Who Should Be the Next Professional Sports Team to Get Their Own Attraction?
After the success of Steel Curtain, the centerpiece of a new Pittsburgh Steelers-themed area at Kennywood, it would only make sense for another professional sports franchise to team up with their local amusement park to create a unique, one-of-a-kind land and/or attraction. But before we take a look at teams and locations where this could be a viable option, let’s talk a little bit about why Steelers Country and Kennywood were a perfect fit for one another.
1.) The Steelers Brand
Founded in 1933, the Pittsburgh Steelers remain one of the most popular franchises in the NFL today. According to an article on WSN, the Steelers are one of just three NFL teams to boast a combined social media following (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) of more than 10 million, and are one of just two NFL franchises to win 6 Super Bowls. (Super Bowls IX, X, XIII, XIV, XL and XLIII). Their insignia, which was adapted by the team in 1969, was named the 12th best logo in all of sports by Bleacher Report in 2014. Point being, even if you’re not a die-hard Steelers fan, you at least know of them enough to understand that Kennywood opened a Pittsburgh Steelers-themed area rather than thinking “Steelers Country…what’s that?”
The Steel Curtain name for the Kennywood Coaster was also a nickname for Pittsburgh’s Defensive Line in the 1970s, given to them because like a Steel Curtain, they were nearly impossible for opposing offenses to get through. It was a play on “Iron Curtain,” a phrase popularized by Winston Churchill.
2.) The Pittsburgh Connection
Not only are the Steelers a worldwide recognized brand, but they are a major point of pride in their home city of Pittsburgh. To an outsider (like me), the Steelers are as synonymous with the city as Heinz ketchup, steel manufacturing, and sandwiches with French Fries inside of them. For many families and coaster enthusiasts, Kennywood is also synonymous with Pittsburgh because of its location in nearby suburb West Mifflin. Not only are attractions named for the area, like Steel City Choppers and Pittsburg Plunge, but even the park’s signature Carousel was manufactured in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. When creating a new land in the park, it made a ton of sense for these two Pittsburgh institutions to create a unique partnership.
3.) Kennywood’s “Independence” & Willingness to Take a Risk.
While Kennywood is owned by Palace Entertainment (a subsidiary of Parques Reunidos, who also owns Lake Compounce and Dutch Wonderland), they’re often thought of more as an “Independent” park. Because they’re not in a major park chain, where many similar parks in the same chain (see Six Flags, Cedar Fair) all see some form of capital investments or infrastructure upgrades each off-season, Kennywood’s major investments are fewer and farther between. Because they’re not a “corporate” park, they somewhat march to the beat of their own drum, and can take unique opportunities that are not tethered to any corporate IP like Looney Tunes or DC Comics. It’s not every day that a giant 8-inversion coaster from S&S is built in the United States. By giving it a signature theme and color scheme on this new ride, and one that could be associated with the Steelers, Kennywood took a chance that not a lot of other parks were willing or able to take. It has certainly paid off for them.
But the question remains: Could what happened at Kennywood happen at another park? Probably, but it would require the exact perfect scenario and factors falling into place, much like it did for Kennywood. Based on what we know from Kennywood, here’s what I feel are the basic necessary ingredients for a sports-tie in at a theme park.
(Author’s Note: This article is United States-focused. I don’t have as much of a grasp on worldwide sports fandoms – or local theme park markets overseas.)
1.) A city that has both a professional sports franchise, as well as a large amusement park.
This one feels the most obvious. In order for the tie-in to make any level of sense, the city and its surrounding suburbs need to be large enough for both professional sports and an amusement park — preferably a larger park with the operating budget to justify the capital expansion. You’re not going to see a roller coaster themed to the Jacksonville Jaguars, because there aren’t any amusement parks in Jacksonville. You won’t see a professional sports-themed roller coaster at Adventureland, because the entire state of Iowa has zero professional sports teams. Plain and simple.
2.) Ideally, the park is actually a regional park, rather than a destination/resort park.
Regional parks, and most professional sports teams have at least one thing in common: a mostly local fan base. While the Orlando Magic have Disney as their jersey sponsor, a worldwide tourist destination like Walt Disney World makes absolutely zero sense for Mr. Cole Anthony’s Wild Ride. (Even an attraction like The NBA Experience at Disney Springs isn’t very popular among resort guests at Walt Disney World!)
3.) A “Name Brand” Sports Franchise
While a local region may be passionate about their sports team, there needs to be a larger fan base outside the immediate bubble, with a national following, or at the very least a very large regional fanbase. With the Steelers being such a national brand, Steelers Country is an area that can appeal not just to Steelers fans, but to many football fans in general. If no one, outside of your small bubble, knows anything about your team, there will be a disconnect with your “out of towners.” – Sorry, fans of smaller market sports teams or less popular professional sports (like soccer or hockey — I love both, just saying!) with fewer fans in general!
