SeaWorld Spins $43 Million Loss by Saying Attendance Has Gone Up

SeaWorld Entrainment Inc. announced a net loss of $43.6 million in the first quarter of the year, but tried to put a sunny spin on it by also announcing that attendance has gone up.  

The theme park has been fighting hard to rehabilitate its public image with a marketing blitz that includes a TV ad that asks the public to ask them anything about their whales. The documentary Blackfish, and the ensuing backlash, has been a thorn in the company's side ever since its release in 2013. The film interviews former whale trainers and exposes the harm done to orcas in captivity. The film shows footage of orcas attacking trainers, and criticizes SeaWorld, saying that captivity makes the otherwise docile mammals crazed.

On Thursday, SeaWorld announced that attendance rose 5.6 percent from 2014 to $3.2 million in this year's first quarter. Moreover, the company's shares fell more than two percent in trading Thursday morning.

But the company refuses to acknowledge the impact of Blackfish and of the public being made more aware of their animals' plight. Instead, CEO Joel Manby said the drop in numbers has come from heavy competition from other theme parks in Orlando, such as Universal Studios.

According to PETA Director of Animal Law Jared Goodman, one reason Universal keeps doing well, while SeaWorld struggles, is because it doesn't have captive orcas in its park.

"SeaWorld continues to operate at a loss of millions of dollars, while parks such as Universal Studios have reported continuing financial success," Goodman said in an email to New Times. "SeaWorld's sinking ship will continue to take on water until it frees the orcas confined to tiny tanks in its parks and retires them to coastal sanctuaries."

But, in a statement on Thursday, Mamby said that the marketing strategy to improve the company's image from the Blackfish backlash is still in its early stages. 

"Looking ahead to the remainder of the year, we remain cautious as the first quarter accounts for a relatively small portion of full year attendance, competitive pressures remain in Orlando and our marketing and reputation campaigns are still in their early stages," the statement reads. 

SeaWorld began facing a barrage of negative publicity since the release of the documentary. The company fought back, publicly objecting to the film when it came out and denying the film would affect attendance. There's a still a page on the company's website calling the documentary "propaganda."

Animal rights group PETA has been challenging SeaWorld for years, but even more so since Blackfish.

The quarterly announcement comes just as the busiest time of year for theme parks nears, and is the first quarter under Mamby's leadership since former CEO Jim Atchison stepped down following dropping stocks and attendance. But last year's first quarter also saw drops. The beginning of 2014 saw a 13 percent drop in attendance at SeaWorld parks across the U.S. compared to the same period in 2013.

This year's net loss is sightly better than last. In 2014, SeaWorld reported a net loss of $49.2 million in the first quarter. This equates to revenue growth of about 1 percent. Interestingly enough, analysts were expecting a bigger dip.

Still, Goodman says that investors should think twice about putting their money into SeaWorld in the future.

"As forward-thinking companies sever ties with SeaWorld left and right—including toy giant Mattel just last month—it's clear that SeaWorld's now-wretched reputation makes it a risky investment," he says.
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Chris Joseph
Contact: Chris Joseph