Disney Falls on Analyst Rating Cut as ESPN Woes Overshadow 'Star Wars'

Concern Over Cord-Cutting Shadows Media Giant

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DJ Charles performs on stage during an event for fans ahead of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' South Korea premiere on Dec. 9 in Seoul.
DJ Charles performs on stage during an event for fans ahead of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' South Korea premiere on Dec. 9 in Seoul. Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios
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Walt Disney Co. dropped as much as 3.6% after BTIG downgraded the stock to sell, saying the owner of ESPN overpaid for sports rights at the expense of its cable-TV unit's profitability.

In a note titled "Even The Force Cannot Protect ESPN," published on the day Disney's "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" debuts in U.S. theaters, BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield said he now estimates that Disney's fiscal 2017 cable operating profit will decline from a year earlier.

Concern about subscriber losses at ESPN, which remains the dominant sports outlet in American and is Disney's most profitable channel, has contributed to two meltdowns in media stocks since August, because they cast light on the magnitude of the number of consumers who are dropping traditional TV packages for cheaper online alternatives.

The shares traded down 3% to $108.66 at 10:45 a.m., as investors await the early box office results of the latest "Star Wars" in the U.S.

While the strength of "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens," estimated at $2.6 billion in global box office, will lead to Disney modestly exceeding consensus expectations for earnings in the fiscal year ending in September 2016, estimates are too high for fiscal 2017 and "far too high" for fiscal 2018, Mr. Greenfield said.

If the latest Star Wars doesn't exceed $2.0 billion in worldwide box office revenue, Disney will miss BTIG's fiscal 2016 estimates, the analyst said.

-- Bloomberg News