Comcast to buy Japan park stake

Press announcement: Roberts (2nd left), Universal Studios Japan chairman and CEO Glenn Gumpel (2nd right) attend their joint news conference in Osaka, western Japan yesterday. Comcast Corp has agreed to acquire a majority stake in Osaka-based Universal Studios Japan for US1.5bil, part of an acceleration of its global theme park strategy. – Reuters

TOKYO: Comcast Corp is making its biggest overseas investment, as the largest US cable operator seeks international growth after being stymied in its bid to acquire its second-largest competitor Time Warner Cable Inc.

Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit will pay US$1.5bil for the stake in USJ Co, the operating company of the Universal Studios Japan theme park in Osaka, Comcast said in a statement. Current shareholders Goldman Sachs Group Inc, MBK Partners Ltd and USJ chief executive officer Glenn Gumpel will retain minority stakes.

“We see Comcast and NBCUniversal becoming more of a global company,” Comcast chief executive officer Brian Roberts said in Osaka on Monday. “This is the beginning of us making more global investments.” He said the USJ deal was Comcast’s biggest yet overseas.

Philadelphia-based Comcast, which in April dropped its bid to buy Time Warner Cable Inc amid opposition from antitrust regulators, has been seeking growth in other areas including digital media. Its NBCUniversal unit, which owns Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Orlando Resort, has licence and operating agreements with Universal Studios Japan, according to its website.

Comcast’s largest outbound investment before USJ was in 2008, when its NBC Peacock Fund led a consortium to buy German online games-maker Bigpoint GmbH for 70 million euros (US$78mil), according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That consortium in 2011 sold a majority stake in Bigpoint for US$350mil.

The transaction reflected an enterprise value of 750 billion yen (US$6.2bil) for USJ, with 400 billion yen of that being debt, said Ankur Sahu, Goldman Sachs managing director, at the Osaka briefing. USJ listed in 2007, before being taken private by Goldman two years later as visitors slumped. The company had said it planned to seek a re-listing this year.

There were no plans for a public listing for USJ in the “near future”, although new board members of the company could revisit the plan, Roberts said. The USJ deal is expected to close in three to four weeks, and Gumpel will step down as CEO, to be replaced by Jean-Louis Bonnier, according to Comcast.

Sales and visitor numbers at the 14-year-old Japanese theme park had hit a record high following a revamp, with a US$400mil Harry Potter attraction which opened July last year helping the number of foreign visitors to double to about a million, according to USJ.

“The new Harry Potter attraction had an impact and brought a lot of customers,” said Katsunori Dobayashi, an analyst at Iwaicosmo Securities Co. In addition to visitors from overseas, the theme park was also able to draw more Japanese, including repeated local customers, with concepts unique to the country such as an “Attack on Titan” ride, Dobayashi said.

USJ had sales of 138.5 billion yen in the fiscal year ended March 2015, up 44% from a year earlier, while operating profit rose 61% to 39 billion yen, both all-time highs, spokesman Johta Takahashi said earlier Monday.

The Universal Studios Japan theme park, which opened in 2001 as a joint venture between Osaka city and a group of private companies, also received a record 12.7 million visitors in the fiscal year through March 2015, up from 10.5 million, according to Takahashi.

Comcast had gained the Universal film and US theme park businesses after it agreed in 2013 to pay General Electric Co US$16.7bil for full ownership of NBCUniversal, which also gave Comcast control of the NBC broadcast network, as well as cable channels MSNBC and Bravo.

NBCUniversal in August agreed to make a US$200mil investment in the news website BuzzFeed and a similar amount in Vox Media, the online publisher of The Verge, Eater and Re/code, in an effort to capture the growth in digital advertising and reach younger consumers. – Bloomberg

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