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It used to be that sports heroes went to Disney's Magic Kingdom after winning a championship.

In the future, they may be playing the championship there, in front of ABC and ESPN cameras.

For more than a year, Walt Disney Co. has been sweating to transform a chunk of Florida turf at Walt Disney World Resort into the coolest playground on earth.

Now, add the media and marketing resources of newly acquired Capital Cities/ABC-specifically the global reach of ESPN-and Disney has the potential to become the pre-eminent organizer of sporting events, offering marketers safe, efficient, integrated opportunities aplenty.

The 200-acre Walt Disney World International Sports Complex will be completed in 1997. It will accommodate professional-caliber training and competition, as well as festival and tournament type events.

In addition, sporting events will continue to be held in other parts of the Magic Kingdom theme park. Disney World hosts two pro golf tournaments and a marathon. Next year, it will host a major race on the new IndyCar Racing League circuit, and ABC holds the broadcast rights.

The complex already has an anchor tenant, the Amateur Athletic Union. The century-old group, which sponsors championship events on the elementary and high school levels, could benefit from media exposure, and ESPN might be one resource, said Reggie Williams, Disney's VP-sports development.

Suited to new sports

Mr. Williams said the complex is well-suited to host and develop new sports events.

"Look at the stuff on ESPN2 like the Extreme Games, and you see sports that didn't exist 20 years ago," he said. "The assets that ABC and ESPN provide.....allow us to be a player in ushering in a whole new generation of sports."

It's unlikely the complex would serve as a permanent home to a pro sports team. Disney's franchise ambitions are currently based in Anaheim, Calif., home of its National Hockey League franchise, the Mighty Ducks; Major League Baseball's California Angels, in which Disney has a 25% share; and Disney Sport Enterprises.

Disney is also in production on "The Big Green," a soccer movie. If the film is a hit, Disney is expected to field a Major League Soccer team. MLS launches next spring; its TV partners are ABC and ESPN.

Disney-ESPN is intriguing in other ways. There's ESPN World, a high tech sports bar that will open next spring on the Disney World Boardwalk. Another ESPN World is planned for New York's Times Square, pockets of which Disney owns and has plans to renovate.

"ESPN World demonstrates best the certain assets and skills each of us possesses that the other doesn't have. We know sports, they know theme parks," said ESPN Senior VP Dick Glover.

Look for ESPN to partner with Disney Interactive to expand further into videogames and CD-ROMs, and to tap Disney's expertise in licensing and retail ventures. But you can also expect these brand-protective companies to guard against overkill.

As Mr. Glover summed it up: "There won't be an effort to put mouse ears on [ESPN sportscaster] Chris Berman."

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