Three months after Walt Disney boss Bob Iger warned that ESPN had lost “some” subscribers recently, we now know how much damage on-demand streaming has done to Disney’s powerhouse sports network. The number of ESPN subscribers is now back where it was 10 years ago, after the network shed 3 million customers in its fiscal year ended Oct. 3, according to a regulatory filing released after markets closed Wednesday.
To put it in perspective: With ESPN now at 92 million subscribers, there are more people watching other Disney networks, including the History Channel, Lifetime and A&E, than the once-dominant sports net, which has been the mainstay of Disney’s cable offerings for years. In 2013, ESPN was approaching 100 million subscribers.
Disney joins it rivals in struggling against the trend toward media streaming that has battered media stocks for the past year. Customers are increasingly gravitating toward the on-demand model to watch their sports rather than subscribing to a package of channels. In the past ESPN has been the lure to buying cable subscriptions, but that lure is less enticing in the cord-cutting era.
ESPN’s main rival, Fox Sports Net, boasted about 89 million subscribers in its fiscal year ended July 30, down from 91 million subscribers in the previous 12-month period, according to its regulatory filings. Time Warner Inc. has also recently reported a slide in subscribers as viewers migrate to services like Netflix and HBO Go for their programming.
Walt Disney Co. (NYSE:DIS) earned $8.81 billion in net profit in its last fiscal year on $52.47 billion in revenue. And despite its troubles with ESPN, the Burbank, California-based entertainment behemoth is expected to draw $200 million on the opening weekend for the widely anticipated “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.” Opening- weekend revenue from the latest installment in the sci-fi film franchise, which opens Dec. 18, will nearly match the $216 million Disney has lost from ESPN ditchers over a 12-month period.
Whether Disney’s cable offerings can adapt to the disruptive technology of on-demand streaming or not, the Mouse House is doing just fine. Walt Disney Co.’s (NYSE:DIS) share price is up more than 33 percent over the past 12 months, to $118.69.