May 16 2014, 4:01pm CDT | by Forbes
Updated at market close.
Vince McMahon lost $350 million as of market close on Friday, as shares in his WWE took a beating from investors. The stock was down more than 40% since the market open. In fact, the stock, which had closed just below $20 on Thursday, opened down below $11. That immediately knocked the WWE boss out of the billionaire ranks, putting his net worth now at an estimated $750 million.
The stock fell after news that WWE had signed a new television deal with NBCUniversal for less than some investors had hoped. Benchmark analyst Mike Hickey estimated WWE got a 50% raise over its last TV agreement, but he expected the new deal to pay WWE double or triple its previous one.
“The company’s valuation could take a heavy beating this morning, as the new domestic TV deal with NBCUniversal likely disappointed investors,” he wrote in a report downgrading the price target for the company’s stock from $29.12 to $19.96.
WWE executives kept an even tone but offered little additional guidance. “We never commented publicly on the expectation,” said George Barrios, chief strategy and financial officer. “We said we were undervalued by the math that we had done.”
The new TV deal hit at a turbulent time for WWE and McMahon. The company’s shares shot up 89% in the first three months of 2014, and McMahon’s net worth peaked in mid-March at $1.6 billion. But shares dropped 29% the week after WWE announced its new online streaming network had only 667,000 subscribers, taking a $325 million chunk out of McMahon’s fortune. He remained a billionaire until this morning.
Some investors saw the trouble coming. Intrepid Capital Management, once WWE’s largest outside investor, sold its 10% stake in January. Intrepid’s Jayme Wiggins told Forbes in a feature story on McMahon that he thought the billionaire was getting too excited about his new online streaming network.
That concern remains, but Wiggins now has additional questions after reading the company’s financial projections provided in the news release about the TV deal. The online streaming network should break even when it has 1.5 million subscribers, according to Wiggins, but WWE said its operating income will be just $40-$60 million at that point—even with new TV deals that will add $90 million to the company’s revenue.
“The question is why their numbers are so low given this renewal,” Wiggins said. “With the information that they put out there, it seems to imply that their core business isn’t making money.”
It is possible that the TV deals have a steep escalation in later years, Wiggins cautioned, so WWE might not be getting $90 million a year by the time it reaches 1.5 million subscribers on the online network, which could account for the underwhelming projections.
“If that’s at play here, it could kind of mitigate all of this bearishness that’s happening today,” Wiggins said. “There is definitely some confusion here, which is why you’re seeing the stock drop.”
Barrios offered little to clear up the confusion. “I don’t want to talk about the specifics of how the contracts are structured,” he said. “I think it’s pretty typical that there is some escalation in them, but we haven’t gone into detail on any of that.”
Cutting TV deals is how McMahon built such a massive fortune in the first place. He got his start in 1972 working for his father’s small, regional wrestling promotions company. Ten years later, he bought out his father and set about taking WWE national. He used pay-per-view to jack up revenues and reach a national audience, making stars out of wrestlers like Hulk Hogan and turning himself into a TV personality in his own right. With TV numbers growing, attendance at live performances blew up.
McMahon became a billionaire for the first time in 2000, still holding onto a huge stake in the company. But WWE stock dropped a year later and didn’t recover that ground until January of this year, about 13 years or so later, when McMahon—who owns 52% today—rejoined the billionaire ranks. Now he’s down and out once again.
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