Disney's annual report indicates that there were 92 million domestic subscribers to ESPN as of Oct. 3. That's a majority of the pay TV homes out there, but it's a far cry from its all-time peak of 100 million in fiscal 2010. Even two years ago we had 99 million ESPN stateside users. That fell to 95 million last year, and now we're down to 92 million.
Subscriptions to Disney other cable properties have fallen, but not to the same extent as ESPN. Cord cutting is real, but what's becoming an even more alarming concern is that more than just Web-tethered millennials are kissing the world's top sports network goodbye.
It's easy to see why folks are bailing. Outside of the premium movie channels, ESPN is the most expensive cable channel. Unless someone is a diehard sports fanatic or can't live without the programming slate of ESPN's original shows, the cable channel is a luxury.
Investors are rightfully nervous. Instead of cheering on record theme park attendance, putting out two of this year's three biggest box-office winners, and the upcoming Star Wars movies, they're now fretting about what a shrinking audience at ESPN will mean for Disney. It doesn't help that ESPN has locked itself into content deals that get more expensive with evert passing year.
Disney's media networks accounted for 44% of its revenue and 53% of its operating profit in fiscal 2015. ESPN has historically been viewed as the rock star in Disney's largest division, and it's the envy of the media world. Sports programming was supposed to be bulletproof in the cord-cutting revolution. Live sports is something that needs to be consumed as it happens, and it's not a coincidence that the leading streaming video services don't have live TV content.
ESPN was Disney's cash cow, but now it seems as if this heifer is putting out powdered milk.
This doesn't mean the situation makes Disney a deal breaker. For starters, investors already knew ESPN was shaking subscribers. That became clear when it surrendered 4 million net subs through fiscal 2014, and Disney pointed out the sequential declines in ESPN subscribers in its past couple of earnings reports. Disney's not shying away from the matter.
The important takeaway here is that Disney is still managing to post healthy year-over-year growth at both ends of its incomes statement, and even its media networks division is playing along with a 10% top-line spurt in fiscal 2015. Between subscribers and advertisers paying more, Disney can still grow in this climate. Outside media networks, Disney's well positioned to cash in on all of its current and upcoming catalysts. From Star Wars: The Force Awakens to Shanghai Disney to January's relaunch of ABC Family as Freeform, the next few months will be too exciting to dump the stock on the current hiccups at ESPN.
Disney knows what it's doing. Disney always knows what it's doing.
Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. 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.