AT&T (NYSE: T), at 118.65 million subscribers at the close of third-quarter 2014, and Verizon (NYSE: VZ), at 125.29 million, have the top two spots locked down. T-Mobile, which finished the year with over 55 million subscribers, has closed the gap with Sprint, which at last report had close to 56 million users. T-Mobile also has spectacular growth momentum, adding 8.3 million new customers in 2014.
The "un-carrier" might be in fourth place, but it's the hip brand on the rise with the dynamic CEO who has a very limited filter. T-Mobile and its CEO John Legere are the underdog, the outsider taking on the big boys and winning.
Sprint, with new CEO Marcelo Claure, has attempted to establish a similar identity but has mostly succeeded in showing customers that it's a lesser alternative to AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. Sprint is not the biggest or the best and it's not the anti-industry rebel that offers low prices and refreshing honesty.
A little good news
Before Mr. Claure took over Sprint, the carrier was a sinking ship marketing its confusing "Framily" plans. Not only that, but it also lacked much of an identity, which was bad news for a company with an inferior network to the big two and higher pricing (in general) than T-Mobile. Fortunately, Claure might not be Legere, but he does have a bit of personality. He has stemmed the bleeding, and in the most recent quarter the company added nearly 1 million connections, a 42% increase over last year. It's a start and is certainly better than losing subscribers, but even Claure acknowledges the company has much work left.
"We are pleased with the growth in sales in the quarter and the improving quality of our customer base as we begin our turnaround plan," said Claure in the company's earnings third-quarter 2014 press release. "However, we acknowledge there is a long way to go to reach our goals, including lowering our postpaid churn rates to competitive levels. Our network performance continues to improve, and we are now focused on a strategy that will unlock the true potential of our spectrum assets. I am confident that we have the right plan in place to be successful."
Claure might be right, but he faces an uphill climb in changing consumer perception of his brand. AT&T and Verizon remain the safe choices, and T-Mobile is the pricing play for consumers, which leaves Sprint as pretty much the other guy.
A look at the stock
Sprint's stock price has moved very little since Claure took over in August 2014. The rise you see on the chart below happened while Sprint and T-Mobile were dancing around a possible merger. Prices fell from what was a five-year high beginning in July when doubts about the deal began to surface.
Claure's appointment, which came on the same day T-Mobile officially dropped the merger plans, provided a bounce toward the end of 2014, but that was short-lived and company's share price shows no signs of approaching its post-merger-rumors heights.
Is Sprint one of the top stocks to buy?
Ultimately, stock price is tied to a business's performance, and it's hard to see how Sprint will dramatically improve its fortunes anytime soon. Claure might rebuild consumer trust in the company, improve its network, and find a marketing strategy that differentiates the brand in a positive way. That might keep the company in the conversation, but that does not mean it will produce strong enough results to push the stock price steadily higher.
The only wild card for Sprint is whether the company becomes an acquisition or merger target. Given the announced (but not yet approved) merger between AT&T and DIRECTV, a Sprint/DISH Network hookup would make some sense, as would a deal with one of the major cable players looking to counter the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger.
Those potential deals, however, are pure speculation, and they are not as obviously positive as a Sprint/T-Mobile merger would have been.
Without a merger, Sprint's stock seems unlikely to make any type of major turnaround (and even with one the effect might be short-lived). Sprint might be a very long play -- if you believe Claure's steady management will ultimately win the day -- but it's tough to call it a top stock to buy at the moment.
Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He is a Sprint subscriber and has been since the 1990s. The Motley Fool recommends Verizon Communications. 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.