SeaWorld Execs: 'Blackfish' Isn't Hurting Business - Voice of San Diego

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SeaWorld Execs: 'Blackfish' Isn't Hurting Business

SeaWorld executives told financial analysts Thursday that revenue and visits to its marine parks are up even in light of a critical documentary that continues to get air time. SeaWorld San Diego’s rent payments – which are tied to revenue – seem to back that up.

SeaWorld executives told financial analysts Thursday that revenue and visits to its marine parks are up even in light of a critical documentary that continues to get air time.

In a Thursday financial results call, the company reported record revenues for 2013 and upswings in attendance at its three SeaWorld parks in the final months of that year despite repeated airings of “Blackfish” on CNN and its debut on Netflix.

“The assertions by the animal rights and animal activist community, they don’t necessarily burden themselves with fact, and we have to deal with that from time to time but we have seen no effect on our business,” SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison said.

He even speculated that the movie had increased interest in “marine mammal parks” like SeaWorld.

But Atchison and the company’s chief financial officer didn’t talk about performance at specific parks or delve into concerns about a California state Assembly bill that could force its San Diego location to abandon Shamu shows.

I recently requested reams of information about SeaWorld’s lease with the city and obtained details about the company’s monthly rent payments, which are based on percentages of 19 different SeaWorld revenues. Presumably, if more visitors are coming to the San Diego park, the city should see a larger payment.

Maurice Robinson, a Manhattan Beach-based consultant who helped negotiate the most recent substantive changes to city’s SeaWorld lease agreed that the rent payments should mostly reflect changes the San Diego park might have seen since “Blackfish” debuted.

“The way the rent is structured, revenues should follow rents exactly,” he said. “I would imagine the correlation is incredibly high.”

So here’s a look at monthly rent payments over the past two years.

 

SeaWorld San Diego’s 2013 lease payments were up or roughly on par with 2012 in all but four months: June, July, September and October.

The shifts in those months weren’t large but they may not be insignificant. Keep in mind that the city only sees a small percentage of SeaWorld San Diego’s total revenues, so any payments it receives per month are just a fraction of what the theme park takes in.

Two of the months in which the rent payments suggest a decline were significant for the movie.

“Blackfish” was released in the U.S. on July 19 and debuted on CNN on Oct. 24, though the latter date was likely too late in the month to significantly deter visitors already planning to visit SeaWorld – if it did so at all.

Let’s start with June. The city collected about $1.8 million from SeaWorld based on June 2012 revenues and about $16,600 less for the same month in 2013.

The next month, the city received about $55,000 less than it had from SeaWorld the previous year.

For September, SeaWorld cut the city a check that was about $12,500 less than the same month in 2012.

At roughly the same time, SeaWorld spoke publicly about a drop in visitors it attributed to an earlier spike in ticket prices and a badly timed Easter holiday, and started offering major discounts for weekday visitors.

But the October 2013 rent payment was still about $41,000 smaller than the previous year’s.

Despite decreases in those four months, SeaWorld ultimately brought in about $450,000 more in 2013 than it did in 2012 – about a 3.3 percent increase.

That largely mirrors the 3 percent year-over-year spike SeaWorld executives described for all 11 of the company’s theme parks in the Thursday conference call.

The city rent figures represent just a fraction of SeaWorld San Diego’s profits, but they appear to support SeaWorld executives’ contention that “Blackfish” has yet to significantly impact the company’s bottom line – at least in San Diego.

That’s not to say SeaWorld isn’t at all concerned about a movie that pans the company for its confinement of killer whales and details an attack that resulted in the 2010 death of one of its killer whale trainers.

Some of the SeaWorld CEO’s final remarks on the Thursday call hinted at the company’s continued attempts to fend off an onslaught of criticism.

“The safety of guests and team members and welfare of our animals continues to be foremost to our operations,” Atchison said.

This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous story – Fact Check: What SeaWorld Must Pay San Diego – and the next in our series   How SeaWorld’s Pursuit to Personify Its Whales Backfired.

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