This year was my third year attending ESPN the Weekend and I really feel like the event came into it's own this year and the product is a nice, polished and most importantly, fun event. It's still not perfect, but my time spent at ESPN the Weekend really made me feel like I was having a good time and the time in the park literally flew by because of the fun I was having at the event and I think I've come to the point where I'm more than comfortable recommending the event to anyone who enjoys professional sports.
There are enough fun events to be found during ESPN the Weekend to suit sports fans. Without a doubt, the event focuses on Baseball and Football the most, with some NBA events and then a spattering of other sports, ranging from Hockey to Golf to BMX dirt bikes and everything in between. You know you're having a good time when you forget to eat lunch and look at your watch to realize it's the middle of the afternoon already. What I also think makes the event so much fun is unlike Star Wars or Super Soap Weekends, you don't need to arrive at the park at like 5am or plan things out to the nth degree. Rather, ESPN the Weekend is a relaxing event where it's easy to get into the events you likely want to see and still feell like you've done a lot.
I found the overall pacing of the events to be really conducive to having a good time. There was a healthy mix of organized events and free-form events. Organized events included the various shows that were available to attend, such as Baseball Tonight and NFL Live discussions as well as game shows such as Stump the Schwab and Dream Job. These are the events you look on your times guide and figure out a rough schedule of what you want to see. What's nice is the free-form events such as whatever was going on in front of the Sorcerer's Hat and the Sports Zone area behind Rock 'n Roller Coaster and you could easily work in these events when you have time for it in your schedule.
Speaking of the Sports Zone, it was the best yet and really had a nice mix of opportunities. There was a "pimped out" bus that had Xbox's for kids to play baseball on, which featured Major League Baseball merchandise in a display that adorned the interior of the whole bus. The physical events featured opportunites for anyone to test how fast their fastball is or throw a football in flag football scrimages to tennis practice. What made these even more special was the unannounced spattering of real athletes that would interact with the kids, be it Mary Jo Fernandez showing a young girl how to volley in tennis, to Brandon Jacobs showing kids how to run up the middle, to the Harlem Globe Trotters playing a game of horse. These all happened in just one afternoon and there was even more that occured, and while there's absolutely no guarantee your child could be a part of any of it, it really did make the entire area feel a little more magical (sorry for use of the most overused word on Disney sites around the world) with these sorts of things going on. There was also a cooking demonstration for how to tailgate your food properly, where I found one woman camped out on a bench, eagerly waiting the next demonstration of how to cook sausage (she claimed the food was worth the wait). Remember that young girl who played tennis with Mary Jo Fernandez? She was all smiles afterwards and without a doubt will be a memory that she will always cherish from her childhood.
I attended a number of shows throughout such as the Baseball Tonight question and answer show where the Baseball Tonight crew of Karl Ravech, Peter Gammons, John Kruk, Chris Singleton and Steve Phillips were joined by two baseball athletes (I saw two shows, which included Dennis Eckersley, Curt Schilling, John Franco and Jim Palmer) and what really stood out from this show was the fact that the panel was really quite honest. It seemed as though they dropped their on-air personas of trying to make everyone happy to really give their opinions on who stinks, who is doing well and what's wrong (or right) with baseball. It was a refreshing and honest look into the sport and I relished every minute of it. Other shows like the NFL Live question and answer were of this ilk and it was the sort of experience that you just can't get anywhere else.
The issue I've always had with ESPN the Weekend is they advertise a list of dozens of professional athletes that will be in attendance and it sounds like you can meet them if you simply go to ESPN the Weekend, but the reality is these athletes are simply there to show up for an event or two and actually meeting them is not going to happen. That's still the case but since I knew what to expect, I was able to enjoy the event without harping on it. It's a downside, but then again, while you can meet the celebs in attendance at Star Wars Weekends, often those celebs are C or D list celebrities while ESPN the Weekend, to it's credit, does attract some major names in sports today and yesterday.
With ESPN the Weekend 2009 in the books now, I am firmly looking forward to ESPN the Weekend 2010 already and if you're reading this and enjoy sports, I would definitely recommend checking out the event next year because it's finally become the sort of experience I was hoping it would be after years of the event not impressing me.