SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) has suffered through a lot of bad publicity and financial hardships over the past few years. The stock has suffered as a result, down nearly 30% in 2014 so far. The summer months, which should be the company's most profitable quarter, were pretty bad, especially compared with the great results of competitor Disney (NYSE:DIS) and its theme-park operations. With poor financials, a heavy debt burden, and not much to look forward to in terms of growing revenue in the next year, will SeaWorld investors ever see the stock value return, or is the stock sunk?

Bleak financials and drowning in debt
From strictly an earnings and financial standpoint, SeaWorld's future looks pretty bleak. For the most recent quarter, SeaWorld investors were disappointed when the company again reported well below analyst estimates, with EPS of $0.43, which was 28% lower than expectations of $0.60 per share. And earnings estimates continue to fall. What began as a year-end forecast of $1.43 per share back at the start of 2014 has most recently been pared down to $1.13 per share.    

One more reason SeaWorld's financials look terrible now is the company's $1.64 billion debt burden. That's a total debt-to-equity ratio of 2.95, which is extremely risky for a company with declining revenue, and especially for one that has little reason to believe that operations will grow to eventually pay off that debt.

Compare that debt with that of Disney, with a total debt-to-equity ratio of just 0.33. Furthermore, while Disney has enough cash to cover about a quarter of its outstanding debt right now, SeaWorld could at this moment use cash to pay off only about 1/26 of its debt load. Who knows how long SeaWorld can maintain this high level of debt without it completely sinking the company? Eventually the company will have to meet this obligation or go under.

Blackfish continues to loom over the company
One of SeaWorld's biggest struggles recently has been dealing with the public-relations nightmare that the documentary BlackFish brought to the company. The documentary released last summer portrayed SeaWorld as a violator of both animal and human rights.

Image: Blackfish official movie website,,

SeaWorld management disagrees with the film's allegations and maintains that the stock price hasn't been negatively affected by it. It's fair to say that there are other reasons for the stock's decline, such as quarter after quarter of earnings misses, including the huge expected earnings miss from this most recent quarter. Ultimately, the film's effects on the company's operations have likely played a role.

In August, Standard & Poor's lowered its rating on SeaWorld, which sparked an immediate additional stock decline following the sell-off resulting from a poor Q2. In the downgrade report, S&P analysts said that "the negative outlook reflects our belief that the company faces significant challenges regarding reputational risk and potential improvements in operating performance beyond 2014," including that "negative media reports that have specifically targeted the company's use of orca whales for entertainment purposes."

Is there any value left in SeaWorld?
Warren Buffett once referred to companies like SeaWorld as half-smoked cigars that somebody could draw one last puff from. Is SeaWorld a stock with the potential to come back from these current lows?

SeaWorld's future looks bleak, and even for Foolish investors looking for deep value stocks -- the "cigar butts" of the investing world -- SeaWorld looks very cheap for a good reason: There aren't many long-term catalysts right now to inspire belief that the company will be able to swim out of this sea of hurt anytime soon. With quarter after quarter of lackluster results, continued hardships from the Blackfish documentary, and little reason to believe the company has a plan to change course toward a more profitable operating strategy, SeaWorld's stock will probably continue taking on water.

Bradley Seth McNew owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.