'Blackfish' Could Still Spell Trouble for SeaWorld

"Blackfish" might seem like old news, but according to Google Trends, that’s not the case whatsoever.

Mar 5, 2014 at 2:30PM

Seas

(seaworldparks.com) 

SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) is currently dealing with some PR difficulties.  You might think this sounds ludicrous given the fact that SeaWorld delivered record-level attendance despite higher prices in its fourth quarter. However, if you do a little research on some important dates and the true impact of "Blackfish," then you might see that SeaWorld's near-future potential could be questionable. 

Trends are your friends 
 In this case, we're looking at Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Trends.

Google Trends is often used by people or businesses looking to find out what's hot. To read Google Trends, all you have to do is view the timeline chart, and the scores range from zero to 100. Put simply, the higher the score is to 100, the more users are searching for that word or phrase. This, in turn, indicates what's hot (or not.)

With that in mind, consider that SeaWorld reported third-quarter results on Nov. 13. You might be thinking that the impact of "Blackfish" already reached its maximum by that time since this tragic documentary was released in July. However, it was a limited release, and it only grossed about $2.1 million at the domestic box office. The real impact of "Blackfish" didn't come until much later, when CNN aired it in October.

Google Trends offers proof. When viewing the chart below, remember that the higher the score (100 maximum), the more popular that word or phrase on Google Search.

Month And Year

Google Trends Score

August 2013

52

September 2013

37

October 2013

78

November 2013

78

December 2013

100

January 2013

83

(Google.com) 

As you can see, the box-office impact began to fade quickly, but once CNN aired the documentary in October, "Blackfish" became a much more popular term. If more people are searching for "Blackfish," then it's extremely likely that more people are watching it as well as sharing with their friends on social media sites.

The point here is that these heightened scores took place after SeaWorld reported last quarter. The real impact will be seen in the upcoming quarter. This doesn't guarantee that the upcoming quarter will be a miss, but it's not uplifting information. Even if you're not a believer in these numbers, there are some other numbers to consider.

Attendance is a slippery slope 
In SeaWorld's third quarter, attendance declined 3.6% year over year. In the second quarter, attendance had slid 9.5%. Therefore, you could say that the third quarter offered a sequential improvement. On the other hand, "Blackfish" was pretty much a non-factor in the second quarter. That being the case, why did attendance weaken so much without a PR nightmare? That's concerning. Looking at the bigger picture, for the first nine months of 2013, attendance declined 4.7% year over year.

On the positive side, third-quarter revenue increased 3% to $538.4 million, and net income jumped 30% to $120.2 million -- both records. The reasons for the improvements? An increase in total revenue per capita to $60.74 from $56.80 in the year-ago quarter and effective cost management. However, this only increases expectations at a time when Seaworld is facing its biggest challenge.

Opportunity
As simplistic as this might sound, many people book Orlando, Fla. vacations well in advance. This has a lot to do with finding discounts on airfare and travel in combination with booking hotel rooms during popular travel weeks.

That being the case, it's logical to assume that at least a small percentage of travelers who previously planned on visiting SeaWorld but then watched "Blackfish" changed their plans. If they changed their plans, then they might have opted to spend an extra day at Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS)World or Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Studios.

Both Disney World and Universal Studios recently increased their prices, which wouldn't have been done unless demand was high and there was confidence in future prospects. Put simply, it's very possible that SeaWorld is losing sales to Disney and Universal Studios. While this isn't likely to lead to significant sales increases for Disney or Universal Studios, it's still a plus for both parks, and their recent price hikes indicate strong demand anyway. 

The Foolish bottom line
The above information is just a theory. The theory is that the "Blackfish" impact didn't really hit until after SeaWorld's third quarter, which means that fourth-quarter results aren't likely to be impressive. On the other hand, anything is possible. If you would prefer to invest in theme parks that are seeing consistent traffic and not having to deal with PR nightmares, then you might want to dig deeper into Disney or Comcast and their other segments. Please do your own research prior to making any investment decisions.

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Dan Moskowitz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Google and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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