Dish Network chairman Charlie Ergen is the odd man out at the M&A poker table, and the only big cards he's left holding point to a future play in wireless.
With AT&T's proposed $67 billion bid for DirecTV, Dish "loses both of its best exit options," MoffettNathanson senior analyst Craig Moffett said in a note. "Dish Network just lost its game of musical chairs." The analyst downgraded his rating on Dish to "sell," maintaining a price target of $47 per share.
Dish shares were down about 3% in Monday morning trading, after opening down 1.7% at $58.92 per share.
Analysts see a takeout of Dish by the last big player in the telecom space -- Verizon Communications -- as unlikely. "If (Verizon) doesn't acquire Dish (and we don't think it does), then this leaves (T-Mobile) or (Sprint) as Dish's only options," Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Tim Horan wrote in a research note.
But Dish's options in wireless are narrowing, too. With the upcoming FCC auction for AWS-3 spectrum, "Dish's spectrum doesn't feel like a must-have for anyone right now," Moffett said.
On Dish's May 8 earning calls, Ergen acknowledged that "we don't have the kind of money to go outbid Sprint for T-Mobile." He said that if Sprint didn't pursue T-Mobile or the deal was denied, "then T-Mobile would have strategic interest to us, yes."
Dish has a hedge against future declines in subscribers with its planned over-the-top TV service. Dish earlier this spring cut a deal with Disney for OTT rights to five networks, including ESPN, and Ergen claimed the satcaster has enough programmers on board to launch a viable Internet TV service by the end of the year.
However, even Ergen isn't sure whether Dish can make money on the offering, with a $20-$30 monthly price point targeted at younger consumers who aren't interested in traditional pay-TV.
"OTT is not going to move the needle this year for anybody. It's probably not going to move the needle next year," Ergen said. "It's a precursor to where we think the industry is going."
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