Getting in the game with sports-themed attractions

October 30, 2018, 6:02 PM · Some of the most popular entertainment brands in the world are sports teams. With IP being king in theme parks these days, why don't we see more parks developing sports-themed attractions? For the next episode of our "Building The World’s Best Theme Parks" podcast, I asked that question to the experts who have designed two of the leading examples of sports attractions in the world today - the team at JRA.

JRA worked on creative design for Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi and the upcoming Steelers Country land at Kennywood, which will feature the record-setting nine-inversion Steel Curtain roller coaster. Joining me for the conversation are Randy Smith, the project director for Ferrari World, Rick O'Connell, the design director for Steelers Country and Shawn McCoy, the Vice President at JRA.

"Sports can be kind of tricky, especially with individual teams," said O'Connell. "It could be an immediate turn off for some guests. For example if you are a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals, like myself (JRA is located in Cincinnati), or for example, the Mercedes racing team, you might view the Steelers or Ferrari as the enemy and have no interest in visiting.

"But with the success of Ferrari World, and if Steelers Country is as successful as we believe it will be, we think you will start to see more team sports themed attractions pop up, especially regionally."

"I think that sports is a lot about competing with yourself," McCoy said. "So that's how you create attractions without winners and losers, which I know is what Rick is really tapping into in the design of Steelers Country, where we're providing a lot of physical challenges where guests can tr to improve on each visit or each try, which really gamefies the whole experience."

"There will be a small number of visitors who will not come to a sports themed attraction because they dislike a team so much but I think that most fans are a fan of the sport even over, if you will, their team," McCoy said. "For example, as much as I like the Cincinnati Bengals, I like football even more. I'll watch a football game even if it's not the Bengals or even if it's one of our rivals, because I like the game. And I think we will carry that forward for projects like Steelers Country... where it becomes more about the game than just about the brand."

From there, we talked about the differences between developing sports-themed attractions in the United States versus the Middle East and Europe, as well as world-building with a sports theme, and the legal and storytelling challenges of building attractions around real-life athletes.

You can listen to and subscribe to our "Building the World's Best Theme Parks" podcast on its home page, where you also can donate to support the podcast's production, should you choose. (I'd love to upgrade our recording equipment, to bring you even better-sounding podcasts in the future.)

For more on JRA's sports-themed projects, please check out our full coverage of Ferrari World and Steelers Country:

And if you haven't caught it already, don't miss our premiere episode, with Dave Cobb talking about the design and development of Ferrari World's next-door neighbor, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi.

Replies (5)

October 31, 2018 at 5:11 AM

The best realization of sports in a theme park is Cars Land (imho). I couldn't give less about sports or cars but I love the made up world and the excitement of racing an other car in that world.

But sports in any other way is an amusement product on their own that is a spectators thing pur sang. If you actually want to do the sport there is always a way to do it in some way or form. Because of that it's not something I care for in a theme park.

October 31, 2018 at 5:52 AM

You do have to be very careful with sports, especially the Football variety. I love in Glasgow UK, where our top 2 tier teams are separated by more than colours on a shirt, following one over the other is also statement about religion and politics (I’ll not go further on that Robert, don’t worry), and that brings a lot of bad news with it...

I had a manager once who wanted to buy a jersey for a friend as a gift, but had to send someone else to get it because he did not want to be seen in a supporters shop for the wrong team.

I imagine mine is not the only city with a sectarian divide in Europe between its top tier teams.

That said, there is a lot of opportunity here if done right. A small facility dedicated to a team that can handle away day match crowds to watch the game together, but with enough other attractions to keep a reasonable footfall on non game days could work. I’m talking basically an overgrown supporters bar with augmented reality or other physical attractions that somehow relate to the sport and the sciences behind it (Virtual goal shoot challenge, batting cages, Oversized Fusball table, etc) could be a goer.

The other, safer option, is to brand on the league or a sports channel, and I think history shows that’s Not something that really works.

October 31, 2018 at 11:37 AM

The JRA team makes a great point later in the podcast that the big difference between the EPL (English Premier League) and the NFL is that in the UK, some clubs are located within a few miles of each other, where in the US, most NFL franchises have multiple metro areas to themselves. That allows regional attractions in the United States to develop sports-themed attractions with little risk of offending in-market fans of a rival... because so few of them exist.

In London, or Manchester, or Liverpool... no, you can't do that.

October 31, 2018 at 11:43 AM

It’s a result of the promotion/relegation system I suppose. On one hand, it ensures interest in both the top and bottom of the league... on the other hand it can result in a spread of teams that is less than ideal from a league marketing point of view.

October 31, 2018 at 1:54 PM

It's an interesting question, and one that I think may get a true test by a sport of a different kind, e-sports. Universal's development of Nintendo World and other gaming IPs being grabbed at have a similar situation to "athletic" sports (though e-sports stars consider themselves athletes too).

Would a player of LOL or DOTA be turned off walking through a theme park land themed to Pokemon? I don't think so, but I wouldn't be surprised if hard core competitive gamers feign interest in a land themed around a game/IP they don't play.

I think a similar situation exists in the real sports world too. I'm a Ravens fan, so by nature despise the Steelers. However, that's not going to stop me from riding Steel Curtain or enjoying the attractions in Steelers Country. Even in the hyper competitive worlds of soccer and racing, I think there's as much respect and admiration for rivals as there is disdain. If a theme park attraction is well done, and not only represents their rival, but the sport as a whole, opposing fans can still enjoy it together. In other words, if you're a Toffee, you're not going to necessarily lobby for a world-record breaking roller coaster built on top of Anfield, but you're still going to ride it so long as you can do it in an Everton shirt.

The success/failure of these ventures is ultimately going to come down to the nuances within the attraction. You want to represent the team's IP you're using, but also want to present it in such a way that's not grating towards rival fans or those that simply have no rooting interest. Like Ferrari World, you want to portray the greatness of the racing giant, but don't want to pretend that it's the only game in town. Universal has done this so well for years with its subtle digs at Disney, yet Disney fans still get a chuckle out of them.

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