Amid Streaming Optimism, ESPN Still a Major Concern for Disney Stock

Until April, Disney (NYSE:DIS) shares hadn’t done much of anything for some time. In fact, the Disney stock price had been rangebound for nearly four full years. Over that period, the equity traded mostly between $100 and $120.

ESPN could again become a headwind for Disney stock
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One of the key factors keeping a lid on DIS stock was ESPN. Fears about “cord-cutting” began to mount. Moreover, with ESPN networks receiving something like $9 per month per subscriber from cable and satellite operators, the risk to revenue and profits was obvious.

Meanwhile, Disney’s Cable Networks segment — driven mostly by ESPN — generated 46% of the company’s total profit in fiscal year 2015. The importance of ESPN to overall profits, and the risks it faced created a serious issue for Disney stock, as I wrote back in 2017. And that issue clearly kept many investors on the sidelines and prevented the Disney stock price from rising.

DIS stock did break out in April, when the company announced plans for its Disney+ streaming service. Disney stock gained 20% in a matter of weeks. But it has since returned to trading sideways. Even with streaming, ESPN remains an important part of the story here. And it’s likely to become a point of investor focus again at some point in the future.

ESPN Struggles

Cable Networks operating income peaked at $6.79 billion in fiscal 2015. Since then, it has fallen steadily. Profits fell 12% in FY2016, 10% the following year, and 4% in FY2018.

The news has been better this fiscal year, with just a 1% decline in the first two quarters. This includes a 2% increase in Q2. Still, the pressure has been significant: the Cable Networks segment alone has lost nearly $1.7 billion in profit over the past fourteen quarters, a 25% decline.

Most of the pressure likely is coming from ESPN. The subscriber base for ESPN and ESPN2 has shed 12 million subs since FY2011. The Disney Channel has seen subscriber losses domestically but has grown its international reach by nearly 50% over that stretch. Freeform, a unit of Disney Media Networks, likely contributes a small amount of total revenue.

What’s worrisome, even with decent results so far this year, is that the pressure is likely to accelerate. ESPN+, the network’s streaming option, is priced at just $4.99 per month: that’s likely about half the company’s affiliate fees from companies such as Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), and DISH Network (NASDAQ:DISH). Those affiliate fees are going to be renegotiated in coming years. Furthermore, ESPN faces an uphill battle attempting to get more money out of cable companies dealing with their own subscriber issues.

Advertising revenues are falling as well, along with viewership. Cable Networks ad sales dropped 6% in fiscal 2018, per the 10-K. Both revenue streams are at risk, which means ESPN profits are likely to keep declining.

ESPN (Still) Matters to the Disney Stock Price

The good news is that ESPN is less important to Disney than it used to be. While Cable Networks generated 46% of profit in fiscal 2015, three years later the figure was just 33%. With the acquisition of assets from Twenty-First Century Fox, the proportion should shrink even further.

Still, ESPN probably will drive something like 20% of total earnings this year, even pro forma for Fox. And those earnings — as even CEO Bob Iger has admitted — are going to see pressure in coming years. Disney will increase spending for Disney+ while also losing high-dollar licensing revenue from content it’s pulling back from Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX).

Continued declines at ESPN will only add further pressure to the bottom line in the meantime. And those pressures matter from a valuation standpoint. Investors are not willing to pay much for media stocks. Valuations at AMC Networks (NASDAQ:AMCX), CBS (NYSE:CBS), and Viacom (NASDAQ:VIA, NASDAQ:VIAB) confirm this point.

At 21-times FY2020 earnings-per-share estimates, DIS stock isn’t exactly cheap. Given that a quarter of the business probably would be valued at maybe 10-times on their own, that in turn suggests the rest of the business is dearly valued. These segments also need to generate quite a bit of growth.

To be sure, the parks and studio segments probably should be highly valued: they’re hugely desirable businesses (the ability of Disney’s parks to take pricing is astounding). But the implied values on those businesses suggest a limit on Disney’s overall multiples. This also places a recurring lid on the Disney stock price.

Will DIS Stock Stay Rangebound Again?

And so, it seems possible, if not likely, that DIS stock could return to its rangebound ways. Streaming optimism is dominating the story now. It likely will continue to dominate the headlines once Disney+ officially launches later this year.

But from there, investor attention probably returns to some of the currently less-covered aspects of the Disney story. Unfortunately, that includes ESPN. As we saw for years, that’s not a great thing for DIS stock.

As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.

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