4.) One Franchise, Per Sport, Per City
Cities like New York and Los Angeles are great sports cities, because they have a wealth of professional franchises, but that also limits your potential local fanbase when theming a new attraction. You’re not going to be a New York Rangers & Islanders hockey fan, or a Los Angeles Lakers & Clippers fan. When creating a partnership in a city, you don’t want to “alienate” the other half of fans by opening an attraction themed to one team over another — even if there is one “better” team!
5.) Thematic Integrity
Pretty simple, if a park is truly a “theme” park, it has some thematic integrity to uphold. While Tampa Bay has the Buccaneers, their theme park is themed around different countries in Africa. A Buccaneers ride simply wouldn’t make any level sense inside of Busch Gardens Tampa. Kennywood, while loosely broken up into lands, is still more of an “amusement” park than a theme park, and this is why that Steelers Country worked there.
6.) A Mutually Beneficial Partnership.
Not everyone loves sports the way I love sports, so a sports-themed land or attraction might not appeal to every theme park visitor. But if a park is confident in their product, the local team wants to create some buzz in the community, and the synergy is there between both parties, the risk (much like in the case of Steelers Country/Steel Curtain) is worth it! A park wants to put their best product forward, and the team wants their brand associated with a product that is quality. Sports fans become aware of the theme park, theme park fans become more aware of the sports team, and give them a new appreciation since they named a new attraction for them.
Both sides need to be on the same page, and see the mutual benefits in this regard. On the below list, you won’t see the Dallas Cowboys. It’s our opinion that the Dallas Cowboys, the worlds most valuable sports franchise (~$5.5 Billion), have very little to benefit by lending their brand to Six Flags Over Texas for a new attraction, despite being located just over a mile as the crow flies from Dallas’ AT&T Stadium. There’s no mutual benefit here.
When looking at the possibilities based on this criteria, there’s really only one professional sports league that makes a lot sense for any potential tie-in, and that is the National Football League (NFL). According to Variety, seven of the top ten prime-time television broadcasts (and 28 of the top 100) in all of 2020 were NFL games. Super Bowl LIV between the Chiefs and 49ers saw nearly four times as many viewers (102,031,000) as the first non-football game on this list – the season 3 premiere of FOX’s Masked Singer (27,407,000) (which coincidentally aired immediately following…you guessed it: The Super Bowl.)
That’s not to say that other teams and sports do not have passionate fanbases, but more than any other league, the NFL has the widest range of appeal to the average American and therefore average theme park guest.
Here are six NFL Teams (and their corresponding theme parks) where we could see the potential of a sports-themed attraction tie-in.
The Kansas City Chiefs
Park: Worlds of Fun (Kansas City, Missouri)
In 1959, Dallas businessman Lamar Hunt established an AFL Expansion team that would eventually become the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs in 1963. Ten years after arriving in Kansas City, Hunt and business partner Jack Stedman opened Worlds of Fun, a theme park that was based on Jules Verne’s novel Around The World in 80 Days.
Though the park is now owned by Cedar Fair, Worlds of Fun and the Kansas City Chiefs both remain icons in the “City of Fountains.” Especially in recent years, the park has gone all in with their support of their hometown Chiefs, putting their hometown pride on the line with a Super Bowl bet with California’s Great America, and even “temporarily” renaming their B&M invert Patriot to “Patrick” (after Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes) when the Chiefs played the New England Patriots in the 2019 AFC Championship Game. The latter even gained national media attention!
While a Chiefs “land” wouldn’t necessarily fit within the Around The World in 80 Days theme that Worlds of Fun is based upon, the park does have a large Americana section (with rides like the aforementioned Patriot/Patrick, Cyclone Sams, and Timber Wolf). And frankly, what’s more American than professional football? (“Baseball is America’s Past Time” people, please do not flood me with comments.) Worlds of Fun could add a Chiefs-themed attraction in this section of the park, and bring two Kansas City landmarks even closer together.
The San Francisco 49ers
Park: California’s Great America (Santa Clara, CA)
When looking at amusement parks that are in proximity to NFL Stadiums, there is no closer pair than California’s Great America and Levi’s Stadium, home to the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. Separated by little more than a football field’s distance worth of parking lot, California’s Great America and Levi’s Stadium have a unique working relationship. The park closes when the 49ers have home games (in order to free up additional parking for the landlocked NFL stadium), and the 49ers offer a pre-game hospitality package known as the “Red Zone Rally,” located inside the park’s pavilion. The package includes food, drink, and arguably most important, rides on Flight Deck, the roller coaster that is closest to Levi’s Stadium.
If both parties were on board, this would be one of the easiest possible connections, and could involve a soft re-theme of Gold Striker, California’s Great America’s newest wooden coaster. Both Gold Striker and the 49ers take their names and inspiration from the California Gold Rush of 1849, and it would be as easy as including some 49ers branding amongst the Old West theming and renaming the coaster “49ers Gold Striker.” While on the other side of the park from Flight Deck, 49ers fans attending the Red Zone rally could have the added bonus of riding the only roller coaster with views of their home team’s stadium!
