Disney Not Giving Thanks to Cord Cutters: ESPN Loses 2 Million Subscriptions in 2016

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Disney chief executive Bob Iger has been wrangling with subscription losses at ESPN, but there might be a silver lining.

Walt Disney Co. isn’t giving thanks to cord-cutters this holiday weekend.

The entertainment conglomerate said that flagship cable network ESPN shed about 2 million subscribers in its 2016 fiscal year that ended Oct. 1, according to a regulatory filing issued late Wednesday. ESPN counted 90 million subscribers tuned into its sports programming during the period, marking a continued slide from the 100 million reported just five years ago.

Disney chief executive Bob Iger has been wrangling with subscription losses at ESPN for more than a year, a drop that has spooked investors and left the company's stock price stunted. Disney shares are down some 18 percent this year to near $98 amid investor anguish that the ESPN profit driver is losing steam.

There might be a silver lining in the decline, though: The hemorrhaging may be slowing. The current 2.2 percent decline in subscribers is better than the 3.2 percent ESPN gave up in 2015, and an even better feat when stacked up against the 4 percent drop the previous year. 

Iger signaled as much earlier this month. "I've taken a more bullish position on the future of ESPN's subscription base," he told Wall Street analysts during a Nov. 11 conference call after reporting fourth-quarter earnings. He believes that consumers moving to “skinny” cable bundles that exclude more expensive sports programming has “abated.”

At the time, Iger outlined ways that Disney was shoring up ESPN in the face of declining cable subscriptions. Among them is that the sports network plans to introduce its own direct-to-consumer streaming service next year. He believes it gives Disney "an interesting opportunity to create a new product" that's more user-friendly.

Part of that strategy is Disney's $1 billion investment in Major League Baseball's technology business, BAMTech. The service powers streaming services for sports and media companies. And, analysts speculate, the acquisition will help Disney juice up a new ESPN-branded, multi-sport subscription streaming service.