the maturing of ESPN
In the 2016 DIS fiscal year (ended in October), earnings from the Media Networks segment, which is basically ESPN, decelerated from its fiscal 2015 +6% pace to a slight year-on-year decline.
Two problems: increasing costs for sports rights; and “cord cutting,” that is, consumer reluctance to pay increasing fees for cable service and cancelling instead.
Part of the issue is the proliferation of new sports content generated by individual teams.
Part is the high cost of ESPN programming to consumers: SNL Kagan estimates that by the year after next, ESPN will be charging $9.17 per cable subscriber for its services, up from what I think is around $8 now.
Part is also ESPN’s preferred position in the basic packages offered by cable companies. I’ve read analyses, which I’m not sure are correct, that maintain that although all cable subscribers pay for ESPN, at few as 20% actually use the service regularly. If so, $100 per year per subscriber translates into $500 per year per user.
In addition, as a sports fan I’m offended by the faux debates and shouting matches that ESPN has begun in an attempt to woo viewers. Covering WWE as if it were a real sport …Really?
the move from growth to value
It seems pretty clear to me that ESPN is no longer a growth business. Gathering realization of this by investors is the reason, I think, that DIS has underperformed the S&P over the past two years by about 25%–despite its movie and theme park success.
The important question for investors is how much deceleration at ESPN is factored into today’s DIS quote. Is the worst that can happen already priced in?
I think I understand the worst-case scenario. It’s that pricing for ESPN ultimately shifts from per subscriber to per user. This most likely means a substantial decrease in ESPN revenues. The big question is how much “substantial” is. If it’s correct that only one in five cable subscribers actually uses ESPN, then revenues could be cut in half by the change, even if users are willing to pay double what they are laying out today.
That outcome may be extreme, but it’s certainly not priced into DIS stock, in my view.
I’m not sure what the right calculation is. However, while the outcome of this important issue is so up in the air, I find it hard to imagine DIS outperforming.