I’d only followed DIS from afar until the company acquired Marvel Entertainment, which I held in my portfolio, for a combination of stock and cash in late 2009. I kept the shares I acquired and also bought more while DIS was depressed by critics doubting the wisdom of its move. I’m tempted to write about how wrong that view was, but that’s for another day (not soon).
As I studied DIS’s financials, I found that ESPN accounted for about 75% of the firm’s overall operating profit. The movie studio, run by a former monorail driver at the theme parks, was a mess. Income from the parks was depressed by recession. The Disney brand was also almost completely dependent on female characters, making Disney attractions less appealing to half the adolescent population. ESPN, on the other hand, was/is the dominant sports cable franchise in the US and was going from strength to strength. For a moment–until I realized the marketing advantages of having the Disney name in the public eye–I wondered why the company didn’t just rename itself ESPN.
In addition, the simple percentage of earnings seemed to me to understate the importance of ESPN to DIS. The movie business is typically a hit-or-miss affair and therefore doesn’t merit a premium multiple. Same with the hotels/theme parks, because they have a lot of operating leverage and are highly sensitive to the business cycle. So I concluded the key to the DIS story was the progression of its secular powerhouse–and its one high-multiple business–ESPN. Nothing else mattered that much. (Of course, I didn’t understand the full power of Marvel, or the turnaround in the Disney studio, or the subsequent acquisition of the Star Wars franchise, but that’s a separate issue.)
In 2012, ESPN began an effort to expand its business in a major way into the EU by bidding large amounts for broadcast rights to major soccer games in the UK. Incumbent broadcasters, however, realized (correctly) that no matter what the cost it would be cheaper to keep ESPN out of their market than to deal with it once it had a foothold. So they bid crazy-high prices for the rights. ESPN withdrew.
ESPN’s failure was disappointing in two ways. A new avenue of growth was closed off. At the same time, the attempt itself signaled that ESPN believed its existing Americas business was nearing, or entering, maturity. That’s when I began easing toward the door.
The issues for ESPN–cord-cutting and the high fees ESPN charges–are very clear today. What I find most surprising is that it took the market three years, and an announcement of subscriber losses by DIS, for the stock market to focus on them. So much for Wall Street’s ability to anticipate/discount future events, even for a major company.
I don’t think ESPN is helping its long-term future by seeking to boost ratings by having personalities shout at each other in faux debates. Nor does covering WWE as if it were a real sport. I think they’re further signs of decay. My sports-fan sensibilities aside, the real issue is about price.
Suppose every cable subscriber pays $4 a month to get ESPN, but only 15% actually watch sports–or would pay for ESPN if it weren’t part of the basic package. If so, the real cost per user is closer to $30 a month, most of which is being unwittingly subsidized by non-users. There’s only one way to find out if current users would be willing to pay $30 for ESPN, which is by removing the service from the bundle everyone must buy, reducing the basic cable charge by $4 a month, and offering ESPN separately. That’s what the cable companies want–and what ESPN is looking to avoid.
We’re nowhere near the end of this story. I don’t think the final chapter will be pretty for ESPN.
On the other hand, as I see it, just after the UK rebuffed ESPN, DIS began to direct its ESPN cash flows away from cable and toward building up its film and theme park businesses. For me, this was the sensible thing to do. And it confirmed my analysis of the situation with ESPN.
My bottom line: for four years ESPN has been the cash cow that’s funding DIS’s expansion elsewhere. Wall Street only realized this twelve months ago. But DIS’s reinvention of itself is still a work in progress. Until the market begins to view DIS as an entertainment company that happens to own ESPN rather than ESPN-with-bells-and-whistles the stock will continue to struggle.