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Haters Keep Sending SeaWorld Stock Higher

By Rick Munarriz – Mar 1, 2018 at 9:24AM

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The controversial theme park operator loses its CEO, fueling even more buyout speculation that has sent the stock 40% higher over the past three months.

Some stocks don't earn their gains. Shares of SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS 2.07%) have soared more than 40% since bottoming out in November. If you're looking for a catalyst behind the market-thumping returns, you won't find it in its financial performance. The operator of the Busch Gardens, SeaWorld, and Aquatica attractions followed up a rough third quarter with a deficit-widening fourth quarter earlier this week. 

You also won't find inspiration for the stock's recent gains through market confidence in management or that a turnaround is in the works. CEO Joel Manby announced on Tuesday that he's leaving the company, and his interim replacement is someone who has spent decades at the struggling theme park company. Revenue has now fallen for four consecutive years -- hey there, Blackfish -- and the near-term prognosis isn't very promising.

This leaves us with wondering if the lone reason for the stock's buoyancy rests in the bobbing buyout speculation that surfaced in early October. Bloomberg and The Telegraph were reporting that Legoland parent Merlin Entertainment or other potential suitors may be interested in buying at least some of SeaWorld's less controversial attractions. Merlin eventually denied the report, but it wouldn't be outlandish if an opportunistic amusement park operator or private equity firm took a shine to SeaWorld Entertainment as a fixer-upper. If that's the case, the irony is rich in that SeaWorld shareholders are cashing in on the hate of venom-slinging activists over the past three months.

Manta roller coaster in action at SeaWorld Orlando.

Image source: SeaWorld Entertainment.

Splashing down 

There were some silver linings in SeaWorld's report on Tuesday. Attendance declined 2.7%, but that was partly offset by a 2% increase in per capita spending. Both of those metrics improved from SeaWorld's performance in the previous nine-month period. SeaWorld also revealed that year-to-date trends in terms of season pass sales and total attendance have been improving, particularly at SeaWorld San Diego, which has been its most troublesome attraction lately. 

However, Manby's departure and the board's decision to tap longtime SeaWorld exec John Reilly as its interim CEO is what briefly excited the market. SeaWorld stock opened 5% higher following Tuesday morning's news, only to close out the day with a 5% decline. The "interim" tag means that SeaWorld is looking for a new leader, and while that may very well be Reilly himself in a few months, this pretty much opens the window for any potential suitors. The moment that SeaWorld announces a flashy outsider is being brought in to turn things around -- the way it did with Manby in 2015 -- the buyout chatter loses steam. 

Manby seemed like the right kind of outsider to turn things around at first. He came from Herschend Enterprises, the family-owned operator behind the beloved Silver Dollar City and Dollywood parks. He had a well-received turn on Undercover Boss, and even put out a business management book recommending that executives lead with love as a guiding principle. He brought warm fuzzies into a cold, prickly company, but it wasn't enough. His strategy to rely less on the controversial marine life shows and more on rides and festivals like his larger theme park rivals failed to generate improvement in turnstile clicks. He didn't do enough to appease most activists, yet retreating from SeaWorld's core marine life performances alienated some of its existing fan base. 

This isn't the end for SeaWorld. It is still making big investments on new rides that will open later this year. Unlike its larger theme park peers that are saving their dry powder for 2019 expansion plans, SeaWorld is joining regional amusement park operators making big ride additions in 2018. SeaWorld Orlando is getting a record-breaking river rafting ride, and SeaWorld San Diego is getting its first looping coaster. It's certainly not operating as if it's waiting for someone else to save it, but now that there's flux at the top with SeaWorld trading at an enterprise value-to-revenue multiple below all of its publicly traded peers, it may not be single for much longer. 

Rick Munarriz has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool is short shares of SeaWorld Entertainment. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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