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SeaWorld Wades Into 2014 Amid 'Blackfish' Backlash

Least Favored in 2013: Featuring the year's shockers from Wall Street to Washington. Read Fed Policy shenanigans; Tech spies; SeaWorld tragedy; Caterpillar-China scandal; Bud Beer scandal; Bill Ackman's Herbalife; LIBOR rigging; Forex Scandal; and check out this video CEO Walk of Shame.
 


NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Theme-park operator SeaWorld (SEAS) has long showcased its acrobatic orcas performing tricks and playing with trainers. Consumers flock to the company's 11-destination resorts around America to see wild and entertaining shows. SeaWorld went public this year. But an orca killed trainer Dawn Brancheau, in 2010. A newly released documentary film about Brancheau's death has tarnished the company and hurt ticket sales. Can SeaWorld continue its impressive streak of record revenue and earnings with the media tearing it apart?

The CNN documentary Blackfish premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. The film shows the life of captive orcas, or killer whales, and how over time they become more aggressive. It focuses on Tilikum, a wild-caught orca involved in the deaths of three people, including Brancheau. The film's interviews with experts and former SeaWorld employees certainly don't help the company's image.

SeaWorld went public in April at $27 per share. After shares rose to almost $40, they now trade around $30 and are up only slightly from the original offering. A December secondary offering saw Blackstone (BX) and other owners sell 18 million shares at $30 each. Shares continue to trade below that mark as investors question how many more stock sales will happen and whether the continued publicity nightmare will hurt attendance and overall revenue.

Several classic rock and country artists are not helping SeaWorld's start to 2014. SeaWorld showcases musical performers annually in its Bands, BBQ and Brews concert series. However, the company is currently looking for new performers amidst the backlash to Blackfish. The majority of the booked musicians have pulled out, and petitions are circulating among music fans angered by SeaWorld's treatment of animals.

Canadian band Barenaked Ladies were the first to pull out of the concert over a petition on popular activist Web site Change.org. Other acts have canceled, including Trisha Yearwood, Willie Nelson, Cheap Trick, Heart and REO Speedwagon. Every time a band cancels, it puts SeaWorld and Blackfish back in the spotlight. Then more people want to watch Blackfish, which is also available for viewing on Netflix (NFLX).

The P.R. mess hit just as SeaWorld was at a revenue high. In November, the company posted record revenue of $538.4 million, a 3% increase from the previous year. Adjusted net income and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) also hit new records for the company. The strong results put SeaWorld on track for the third straight year of record revenue and earnings.

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