Disney Shares Hit by ESPN Subscriber Losses

The Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) filed its 2015 Form 10-K with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Wednesday. The day before a holiday and a long weekend is typically a good time to report news to which you don’t want to attract too much attention. In Disney’s case, the news it would like to play down is the drop in subscriber numbers to its ESPN sports network.

The company lists subscriber numbers for seven ESPN divisions, and here are the comparisons between fiscal years ending in September 2014 and 2015:

  • ESPN: 2014 – 95 million subscribers; 2015: 92 million subscribers
  • ESPN2: 95 million; 92 million
  • ESPNU: 74 million; 72 million
  • ESPNEWS: 73 million; 70 million
  • SEC Network: 63 million; 62 million
  • ESPN Classic: 27 million; 25 million
  • ESPN channels, International: 115 million; 127 million

Only the ESPN network’s international division posted a year-over-year subscriber gain, but higher fees drove revenues higher by nearly 10% and operating income rose about 6.4%.

Disney’s problem is not just lost subscribers, but higher costs for sports programming. Live sports and events like award shows are just about the only programming left that must be viewed in real-time. As subscriber totals dwindle, remaining subscribers will have to pay more, likely further lowering the number of subscribers.

The estimated cost of the ESPN network is about $6 a month according to MarketWatch. Because all pay TV subscribers subsidize the sports channels—whether they watch them or not—carriers have been reluctant to offer subscribers a sports-less package, fearing that it would drive up costs for those who want the sports channels to a level where those subscribers would flee because of the high prices.

Disney’s stock traded down about 2% at the opening bell on this holiday-shortened Friday at around $116.30 in a 52-week range of $90.00 to $122.08.

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