The last several weeks have been a whirlwind for Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS ), and by extension, for owners of Disney stock. Disney lost a bidding war with Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA ) for the portion of Sky (OTCMKTS: SKYAY ) it wasn't getting through its acquisition of Twenty-First Century Fox (NASDAQ: FOXA ). However, Fox is still on track to become part of the Disney family… minus its sports and news properties. In the meantime, Disney/Fox has agreed to sell its 39% stake in Sky to Comcast.
Behind all the still-settling dust, however, is a problem that's been in place since well before the round robin of media M&A began. That is, Disney's ESPN continues to deteriorate, partly because of the ongoing cord-cutting movement, and partly because consumers continue to lose interest in sports altogether.
There is a glimmer of hope for current and would-be DIS stock holders though.
Headwinds for ESPN
Several years ago ESPN was bulletproof. It was the name in sports programming, and a cash cow for Walt Disney.
Specifically, in 2011 ESPN collected $4.69 per month per subscriber from the cable companies offering the sports venue as part of their package… by far the most expensive channel to cable providers. That was before streaming television was a mainstream choice, however, with ESPN enjoying that recurring revenue supplied by more than 100 million cable subscribers.
The monthly fee has since moved much higher, to $7.21 per viewer per month. That's still the biggest number in the business. But, the headcount continues to dwindle, keeping bearish pressure on Disney stock. If cable abdications continue at their current pace, ESPN's cable market will end the year with only 85.6 million cable television viewers .
While Walt Disney doesn't flesh out the numbers, given the wave of cost-cutting initiatives it has already put into place for its sports channel, it's not a stretch to assume ESPN's profitability is falling at a fast pace.
It's easy to cite Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX ) as the cause, in that it inspired consumers' willingness to cancel their cable subscriptions altogether. Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN ) is at least as much to blame, in that it offers televised access to some sports events. Neither can take the sole or shared credit/blame though, as neither are a satisfactory solution to hardcore sports fans.
More than anything, it's lofty cable television bills themselves to blame, as too many cable subscribers feel they're paying too much for too little.
Enter ESPN+, which appears to be addressing that problem quite nicely while few investors are looking.
ESPN+ is Working
ESPN+ was announced in August of last year and put into place of April of this year against a backdrop of modest expectations. Now, however, it's reasonably safe to say that Disney's sports-oriented streaming video app is quickly turning into an impressive success. Just five months out from its launch, there are already more than 5 million paying subscribers.
ESPN+ is not a replacement for ESPN's cable-driven business, in terms of total paying subscribers or revenue per user, however. As was noted above, the 85.6 million cable customers that will still be around as of the end of this year are paying in excess of $7.00 per month for their service (built into the price of their cable bill). ESPN+ is only $4.99 per month - or $49.99 per year for those sports fans willing to make a full-year commitment.
Given the alternative though, a little less is better than a lot less, which may well be the shape of things to come for content creators that remain reliant on the cable television industry.
eMarketer posted its estimates on the matter in July, pointing out that by the end of 2018, a total of 33 million former cable customers will have cut the cord. By 2022, that figure is expected to reach well over 50 million as an affinity for the alternatives continues to swell.
Bottom Line for Disney Stock
So far, ESPN+ is a relatively roaring success. But it won't offset the ground Disney's traditional ESPN arm is losing. ESPN+ is just a defensive measure, and it could take years for it to make a meaningful contribution to Disney's top and bottom line (and thus be a meaningful contributor to the Disney stock price).
It's something though… something more than a few doubters thought would never happen. And, if cable services become a more a la carte kind of business, that could actually play into the hand Walt Disney is holding, not just with ESPN+, but its new general entertainment app as well.
It certainly beats the alternative, which is doing nothing and continuing to bleed.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter , at @jbrumley.
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