Analyst Thinks ESPN Fears Are Over

JP Morgan’s Quadrani Cites Healthy Fees, Streaming Options
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The Walt Disney Co., battered by fears over flagship cable-sports network ESPN’s declining subscriber base and inability to release an over-the-top product, may not be a lost cause after all, according to a JP Morgan analyst who found the hole the programmer fell into six months ago may not be as deep as some think.

In a 22-page report last week, JP Morgan media analyst Alexia Quadrani called the panic over ESPN’s subscriber losses and fears that the network paid inflated prices for sports rights to keep them out of rival networks’ hands “exaggerated,” adding that even with a 2% annual decline in its subscriber base, Disney’s cable networks can continue to grow.

Despite reports to the contrary, ESPN could introduce an OTT product as soon as 2018 at a price that could be compelling to rabid sports fans.

CRITICS HAVE PILED ON

Disney stock has never quite recovered from its slide in early August, when the company said ESPN had lost 3 million subscribers in 2014 and 7 million since 2012. The idea that the network, long believed to be pay TV’s must-have service, was affected by cord-cutting and so-called skinny programming bundles triggered a sell-off across the sector, with programming stocks losing a combined $60 billion in market capitalization.

The bad news kept coming even as Disney’s movie studio prepared for the much-anticipated December release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield, a longtime Disney critic, said in a blog post that ESPN’s fee structure would make it impossible for it to launch its own direct- to-consumer offering.

Later, Greenfield introduced a survey by consumer marketing and intelligence company Civic Science that said more than half of those surveyed would drop ESPN if they could save $8 per month on their pay TV bill.

Other analysts also have lowered their ratings on the stock, including Barclays media analyst Kannan Venkateshwar, who downgraded Disney to “underweight” on Jan. 15, primarily on ESPN fears. ESPN has about $53.4 billion in off-balance sheet programming costs because of sports, Venkateshwar said, which could be exacerbated by a declining subscriber base.

“If the company’s subscriber loss trend lines do not stabilize, the company’s cost recognition may have to accelerate to catch up with revenue trends,” Venkateshwar said in a report.

Quadrani hasn’t ignored the declines; she just doesn’t think they will have as great an impact as others who follow the sector. Even with a 2% annual subscriber decline, ESPN could still grow its affiliate fees by 53% over the next five years, she estimated, from $6.64 per subscriber per month in 2015 to $10.18 per sub per month by 2020.

At that rate, ESPN would grow its affiliate-fee revenue by 39%, from $7.4 billion in 2015 to $10.3 billion in 2020, even with the subscriber decline. Quadrani also estimated that ESPN could go over the top as early as 2018 with a $20-permonth offering, or about the same price that OTT service Sling TV charges for about 20 channels, including ESPN and ESPN2.

OTT OPTIONS OPEN

That’s still considerably less than some earlier estimates that ESPN would have to charge upwards of $36 per month for a standalone offering, a factor of its investment in sports programming. While others have criticized the worldwide sports leader for paying big for football, basketball and baseball rights, Quadrani argued that is exactly what would make an OTT offering most compelling.

Quandrani said the OTT offering could capture about 15% of the 12 million subscribers lost from 2010 to 2018 in its first year and 15% of incremental customers lost in each subsequent year.

Disney has said it has no plans to offer an ESPN OTT product anytime soon, and Quadrani said it doesn’t need to. “If Disney chooses not to move forward with an OTT offering, we still see ESPN remaining a healthy and profitable business,” she wrote.

SIDEBAR: Up With OTT

JP Morgan media analyst Alexia Quadrani believes ESPN can launch with a direct-to-consumer offering for as little as $20 per month, beginning in 2018 — and that it could help recapture some of the subs linear ESPN has lost.

                                                      2018E                     2019E            2020E

Subscribers                                   1.75 million             2.02 million      2.27 million

Penetration of Lost Linear Subs   15%                         15%                    15%

Annual affiliate fees at:

$15/month                                     $315 million             $363 million       $409 million

$20/month                                     $421 million             $484 million       $546 million

$25/month                                     $526 million             $605 million       $682 million

SOURCE: JP Morgan estimates

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