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Mickey Mouse is a brand unto itself. The iconic character edges out Jesus and Elvis as the most reproduced image in the world. Yes, that's right: Mickey Mouse really is bigger than Jesus.
The amazing thing is that Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS ) is even bigger than Mickey. Though the company still collects a large share of its revenue from the theme parks and studio entertainment that owe their genesis to the lovable mouse, they have also branched out and now record just as much revenue from their media networks, including ABC and ESPN.
A Lion King's share of the growth
These networks had a huge role to play in the 30% jump in profits this quarter. Revenue for the company's media networks was up 9% year over year, with operating income up a monster 20%. This figure needs to be understood two ways. First, Disney was building off somewhat soft third-fiscal-quarter numbers from last year, which fell 7% from their 2009 high. And with an impressive $4.8 billion in revenue, this was its best fiscal third quarter, bar none.
On the conference call, CFO Jay Rasulo was keen to note that the NBA lockout would have a negligible effect on ESPN, somewhat putting those fears to rest. I buy it. The bigger news is that ESPN renewed its contract for Monday Night Football. The eight-year deal keeps delivering the NFL through 2021. Though it admittedly adds $800 million a year in average costs over the current contract, football is the most-watched sport in the United States, and ESPN is the gatekeeper advertisers will have to face.
What's old is new again, and being newly built
Disney Theme parks saw an unexpected 11% revenue pop over the same quarter last year. This is huge for Disney, but it also may be exciting for the larger economy, as many believe that increasing theme-park sales are indicative of an improvement in the overall economy. This is very encouraging, and it's a long way from the double-digit declines in theme-park revenue Disney became accustomed to in 2009.
It's great to see Disney capitalizing on its existing parks, but for me the real story here is international ambitions. As a bull on the emerging-markets scene, I'm excited about the opportunities here. As Disney CEO Bob Iger stated, "It is imperative for this company to plant a number of seeds in the emerging world." And he has put his money where his mouth is, as Disney broke ground on the $4.4 billion Shanghai Disney Resort earlier this year. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the potential here is enormous, and Disney is marking the right moves by expanding there.
Disney has done an incredible job of diversifying beyond its Mickey Mouse heritage. Some may see its ownership of ESPN as disconnected from the larger brand, but the dividends being reaped from this property are huge. Disney even has its own cruise line, which competes head to head with Carnival Cruises (NYSE: CCL ) and Royal Caribbean Cruises (NYSE: RCL ) . That's really a long way from Disney's foundation, but it's diversity like that, both segmental and geographic, that will keep Disney humming profitably along. It may also help insulate the company from large negative swings in one market or another.
I'm thrilled to see that Disney's theme parks are growing revenue, but I'm even more excited about its expansion plans and by how successful its networks have become. I tip my hat to this company for being able to successfully grow revenue in different markets. The ESPN contract has locked in a lot of eyeballs to sell to sponsors for the next eight years, and the new theme parks in Asia have the potential to bring in enormous revenue. Over the next few years, these guys have a great foundation on which to keep putting up quarters like this.
Other companies have cued in to the international growth machine as well. I encourage you to read about one that is well positioned to dominate the Latin American market going forward. You can access The Motley Fool's free special report called The Hottest IPO of 2011. Thousands have requested it already, and I recommend you take a peek and put your ear to the street. Fool on!