Liberty Media's John Malone Remains Bullish on Live Events Businesses

John Malone
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John Malone Chairman of Liberty Media Corp attends Allen and Company's 31st Annual Media and Technology Conference on July 12, 2013 in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Liberty Media chairman and mogul John Malone told the company's annual shareholder meeting Thursday that the firm continues to believe in the value of live events businesses, such as sports and Live Nation Entertainment, despite the novel coronavirus pandemic. And he argued any hit to valuations could present a buying opportunity.

Malone spoke to investors in the firm, which houses assets like audio entertainment giant SiriusXM, the Atlanta Braves baseball club and the Formula One racing circuit, during the webcast virtual event.

"The original thesis of live events representing perhaps the best place to be on content for television or for digital distribution, I think, remains intact," he said. "Unfortunately, we have had this pandemic. I personally believe that there will be a therapy and/or a vaccine sooner rather than later that will get us back closer to normal."

The mogul concluded: "The thesis of live events is still a good one." Malone said that was the case "particularly where you have a substantial part of revenue that has little to do with the gate attendance and a lot to do with television and digital distribution."

He also addressed potential deal opportunities in the wake of the pandemic and resulting recession. "There is undoubtedly going to be a hangover in terms of valuations," he said. "If this depression in valuation is excessive, it presents opportunity for those of us who believe in the longer-term thesis that this is a good place to be." He said companies have boosted their liquidity to get through the worst part of the pandemic, but some will end up with "perhaps more leverage than they would like."

Some on Wall Street have mentioned Malone's companies as potential buyers or investors should any companies that have been hit hard by the pandemic come up for sale or be on the search for a helping hand down the line.

Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei during Thursday's virtual meeting also addressed the investor question about whether there would be a potential secular shift in consumer behavior that could impact live events asset values, saying: "That's a great unknown, and I think we are taking a cautious attitude that believes that things will adjust." Arguing that "there will be live events," whether thanks to therapeutics or a vaccine and changes in procedures, he added: "Will they be as scaled and profitable as historically, I think that remains to be seen, so we are taking a step-by-step cautious attitude."

Maffei said "we are hoping for the best [for treatments], but we are not counting on that," adding that there is supply of talent and "no shortness in demand," mentioning a small percentage of less than 10 percent of concert ticket customers having requested refunds for postponed concerts and similar trends among Braves ticketholders. "There is demand for live events."

Malone also argued that human beings are "gregarious by nature," saying: "I can tell you here in Florida, the bars are now open, and they are pretty packed.”

Liberty Media said on April 23 that it would reattribute its 33 percent stake in Live Nation Entertainment, along with other assets, from its Formula One Group to its SiriusXM tracking stock. The changes bring the live event and music company stake under the umbrella of audio entertainment giant SiriusXM, while strengthening the liquidity of racing circuit Formula One. The company also said they optimize its asset portfolio and ensure the different parts of the company are in a strong position for potential future deals.

Analysts have wondered if Liberty could eventually look to acquire control of Live Nation, whose stock has been volatile amid the coronavirus crisis. "The reattribution, which is based on recent market prices for the publicly traded securities, is effective immediately," Liberty said at the time.

Much of Liberty's first-quarter earnings conference call early this month focused on the financial impact of the pandemic. Management doesn't expect Formula One races to continue in the second quarter, and the racing circuit plans a potentially 15-event season starting in early July, Chase Carey, CEO of the Formula One Group, said. He added that initial races in Europe would have no live attendance, while spectators could return with races in Asia and the Middle East later this year. "Clearly, these are very different events without fans," Carey told analysts, signaling a likely impact to sponsorship and digital revenue.

Having no fans in the stands at Atlanta Braves games when baseball resumes will also affect Liberty's financials, Maffei told analysts. "That will obviously impact profitability … if we're not able to have fans present. And certainly the expectation is the early games won't have fans," Maffei said.

This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.

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