OPED: SeaWorld makes smart business move

Tribune News Service
FILE - In a  March 7, 2011, file photo, Kelly Flaherty Clark, left, director of animal training at SeaWorld Orlando, and trainer Joe Sanchez work with killer whales Tilikum, right, and Trua during a training session at the theme park's Shamu Stadium in Orlando, Fla. SeaWorld announced Thursday, March 17, 2016, it will immediately stop breeding killer whales, essentially phasing out the iconic orcas from its theme parks following years of controversy over keeping them in captivity.

SeaWorld's decision to stop whale breeding — and ultimately end its practice of whales in captivity — is a big, blubbery deal.

It's like Disney ending its relationship with Mickey Mouse. Except Mickey never killed any of Disney's cast members with guests watching.

Which is why SeaWorld's decision was also necessary. Quite simply: Captive whales are no longer good for business.

SeaWorld says it will end killer whale breeding program

There are some who will take to online message boards to scream at SeaWorld for CAVING IN TO ANIMAL-RIGHTS NUTS!

These people don't understand how business works. Or at least they haven't taken the time to look at SeaWorld's business record.

I have. And it is a downward trend.

Lower attendance. Lower revenues. Lower profits.

From 2013 to 2015, most every key metric was down. Attendance dropped by 1 million guests. Adjusted net income dropped 37 percent. The stock value plummeted in half.

All while competing parks, like Disney and Universal, experienced booms.

The screamers urging SeaWorld to stay the course would have told the Apollo 13 crew to pay no attention to all that carbon dioxide filling their ship.

Evolution is necessary for the park to survive. And the world today is much different than when SeaWorld first opened its tanks in 1964.

Today, people care more — and know more — about how animals are treated.

If they care enough to pay a higher price for cage-free eggs or free-range chicken, you can bet they pay attention to the living conditions of gigantic, splash-on-demand mammals.

SeaWorld wasn't caving to PETA. It was catering to the average soccer mom who started realizing her choices for a family vacation were either SeaWorld (where she'd seen something about a dead trainer and bloody whale battles) or Universal (where Harry Potter finds freedom every day, escaping Gringotts).

SeaWorld's evolution will be painful. You try running a whale park without any whales.

But by doing it this way — announcing that the whale program will end when the existing whales die in a couple of decades or more — gives the park plenty of time to prepare.

If there's a motto for SeaWorld's future plans, it should be: Bigger rides, smaller animals.

The truth is: SeaWorld has known this for years. It began investing in impressive rides years ago and has since stepped on the accelerator.

Oh, and there's another reason for SeaWorld to evolve beyond the whale shows — a reason you don't hear as much about: They're boring.

If you haven't seen one in a few years, you may have memories of trainers riding on whales and being blasted into the air. Those days are long gone.

After Tilikum drowned trainer Dawn Brancheau, the in-water interaction ended. Nowadays, it's 25 minutes of whales splashing in the tank while trainers stand on dry land, dancing in wetsuits and throwing out dead fish.

The announcement also gave SeaWorld something it hasn't had much of in a long time: good press.

On Thursday, SeaWorld swam in it.

In a truly surreal scene on CBS, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby sat next to former foe Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States, and the two patted each other's backs nonstop.

The CBS hosts were so smitten, they labeled the new partnership a "bromance" and asked if the two men could teach Congress to get along so well.

There are still plenty of challenges and questions. Chief among them: If it's whales today, will it be dolphins next? And then sea lions?

But for now, SeaWorld has basically said to its customers: We hear you. We understand that orcas are in a class of their own. And while we can't just turn them loose, because whales born in captivity might not survive in the wild, we can let you know that we're ready to evolve.

That sentiment earned good will, good press and, by close of business Thursday, a 9 percent jump in the stock price.

— Scott Maxwell is an Orlando Sentinel columnist.