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High hopes at Philly’s new ‘mall of sports bars’

High hopes at Philly’s new ‘mall of sports bars’

By Terry Lefton, Staff Writer

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It’s the first day of the MLB season and at the stadium complex in South Philadelphia, fans are lining up 2 1/2 hours before game time to watch their beloved Phillies. That may not sound that unusual, except that the Phillies opened the season 300 miles west, in Pittsburgh.

However loud the crowd was that day at PNC Park, it’s hard to believe it could rival the cacophony inside the newly opened Xfinity Live!, a development from partners Comcast-Spectacor and Cordish Cos. that is a sports bar on acid, combining a 24-foot-wide Sony high-definition screen in its center with a variety of indoor and outdoor dining venues across a 60,000-square-foot site in the shadow of Philadelphia’s sports venues.

At Xfinity Live!, built on the site of the old Spectrum, an array of restaurants and bars will draw sports fans when teams are playing nearby at Citizens Bank Park, Lincoln Financial Field and the Wells Fargo Center, and also when they aren’t.
Photos by: TERRY LEFTON / STAFF (5)
Built on the site of the demolished Spectrum, where the 76ers and Flyers once played, there are now restaurants including a steakhouse, a beer hall, and a Pro Bull Riders-branded bar with a mechanical, smoke-spewing bull across the street from the Phillies’ home, Citizens Bank Park, and a two-minute walk from the Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field and the Wells Fargo Center, where the Flyers and 76ers play.

On this warm April day, the 20,000 or so square feet of outside dining and drinking are jammed, from late morning until after sunset and the beginning of that night’s Sabres-Flyers game. “We thought about driving to Pittsburgh,” said Michael Rellance, a 20-something mechanic from Havertown, Pa., wearing a Phillies jersey and a Flyers cap, as he drank a beer. “This was a lot easier. We’re surrounded by Phillies fans, and I can sleep in my own bed tonight.”

Like the Internet, Xfinity Live! gathers community, but in a more traditional way, and efficiently enough that in its first year, the place is projecting more than $25 million in sales. It has amassed more than $15 million in contractually obligated income, which in this case is a combination of cash, media and barter for products from sponsors including Pepsi, MillerCoors, Verizon Wireless and Sony.

It’s more than your local sports bar, and some are struggling to put a label on the novel experience.

“People talk a lot about the noise level, but the best description I’ve heard so far is that it’s a mall of sport bars,” said Sean McKinney, president of Mitchell & Ness, the Philadelphia-based marketer of retro sports apparel, which has a 700-square-foot store in the complex decorated with what was the 76ers home court, along with Spectrum dasherboards. “You knew the place was going to get people when there were games next door, but we wondered about non-game days. Now this has become a place where you’ve got to be if you are a sports fan, certainly if there’s an away game. But even if the teams aren’t playing, there have been people here.”

To ensure a hometown feel, Xfinity Live!, open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily, sells local offerings from the likes of Chickie’s & Pete’s, Nick’s Roast Beef, the Original Philadelphia Cheesesteak Co. and Victory Brewing. The same goal horn sounds inside Xfinity Live! as in the Wells Fargo Center when the Flyers score, and after the Phillies won their opener, fans were singing “High Hopes” as they do at Citizens Bank Park after a win. Additional hometown institutions, like favored anthem singer Lauren Hart and Lou Nolan, the Flyers public address announcer since 1972, will be added to the party for away games during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Certainly, the Philadelphia sports complex’s “fourth stadium,” which cost $31 million to build and includes an outdoor stage on which Third Eye Blind opened the building with a concert March 30, is enjoying early success based on geography and traffic. Philly Live, as it was known before Comcast bought the title rights for its Xfinity brand, is at a confluence of sports facilities that attract 8.4 million people annually to what is a nondescript neighborhood of warehouses and parking lots outside of the sports facilities. Now with some early success, Comcast-Spectacor and Cordish are starting to deal with a larger question: How many of these buildings can a sports-crazed public support across America?

“This is the next wave,” said a confident Comcast-Spectacor President Peter Luukko, sipping iced tea above the din inside the Flyers-themed Broad Street Bullies Pub. “I don’t see that the next definitive arena design is here yet. The next thing is building entertainment zones, so people will get to arenas and stadiums earlier and stay later.”

Cordish has developed downtown entertainment districts in cities, like Baltimore’s Power Plant and Louisville’s Fourth Street Live. It’s been behind the long-planned Ballpark Village next to Busch Stadium in St. Louis, while recently becoming a partner with the San Francisco Giants in a $1.6 billion plan to develop the Mission Rock area just south of AT&T Park as a residential, retail and public recreational space. Combine that level of expertise with Comcast-owned Global Spectrum, the industry’s second-largest facility operator behind SMG, and things could get interesting.

Having just opened the doors of Xfinity Live! in late March, neither side of the 50/50 partnership wants to say much about next steps. However, Cordish Vice President Reed Cordish declares, “There’s a zero percent chance this is our last project together.” As possible proof of future partnerships, Comcast’s Front Row Marketing is selling marketing assets across other Cordish properties.

“There’s a real [national] opportunity,” said Luukko, “but as we get into smaller markets, the key is matching size with attendance. We can build this at 10,000 square feet or 100,000 if there’s a need.”

So how much of a blueprint is Xfinity Live! for others? “We pass on more projects than we ever do, so this will never be like Starbucks,” Cordish said. “There’s a lot of great sports towns in America, so eventually there’s maybe potential to do several ones like this a year.”

The key to future versions of Xfinity Live!, he says, is authenticity, because sports fans can quickly smell a poser. “This has to be a place people will come to even when they don’t have a ticket to an event,” said Cordish, as the final out of the Phillies game is recorded. “If we’re able to do that — and I think we have early on — it could work in a lot of cities.”

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