make what the pros make then you can wear it.

  4. Jim in Chicago June 8, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    I’m trying to think back to what previously was in the ESPN Zone’s Chicago location. I believe it was a Disney attraction that somehow tied together Mickey Mouse and something futuristic.

  5. KJ June 8, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    Disney should stick to businesses that market to children, not adults. I have a feeling a different corporate parent could have made the difference.

  6. Chicago#1 June 8, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    Disney Quest now ESPN ZONE! Give it up Disney. Lets hope we get something decent in there.

  7. ME June 8, 2010 at 9:03 pm


  8. olar flemball June 8, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Yawn……One less place for boorish drunken sports fans to act like idiots
    and I should know I’m a boorish drunk!!

  9. mnjoe June 8, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    Scott – I don’t think you should begrudge anyone for their spelling.

  10. Scott B June 9, 2010 at 12:29 a.m.

    Disney Quest and ESPN were two seperate locations. You also had Jeckyl and Hyde’s over that way (I think in-between the two).