Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) isn't at its best these days. The stock has fallen for three consecutive months, and it's coming off of another quarter with revenue and earnings going the wrong way. Disney's top and bottom lines have declined in three of the past four quarters.
Disney remains the undisputed top dog in family entertainment, theme parks, and sports programming, but the perceived value of that dominance is coming under fire. The media giant will have some big questions to answer in the near future. Let's go ahead and ask them.
1. What if ESPN's streaming service flops?
Disney turned heads this summer, announcing that it will roll out an over-the-top ESPN streaming service next year. This is a more gutsy undertaking than the ESPN streams it makes available to existing cable subscribers of the high-priced sports network. Disney is hoping that it can get diehard sports fans who have cut or will cut the cord to pay up for a dedicated streaming service.
It's a gamble. Disney's media networks remain its largest business, and it relies on cable and satellite television subscribers shelling out big bucks every month for bundles that include many channels they don't watch. Now that streaming services are giving investors the ability to cherry-pick the content they want and pay less, there's going to be a lot of pain for Disney's lesser cable properties.
The real problem here is what Disney will do if folks don't pay up for the ESPN service. The network's deals with leagues inch higher every year, and that was a problem already with subscriber counts falling every year since peaking in 2011. The ability to pay those ransoms will only get harder. Will ESPN's streaming service have to be overly expensive, testing the elasticity of hardcore sports fans? If ESPN's platform stumbles, what does it mean for the chances of the broader Disney-branded service that it plans to introduce in early 2019? The answers aren't going to be pretty.
2. What if new theme park rides and attractions don't lift guest counts?
Disney is struggling to drum up attendance at its domestic theme parks. Last year was rough, and 2017 is shaping up to be more of the same. New rides and attractions are on the way, and Disney's in the first year of a five-year plan in which big investments in bar-raising experiences are expected to get turnstile clicks going again.
Pandora – The World of Avatar is a marvel, but Disney's theme parks didn't do much in the first quarter with Animal Kingdom's ambitious Avatar-themed expansion. What if Toy Story Land doesn't do the trick next year? What if Star Wars Land doesn't do the trick when it opens at Disneyland and Disney World in 2019?
Disney has been pushing rates higher and introducing demand-based pricing that makes it a lot more expensive to visit Disney World during peak travel periods. If new rides don't turn things around, will Disney be humble enough to lower prices? If 2019 isn't a record year, it wouldn't be a surprise.
3. Who will replace Bob Iger?
Disney's recent struggles notwithstanding, CEO Bob Iger has done an amazing job at the media giant. He rose to the helm at a tumultuous time and proved to be a stabilizing force. He cut billion-dollar deals for Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and BAMTech. His contract ends in early July 2019, and while his CEO run has been extended in the past, he has insisted that this is the end of the line.
Iger will be leaving at a time when ESPN and Disney over-the-top streaming services will have to make up for the lost cable revenue and when new park rides strive to pick up attendance levels. If Disney isn't progressing on both fronts, it's going to be a difficult time to hand over the crown, and that's before we even begin to consider who will be Disney's next CEO.