The Carolina Panthers
Park: Carowinds (Charlotte, NC)
Why: Two States, One Team
The Carolina Panthers and Carowinds have at least one thing in common, and its that their identity isn’t based in just one of just North or South Carolina, they embrace both states equally. Despite playing their home games in uptown Charlotte’s (NC) Bank of America Stadium, the team’s name (Carolina) and logo, which is shaped like the outline of both states, standing strong on their #OneCarolina and “Two States, One Team” branding. In 2020, the team announced plans to build a new team headquarters in Rock Hill, South Carolina, including offices, practice facilities, and event space. If you’re curious as to a near midpoint between their headquarters and home stadium, look no further than Carowinds (11.6 miles from Bank of America Stadium, 15.4 miles from Rock Hill.)
When E. Pat Hall was conceptualizing Carowinds, initial plans called for an NFL Stadium to be part of the project, with the 50-yard line residing on the NC/SC border. While those plans never came to actual fruition, Carowinds and the Panthers could certainly team up for a new attraction and solidify both organizations commitment to being a true unifier in the Carolinas, and accomplishing something that barbecue could never even come close to doing. While I’m sitting here hypothesizing and thinking wishfully, this attraction would almost certainly need to cross state lines to drive home the point. Right now, the park has Vortex on the North Carolina side, bordered by Nighthawk, which is located mostly in South Carolina. I’m not just saying…I’m just saying?
The New England Patriots
Park: Lake Compounce (Bristol, CT)
Why: Apex Parks Group
This one feels like a little more of a stretch while also feeling more feasible at the same time. While the New England Patriots call Foxborough, MA home, the entire New England region are the beneficiaries of the team’s recent successes, and they remain one of the most popular teams in the NFL, despite the 2020 departure of Tom Brady to Tampa Bay. In a region with multiple theme parks, but none particularly close to Foxborough, it might not make as much sense to create an NFL branded attraction at a park that’s 90+ miles away from where the Patriots play their home games.
That said, Lake Compounce, while nearly two hours from Gillette Stadium (where the Patriots play their home games), is still firmly entrenched in New England. They also happen to be managed by Apex Parks Group, the same park management group who brought an NFL attraction to Kennywood. To use a bad football metaphor, they have the playbook. They know how to approach a team, create a project, and build it so that both parties benefit. While Lake Compounce might not have room for a Patriots-themed land or even a roller coaster, there’s certainly the opportunity to add a…flat ride. (Apologies in advance for the Deflategate joke.)
The Las Vegas Raiders
Park: Anywhere in Las Vegas
Why: Vegas. (Do We Need Another Reason?)
While in Oakland, the Raiders had one of the most passionate fanbases in the NFL. With the team’s move to Las Vegas, a city where literally any attraction seems feasible or possible, why not capitalize on that fan base with a Raiders-themed attraction? Unlike most other markets, the Raiders don’t need a theme park in order to build an attraction, because the attraction itself is Las Vegas. After the building of the nearly $2 Billion Allegiant Stadium, why stop there? Why can’t there be the Raiders Hotel & Casino, with Raiders memorabilia, shopping, restaurants, a sports book, attractions, and everything else that makes Las Vegas, well, Las Vegas. If the team is looking to establish roots and gain new fans, it would be a great introduction to the franchise for those visiting from outside Las Vegas.
If you’re looking for a roller coaster for the new Raiders attraction, might we suggest looking in a vacant lot just to the east of the Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium neighbors, the Mandalay Bay resort. The unique shuttle coaster, Speed: The Ride, which formerly operated at the Sahara’s NASCAR Cafe is still in pieces, disassembled there, according to Google Maps. (But in reality, probably just build another roller coaster!)
The Green Bay Packers
Park: Bay Beach (Green Bay, WI)
Why: The Fan Base
Of the actual parks on this list, Bay Beach is by far the smallest, but Green Bay is also home to the smallest media market NFL Team, the Green Bay Packers. What makes the Packers unique is that they are a publicly owned franchise, and one of the most passionate in sports. Rather than one owner, 360,760 individual stakeholders, governed by a board of directors, actually “own” the team. Despite its “Frozen Tundra”-esque climate, tickets are near impossible to get at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field. Every game has been sold out since 1960, and the waiting list for season tickets is more than 86,000 names long. Fans can truly wait decades just to purchase season tickets due to such a low turnover rate.
Bay Beach is a municipal park, owned by the city of Green Bay, and features just one roller coaster, the legendary Zippin’ Pippin, which was relocated from Memphis, TN. While there likely wouldn’t be the interest or demand to create a “Steelers Country”-type attraction at Bay Beach, I think the park could easily install a new ride and theme it to the packers. My idea? A small ARM drop tower called “Lambeau Launch,” a play on the Packers’ traditional “Lambeau Leap” celebration after scoring a touchdown.
What do you think? Are we missing any teams on this list? Who do you think will be the next sports franchise to get their own attraction? Let us know in the comments below!