Why physical connection matters in an ever-more digital world

January 10, 2019, 1:36 PM · English soccer club Manchester United this week announced that it has struck a deal with Chinese developer Harves to open a series of club-themed "entertainment and experience" centers throughout China.

It's an interesting development for theme park fans because it provides another example of the trend toward the use of more sports-based themes in attractions, as developers search for new intellectual properties to distinguish their attractions in an ever-crowding entertainment market. But what I found especially interesting in this announcement was its recognition of the appeal of place-based entertainment.

Theme parks and experience centers compete with museums, sports, movie theaters, outdoor recreation, streaming services, video games, the Internet, restaurants, and shopping malls for potential customers' time and money. Our options for entertainment seem limitless these days, especially with the Internet bringing us countless new voices — and distractions — from around the world.

But we are not avatars. Human beings retain a desire for physical connection with one another. While it's wonderful to connect with new friends from around the world online (and I thank you for being part of this Theme Park Insider community!), at some point, many of us still long for the tangible experience of visiting a special place and sharing that moment with others who long for the same.

"So much about supporting Manchester United is that togetherness — the togetherness of the fans, the togetherness of the team — and having a location where everyone goes is really important," Richard Arnold, Manchester United's Group Managing Director, said.

Obviously, Old Trafford in Manchester provides the original focal point for the club's fans, but those who can't make it to the stadium traditionally have gathered in pubs and bars in their local communities, where they can watch matches with fellow fans. Creating experience centers allows the club to extend its appeal to families and provides them the opportunity to do much more than just watch a match... or kvetch on a message board.

Neither the club nor Harves revealed much about exactly what attractions and "state-of-the-art" technology that fans in China will experience in their centers, but theme parks have established a compelling formula for out-of-home entertainment that engages, informs, inspires, and excites. Museums and brand centers have applied that formula successfully in facilities all over the world. (See our posts about the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Illinois, The Henry Ford in Michigan, and the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin for examples.)

Ultimately, sport is a physical activity, so an attraction that engages people to work and play together can help bond visitors to each other — and to the center's brand — in ways that passively watching matches or reading stories never will. (Legoland's Fun Town Fire Academy provides my favorite example of how a themed attraction can actively bring people together.)

So the concept is not just sound, but vital. It all comes down to the execution of that concept, though. Harves will open the first three ManU experience centers in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenyang by the end of 2020, with the Beijing center going into the Beijing FUN development in Qianmen Dashilan, next to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Replies (2)

January 11, 2019 at 9:09 AM

I don't see this as that big of a deal. Big time soccer powers see growth opportunities in China with summer tours and in-season training camps being held throughout the country. A lot of older, near retirement players are getting big $$$ to play their last seasons in Chinese pro leagues in lieu of going to MLS or bowing out gracefully, so the interest and money are there. However, I think a lot of this effort is merely lip service to make $$$, not provide an integrated theme park-like experience. There is a least-common denominator aspect to this move that will result in just enough to get interested fans in the door to open their wallets, but keep club spending on the projects to a minimum to prevent risk. Don't forget that ManU is a publicly traded company, and just like any other business, they're looking for growth opportunities without taking risk. If this were being done by a club like ManCity, owned by a Middle Eastern billionaire, then I might be a little more intrigued, especially if it were opening in a more touristy place like the UAE (or maybe even NYC where sister club NYCFC are located).

I don't see these ManU club outposts being more than just a team store and maybe a mini-pitch and/or small VR experience where guests can play some games for an hour or less. Tottenham Hotspur (the EPL club I support), recently opened the biggest club store in England, which will be part of one of the most technologically advanced stadiums in the world, but it's still just a team store with some interactive exhibits and gaming areas. ManU is not about to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to build and maintain a theme-park like experience for casual fans thousands of miles away in China.

January 11, 2019 at 1:35 PM

But ManU doesn't have to invest a thing. That's Harves' job. ManU is just licensing the IP, which typically means giving the developer a tour of your home shop (see video, above), sending over digital assets (logos, film, etc.), approving the plans and cashing the checks.

If Harves wants a compelling attraction, it's up to it and its team to build one. Again, it's all about the execution. You can have the best game plan in the world, but the players have to put the ball in the net.

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