Don’t Sell Disney Because of ESPN.

02/14/2017 02:24 am ET

All eyes are still on ESPN for Disney (NYSE: DIS). Should they be?

It is not a secret that ESPN subscriber loss has been a sore spot for Disney for the past few quarters. As part of the universal “cord-cutting” movement toward streaming services, ESPN has lost close to 9 million, or 10%, of its subscribers in the last 3 years. Considering the average $80 per year subscription fee, the loss in revenue is near $3 billion. The more alarming fact, though, is that the loss has spread across all sports channels, including ESPN2, ESPNU, FS1, NBC Sports Network, and NFL Network.

Here we are, on the eve of Q4 16’s earnings announcement. Despite Disney CEO Bob Iger’s attempts to rally shareholders’ hope and stock price, with promises that ESPN “has reached its nadir,” Nielson estimated that ESPN has accelerated its loss to another 640,000 subscribers in January. However, Nielsen has been criticized for not counting online streaming and multichannel video programming distributors in subscriber data. After including Sling TV last month, ESPN still saw a 219,000 subscriber decline versus a 29,000 decline in January last year.

Even for the most die-hard fans of ESPN who insist that “sports are too popular” to defect from have to concede that ESPN is no more the golden growth boy for Disney.

Quietly, Disney has been planning for the inevitable. The subscription rate has been rising from $4.84 to $7 a month, or over 75%, since 2011 To further react to the changinpreferences of users, Disney has explored new platform providers, MSDB, and streaming options with Hulu and AT&T. Disney and Comcast have put millions into Virtual Reality as the only way to rival Netflix, and there was a point where Disney was rumored to buy Netflix.

That said, the Q3 16 result seems encouraging that the loss in subscribers may have been partially offset by the growth in the skinny bundle. The sports channel is currently a member channel of Dish Network's Sling TV, Verizon Communications' Custom TV and Sony's PlayStation Vue bundles. While the bundle cost has dropped to $25, a significant savings, there is no evidence to indicate that these tactical moves have worked yet. By the end of 2016, ESPN has dropped to around 88 million subscribers. Although that is still $7 billion in subscriber revenue per year, with an annual rights fee of around $6 billion and rising, what would happen if cord-cutting eventually drove that number down to its breakeven level, say, 75 million subscribers?

ESPN Subscriber Losses Overplayed

The trajectory of ESPN’s future outlook may have become more of a news-worthy talking point. Let’s compute dollars and cents for its impact on Disney’s revenue, earnings and stock prices:

For the last decade, ESPN has contributed between 26% and 29% to Disney’s annual revenue. If we agree that ESPN needs 75 million subscribers to breakeven, it may be inferred that ESPN has been on average responsible for approximately 10% to Disney’s earnings, or 15 cents of the $1.50 estimated EPS for Q4 2016.

With that in mind, let’s assume a less likely scenario that ESPN loses, say 2.5 million (219,000 per month as in December 2016) subscribers in 2017. Mind you it is a conservative (over)estimate since Disney’s many new maneuvers to mitigate the user losses are in place, the resulting ESPN revenue loss should be around 2%, being offset by a rising subscription price. It will in turn translate into just a bit more than 0.5% loss in Disney total revenue.

As for the earnings front, the Media Network which includes ESPN and ABC has an average profit margin of around 32%, which is higher than the 16.5% of Parks and Resort and 16% of the Studio Entertainment. If the higher 32% profit margin is used to estimate the earnings loss from 0.5% revenue loss, it amounts to a 0.64% earnings loss.

Both the 0.5% revenue loss and 0.64% earning loss that originated from ESPN’s subscriber losses are hardly screaming sell signals. You’d have to assume the highly anticipated Lucas and Marvel big box office releases and the soon-to-be profitable “Mickey Mao” of Shanghai Disney do not materialize.

Since we brought Disney’s shareholders into the picture, maybe the ultimate test is to see if ESPN’s growth had any impact on stock prices. In Figures below, we show the relationship, or lack of, between DIS monthly stock returns with ESPN’s subscriber growth, ESPN revenue growth, and ESPN earnings growth since 2015. Consistent with what the graphs show, the statistical tests also confirm that there is virtually no statistically significant relationship between DIS stock returns and ESPN. The street estimates on Disney’s fair values are around $108-$121. The mild 6% undervaluation seems sensible for not overreacting to the news of ESPN subscriber loss.

The long side of the story is not to react to a most likely worse than estimated ESPN subscriber losses on the forthcoming Q4 2016 earnings announcement.

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