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, 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.
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.
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.
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