There are a lot of good reasons for Disney to keep ESPN among its properties for the foreseeable future. The behemoth sports network remains the No. 1 player in the game, attracting way more eyeballs than any of its rivals. It’s a great platform for Disney to showcase and advertise its entertainment offerings. ESPN and ABC has a very synergistic relationship and work well together in the sports landscape. Plus, with Disney’s investment in BAMTech, that’s a key part of ESPN’s forthcoming over-the-top offering and offering that service without the Worldwide Leader would render it toothless.
There’s also one really good reason for Disney to consider dumping ESPN after 20 years of ownership: stock prices.
No matter what positives seem to pop up for Disney across their many brands, everything seems to come back to the ongoing shedding of subscribers that ESPN can’t seem to stop. After topping out at 99 million in 2013, they’ve lost nine million in the years since, including a shocking 621,000 customers between this past October and November. Combined with lost subscribers for ESPN2 and ESPNU and it was a total of 1.903 million homes in one month.
Earlier this week, Bloomberg’s Tara LaChapelle dug into the possibility that Disney could take someone up on an offer and unload the sagging sports network. Our Andrew Buchholtz weighed the pros and cons of the possibility. As he explained, it all comes down to what’s more important to Disney. Synergy or stock prices.
We’ll let you guess which one of those two usually wins out.
But it’s not just LaChapelle making the case for the split. The floodgates are officially open on speculation about a potential sale.
Brian Fung at the Hartford Courant mentions Steve Cahall, a media analyst at RBC Capital Markets, who made a compelling case for the media and entertainment titan to sell off ESPN. Not only would it give Disney investors a clearer picture of how well the company is doing, but it would also provide them with a cash infusion while also positioning them for a potential future merger.
Experts on both sides point to streaming and the upcoming BAMTech service as ways that ESPN will be able to rebound. On one hand, ESPN can afford to weather these storms and tinker with the new technology because they’re just one part of Disney’s much larger portfolio. On the other hand, will success with streaming and online services ever really be able to match up with the salad days of ESPN getting fat on cable subscription fees? It feels unlikely, at least for now. Just ask HBO how easy it is.
Especially when ESPN needs to remain competitive in terms of broadcasting rights. They’ve never had so much competition for the major sports leagues and the fees for individual league and college sports packages keep climbing. A bubble is going to burst for someone, or everyone, sooner or later.
“Let’s face it – sports has changed,” said Jim Hill, a longtime Disney analyst. “It’s gotten so expensive . . . it’s a scary time all around the barn right now for sports, and that’s another thing that Disney’s eyeballing.” The cost of media rights for sports programming reached a collective $16.3 billion last year, according to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers – up 50 percent from 2011. That figure is expected to grow another 30 percent by 2020.
Perhaps the larger question is, who would want to buy ESPN if they were for sale? Cable giants, perhaps? Amazon or Apple? If so, how do they leverage ESPN in a way that Disney can’t?
Ultimately, it’s not as simple as saying Disney needs to dump ESPN in order to get its stock prices up. ESPN is tangled in a much larger web and a vision that goes into a media future we’re still figuring out. If any company can have patience while a former money-making arm learns how to adapt to the changing marketplace, it’s Disney.
Of course, that won’t make people stop considering the possibilities.