Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) recently announced that it would purchase a 51% stake in Universal Studios Japan in Osaka for $1.5 billion, marking its largest investment outside the United States to date. During a press conference, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts stated that the company had considered making the acquisition ever since its 2011 purchase of Universal Studios' parent company, NBCUniversal.
Attendance at Universal Studios Japan surged 21% annually last fiscal year to 12.7 million visitors, thanks to the opening of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction last July. That growth was notably stronger than Disney's 0.3% growth at the Tokyo Disney Resort, which hosted 31.4 million visitors last year.
Why Universal Studios matters
Comcast has poured a lot of money into Universal Studios theme parks over the past few years. It spent about $100 million to build Transformers: The Ride at Universal Orlando, which opened in 2013 and boosted attendance figures at the aging park. It also launched new Despicable Me and Harry Potter attractions, and added King Kong, Fast and Furious, Hello Kitty, and Nintendo attractions to its pipeline.
It opened eight new restaurants in Orlando's CityWalk shopping area over the last two years, and the new Volcano Bay water park will open in 2017. Comcast also invested $1.6 billion in its California park to create new rides, build new hotels, and add thousands of parking spots.
In Beijing, the company building a $3.25 billion theme park which is scheduled to open in 2019. Construction on a park in Moscow will begin in 2017 and should open five years later. Comcast also plans to open new parks in South Korea and Dubai, and there has been speculation that it could open its second Japanese park on the southern island of Okinawa. All those new projects will greatly expand Universal's international footprint beyond its two overseas locations in Singapore and Osaka.
A new growth engine
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts declared that the investment in Universal Studios Japan represented just "the beginning" of more global investments for Comcast. It also shows that Comcast is serious about turning Universal Studios into a major growth engine for the company.
The motivation is simple: Comcast's theme park segment is growing at a much faster rate than its other businesses. Last year, cable and Internet revenue rose 5.5% annually and accounted for 64% of the top line. Revenue from NBCUniversal, which accounted for the remainder, improved just 7.5%, but within NBCUniversal, theme park revenue jumped 17.3% and accounted for over 10% of the division's top line.
During the first six months of 2015, theme park revenue rose another 29% annually to $1.42 billion as its operating cash flow surged 49% to $617 million. Comcast attributed that robust growth to the popularity of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley in Orlando and the new Fast and Furious attraction in Hollywood.
Universal Studios Japan is growing at an even faster rate. Last fiscal year, revenue increased 44% to 138.5 billion yen ($1.15 billion) as operating profit soared 61% to 39 billion yen ($324 million). Both figures represented record highs for the company.
The evolution of Comcast
Comcast tried to merge with Time Warner Cable earlier this year, but the deal was abandoned after fierce opposition from various regulatory and consumer groups. After dropping the proposed $45.2 billion deal, Comcast started investing in other sources of growth, like overseas theme parks, instead.
NBCUniversal also recently invested a combined $400 million in BuzzFeed and Vox Media, the online publisher of The Verge and Re/code. Those "new media" investments help Comcast diversify away from traditional TV ads and into digital advertising.
Investments in theme parks and digital advertising could help Comcast soften the blow from cord cutting, which caused the company to lose 69,000 cable video subscribers last quarter. As customers left, so did advertisers, which caused cable advertising revenue to dip 1% annually.
Not the next Disney ... yet
It might seem that Comcast wants to become the next Disney, but the House of Mouse still generates more than five times as much revenue from its theme parks across the world. Nonetheless, investors should still keep a close eye on the evolution and expansion of Universal Studios, and how Comcast has excelled at building its brand at home and abroad.