Disney+ could drop 20 million subscribers after losing cricket rights

Walt Disney Co. could lose as many as 20 million of its Disney+ subscribers after being outbid for the streaming rights to Indian Premier League cricket matches this week.

The estimate from Media Partners Asia means the company may have trouble reaching its goal of as many as 260 million global Disney+ subscribers by 2024, according to Vivek Couto, executive director of the research firm.

“IPL drives customer acquisition,” he said in an email. “It’s regarded as entertainment not just sports by Indian households – women and men.”

Few consumer products have been as successful as Disney+. The service, which offers unlimited Disney movies and TV shows, garnered 10 million subscribers on its first day in November 2019 and boasted nearly 138 million at last count.

Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek made a bold forecast in late 2020, predicting the company would triple its subscriber count in four years.

About 50 million, more than one-third, of the worldwide subscribers come from Disney+ Hotstar, a product offered in India and other South Asian nations, and cricket has been a big driver of that.

For months investors have been debating whether the company will have to lower its forecast. The drumbeat began after a weak quarter last year and continued after Netflix Inc. reported its first subscriber loss in a decade in April. Disney shares are down 39% this year.

Disney lost the cricket bidding war to a group that includes Paramount Global and India’s Reliance Industries.

While Disney lost the streaming rights, it retained the rights for broadcast on traditional TV networks, agreeing to pay nearly $3 billion (R48 billion) over five years to broadcast the games.

The company has some 70 channels in India, distributed by cable and satellite TV operators.

In a statement on Tuesday, Disney said it can still use those traditional channels to promote Disney+Hotstar.

“We made disciplined bids with a focus on long-term value,” the company said.

Subscribers to Disney+ Hotstar pay only 76 cents a month on average for the service, versus the standard fee of about $8 a month in the US for Disney+.

That’s annualised revenue of less than $500 million, making it hard to justify the high yearly IPL rights fees.

Chapek said in February that he didn’t see a loss of cricket streaming rights impacting the long-term Disney+ forecast as the company has other content it can offer Indian subscribers.

“It’s not like we see that business evaporating if we don’t get it,” he said.

Some analysts see an opportunity for the company to change its guidance with the cricket loss.

“It is important for Disney to use IPL to reset expectations in a more manageable range,” Barclays analyst Kannan Venkateshwar wrote in a research note Tuesday.

A lower forecast may not have much impact on the stock at this point, he wrote, because investors are already factoring in that likelihood.

Disney didn’t comment on its subscriber guidance Tuesday. It usually does that during quarterly earnings calls and other events for investors.

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Disney+ could drop 20 million subscribers after losing cricket rights