Could a theme park develop a successful sports IP attraction?
July 8, 2017, 1:05 PM ·
Sport offers some of the most powerful and valuable brands in the world, from leagues such as the NFL and the Premier League to franchises such as Manchester United and the Dallas Cowboys. With theme parks showing an apparently insatiable appetite for intellectual property franchises with built-in fan bases to drive their new attractions, one might wonder... why not use sports IP?
More than 73 million people like Manchester United on Facebook. That's nearly four times as many people as who've liked Star Wars on the social media platform. Top sports teams and leagues are bringing enormous fan bases to the table — millions of potential visitors, who could be enticed plan a visit to a park to celebrate their favorite team.
But if franchises could do all the work on their own, Six Flags would be challenging Disney on attendance, with its licenses for the DC Comics and Looney Tunes IP. Theme parks need to deliver a great attraction to a popular franchise's fan base in order to convert them into the park's customers, too. Just slapping a name and a logo on a carnival ride's entrance might draw a few more people than the same ride without the branding, but a park won't reach the top levels of the business without creating an attraction that lives up to the appeal of the IP.
As we said, DC Comics might have immense appeal, but Six Flags' use of it primarily to brand coasters falls short of the IP's potential. (FWIW, Justice League: Battle for Metropolis represents a long-overdue correction.) The flip side holds, as well. Universal created the industry's best stunt show based on the box office flop Waterworld, and many fans who now adore Disney's Pandora weren't exactly huge Avatar fans before the land opened. It's a rare combination to bring together a world-class franchise with a world-class experience. Universal's use of Harry Potter remains the gold standard for developing IP-based theme park attractions, and many fans can't wait to see what Disney does with fully-developed Star Wars and Marvel lands.
Sports, potentially, could join Potter, Star Wars, and Marvel in the rarefied air of world-class IP for theme parks. But do sports lend themselves to theme park attractions the way that these other fictional entertainment-based franchises do?
Sport does not lack emotionally-charged narratives. And it delivers them with amazing visuals that play well to the social experience of being with others in a public space, such as a theme park. Weaker IPs lack that social component. Think of romcoms and intellectual dramas that are best experienced on a couch or a silent theater, alone or with a small group of friends. And parks undersell a franchise's potential when they develop attractions, such as VR and basic movie shows, that could just as well be experienced at home.
How can a park create an experience that brings people closer to their beloved teams and leagues than going to watch a match or game would do already? We've seen theme park designers work to create attractions that complement the game experience, such as the Selig Experience that BRC Imagination Arts developed for the Milwaukee Brewers' Miller Park. But what about a stand-alone sports-themed attraction that plays inside a theme park? What would that look like?
What would be the visitor's role? The Wizarding World of Harry Potter works because it empowers you to transform from Muggle to wizard, from fan to participant. So would a sports attraction turn you from fan to athlete? Maybe something like this?
Nike's Michael Vick Experience commercial inadvertently raises several of the problems inherent in using sports-based IP in a theme park. First, you're using real people instead of fictional characters. As soon as Michael Vick gets busted for being part of dog-fighting operation, your attraction would be toast — as was Nike's PR campaign for the quarterback. Even if Vick never got into any legal or ethical trouble, what would happen if he were traded? Now, you're looking at a potentially expensive redecoration of the attraction and redesign of your marketing for it.
And where would fans' loyalty lie after the deal? Here's the big problem for theme parks that might consider sports-based IP — every game and match involves two teams. And that opposing team has its fans, too. Build a Man U Experience at your park and you might win millions of Red Devils fans. But you can kiss your Man City-loving visitors good-bye. Same with Liverpool and Everton, the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Bears and the Packers, and so on and so on and so on.
The Disney/Universal fan squabble is nothing compared with the generations-long enmity that drives sports fans. If parks try to avoid the issue by theming to leagues and sports rather than individual teams, they lose access to the passion that drives people to develop life-long relationships with their favorite teams. I like the NBA, but I love the Pacers. (And now we pause for a moment while NBA fans reading this shake their heads and mutter, "I'm so sorry, Robert.") Generic approaches don't work. NBA City is now the Toothsome Chocolate Factory. Boardwalk and Baseball is now a strip mall.
How do you create an experience that makes people feel closer to their favorite franchises than they now do as a fan, without requiring actual athletic skill or knowledge? How do you include people who root for opposing franchises? How do you build an emotional, engaging park-unique experience that appeals to people who are not fans without sacrificing the authenticity of experience that devoted fans demand?
And how do you structure the business deal in a way that brings the franchise to the table without making this a money-loser for the park? Major sports franchises, especially in the United States, are used to big paydays. But seeing as how Disney and Universal already work with major sports leagues as broadcast partners, they could have a negotiating advantage that would help them cut a licensing deal that works for the parks, too.
These are tough challenges, but not impossible. Whoever figures this out is going to earn his or her money. But I suspect that someday, some theme park is going to find a way to make sports IP work. And millions of fans — and their money — will follow when it happens.