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Why ESPN Is Attempting to Enter the ‘Sports Tourism’ Business

  • The network is entering the ‘sports experience’ biz with the new MLB Ballparks Tour.
  • It’s the start of ESPN’s latest search for new revenue streams.
Saturday, June 8, 2024; Boston MA-Fans watch the game from the top of the Green Monster during the Savannah Bananas first Banana Ball game at Fenway Park on Saturday, June 8, 2024.
Savannah Morning News

ESPN is going direct-to-consumer in more ways than one.

The Walt Disney Co.’s sports giant is making its first foray into the “sports tourism” business, offering a VIP tour of three of Major League Baseball’s most famous stadiums on Labor Day weekend.

Dubbed “ESPN Experiences: Take Me Out to the Ballparks,” the five-day, four-night trip from Aug. 29 to Sept. 2 will take tourists to Fenway Park in Boston, Yankee Stadium in New York, and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Plus, they’ll get a private tour of the Jackie Robinson Museum in the Big Apple, an MVP tour of ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., and meet-and-greets with on-air talents including David Cone, Michael Kay, Doug Glanville, Karl Ravech, Paul “Hembo” Hembekides, and Buster Olney. The price? A cool $6,999 per person with double occupancy, $8,499 for single occupancy.

ESPN’s new events arm will begin about 11 months before it launches a direct-to-consumer version of its flagship channel, which will feature major events including Monday Night Football and the NBA Finals. It also comes less than a year after the Disney-owned entity bit the bullet and finally entered sports gambling with ESPN Bet last November. Think of these moves as strategic attempts by ESPN to leverage its brand—and generate new revenue streams. 

ESPN Experiences will target avid sports fans, tourists, historians, and consumers looking for unique bucket-list-type experiences, according to Zack Malet, ESPN’s senior director of sports business development and innovation. The strategy involves pairing premier game-day experiences, such as sitting in the coveted Green Monster seats, with supplemental experiences like meeting talent and touring ESPN studios in Bristol. 

“We’ve done some studies on the marketplace. There’s a pretty significant spend from fans in the travel experience category,” Malet tells Front Office Sports. “Also, just from our fan studies, we’ve seen fans seem to believe that ESPN would be a favorable brand in the sports travel experience space. It’s a helpful area to test and assess, so we can see what could be next.” 

It’s an ambitious plan for a brand that has a mixed track record in expanding, which it has been attempting to do for nearly two decades. Yes, the famous four letters successfully challenged HBO’s longtime industry dominance in sports documentaries, winning its first Oscar for O.J.: Made in America in 2017. But ESPN’s earlier attempt to market its own branded mobile phone flopped in less than a year in ’06. A themed chain of ESPN Zone restaurants, launched in 1998, succeeded initially. But one by one, the brick-and-mortar restaurants closed down, with the last shuttering in 2018. 

Now, however, there’s a reason the impetus to diversify feels more urgent than ever. Cord-cutting has 44-year-old ESPN’s footprint on fewer than 70 million homes, staggeringly down from a high of 100 million in 2011. If the test experience goes well, ESPN could sell everything from VIP tours of legendary NFL stadiums to famous college football stadiums and basketball arenas.

Given Disney’s long expertise in experiences, sports media consultant Jim Williams is surprised ESPN has waited this long. “ESPN’s venture into the experience business is a smart move. Their connections with professional and college sports leagues enable them to offer a variety of exciting trips,” Williams told FOS. “Options range from a family-friendly journey to Williamsport for the Little League World Series to an adventurous getaway to Melbourne for the Australian Open. ESPN is expanding its brand, securing another revenue source, satisfying rights holders, creating opportunities for advertisers, and potentially growing its fan base. It’s a win-win situation.”

‘One Tour. Three Ballparks.’ 

ESPN Experiences will not be some touristy trolley tour, with a side visit to a pizzeria. Customers will get the velvet rope treatment. The nascent unit closely collaborated with MLB and Adventures by Disney, which has been selling family vacations for 20 years, to book top hotels and restaurants for its first group of 35 to 45 travelers. 

Day 1 in Boston, for example, will include a “rooftop reception party” with Red Sox announcers Dave O’Brien and Mike Monaco at the swanky Hotel Commonwealth, a private tour of Fenway, plus a batting practice viewing. Then the tourists will watch the game atop the famed Green Monster left field wall, where seats sell for hundreds of dollars apiece.

At a minimum price of $7,000 per head, ESPN will be targeting the type of well-heeled baseball fans who think nothing of plunking down thousands for a curated, VIP sports experience. Membership has its privileges. As the tour continues, they’ll watch Yankees vs. Cardinals from a luxury suite—after a private tour of Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park. Then they’ll close out their trip in another luxury suite at Citizens Bank Park, as the Phillies take on the Braves on Sunday Night Baseball.

As ESPN’s sales pitch promises potential customers: “One Tour. Three Ballparks. Experience of a Lifetime.”

Era of ‘sports tourism’ is here

Still, ESPN will face serious business competition as it makes its first big move into the premium experiential hospitality business. 

MLB announced a deal to make Booking.com its official online travel partner in 2023. Endeavor’s On Location Experiences has served as the NFL’s official hospitality partner for years, selling high-priced ticket/travel packages to the Super Bowl. On Location also offers personalized VIP trips to everything from the Olympics and NCAA Final Four to WrestleMania and UFC. But there may still be opportunities for latecomers like ESPN. 

The growing sports travel business generated $52.2 billion in total spending in 2023, according to the Sports Events and Tourism Association, with Americans taking an estimated 205 million sports-related trips. Don’t look now, but sports generates 10% of global tourism expenditures, according to UN Tourism. With jet-setting fans traveling worldwide to the Olympics, World Cup, Formula One, and Grand Slam tennis tournaments, CNBC declared the era of “sports tourism” is here.

In the sports world of the future, the savviest players will seek hands-on relationships with their customers, predicts T.K. Gore, head of global sports business development for Kiswe. What could be a more tangible connection than consumers booking vacations through ESPN as they already do with Disney?

“Businesses like media companies, leagues, properties, and brands all strive to create meaningful and recurring direct connections with consumers to secure their loyalty. This defines the experience economy,” Gore says.

Will ESPN’s viewers respond? We’ll see. But Malet’s already seeing an “influx” of interest from ESPN’s corporate and league partners. “You’re speaking to someone who goes on a college football trip every year with his friends,” he says. “So, I’ve got plenty of ideas and experience on how to bring this to multiple sports. But we first want to make sure this goes well.”


Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

This September, the column will come to life as a one-day event bringing together industry experts to discuss media trends and the future of fan viewership.

The event will take place in New York on September 10th at Times Center (242 W 41st St.)
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