Did my Mickey Mouse ears hear that right?
"Is Walt Disney Co. preparing a bid for Electronic Arts?" That's what The Wall Street Journal's "Heard on the Street" column asked yesterday, building on comments that Disney (NYSE: DIS ) CFO Tom Staggs made during a conference on Tuesday.
Asked if Disney's focus would be on developing in-house games over buying more developers, Staggs responded, "I don't want you to conclude that those are in the long term mutually exclusive." He went on to say that a "strategic and attractive" purchase would be "a possibility" for the family entertainment giant.
Did he say Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS ) ? No. However, a combination of EA's battered share price and Disney's desire to ramp up its gaming presence dovetail nicely in the rumor mill. Even if it's unlikely to happen, let me go over five reasons why it makes perfect sense.
1. Disney is no stranger to gaming shopping sprees
Even if Disney has historically gone with organic releases or licensing deals like the Cars game line through THQ (Nasdaq: THQI ) , acquisitions are clearly part of its DNA. The company has already coughed up the dough for purchases like Avalanche Studios in 2005 and the fast-growing Club Penguin online community last year.
EA would be a huge purchase. It commands an enterprise value of nearly $4 billion and that's before we tack on a reasonable buyout premium. However, Disney has aimed even higher in the past in its Pixar and Capital Cities/ABC deals.
2. EA Sports and ESPN were made for one another
It's only fitting that EA's legendary line of sporting titles -- like Madden, Tiger Woods Golf, and FIFA -- huddle up with the parent company of ESPN. In fact, it would be branding magic to have all of the games marketed as ESPN sports.
The move would help Disney reach out to older boys and adult males, whom Disney has had trouble reaching at a time when its biggest hits are tween-girl magnets like Miley Cyrus and The Jonas Brothers. Disney tries. It even has a sports-themed hotel in Florida and a Wide World of Sports complex. Gobbling down EA Sports would be a lot easier than competing against it in the future (where it can, as EA has an exclusive NFL license).
3. Bring on the Warhammer
Online gaming is all the rave these days. A year before buying Club Penguin, Disney teamed up with Shanda Interactive (Nasdaq: SNDA ) to introduce online games in the ultimate testing ground of China. Disney has gone on to build online gaming experiences themed to its Fairies and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises, but it's rolling mostly snake eyes in reaching older teens who are playing EA's Warhammer or Activision Blizzard's (Nasdaq: ATVI ) World of Warcraft.
Beyond the multiplayer online fantasy games, EA brings another cyberspace gem to the table: Pogo.com. The casual gaming site is a hub for an entirely different audience: middle-aged women who enjoy playing online puzzle, word, and arcade games.
4. Racing toward the checkered flag
From Herbie to Lightning McQueen, cars have been prolific characters for Disney in live action and animation. Disney's flagship parks have miniature speedway attractions. There is even the Richard Petty Driving Experience just outside the Magic Kingdom parking lot in Florida.
This doesn't make Disney the next International Speedway (Nasdaq: ISCA ) or Speedway Motorsports (NYSE: TRK ) , but it all dovetails nicely into EA's Need for Speed driving games. Whether it's a matter of branding its Tomorrowland Speedway or ABC and ESPN auto racing content with the Need for Speed moniker -- or just the ability to make cooler driving games like one featuring all of Disney's signature drives -- a lot can happen if Disney puts the cross-marketing pedal to the metal.
5. Convergence circa 2013
Disney is incorporating gaming elements into its latest theme park attractions like Toy Story Mania. The key is to give its rides a little more repeatability with jaded audiences. Disney also realizes that it can't carve out large tracts of land to build mammoth destinations that attract tens of millions of guests.
Disney will have to think smaller, and it even showcased plans for "blue sky" concepts last year that included urban entertainment centers, themed resorts, and stand-alone attractions. One can argue that Disney has a decent proxy in its DisneyQuest concept in Orlando, but the multistory arcade has been a dud outside of Florida. Would some EA branding muscle, award-winning proprietary original game development, and video game industry know-how turn DisneyQuest into the kind of place that Disney can plop down successfully in major metropolitan markets? I think so. Heck, I know so.
When you wish upon a star
The chances of having any of this play out are slim. Even though EA has gone from leader to laggard in an industry now led by Activision Blizzard, it won't sell itself cheap. Disney overpaid for Pixar because it had to. It was going to lose the computer animation leader as a partner. There is no similar urgency here to acquire anyone, much less EA.
However, the deal makes perfect sense if the price is reasonable. Disney can do so much more with EA's audience-widening power. And vice versa.
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