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Monday, Sep 25, 2023

Date Site Operator to Play the Field

Online dating site company Spark Networks Inc. has turned down a longtime partner in hopes of finding a better match when its business improves.

Hit hard by a combination of the recession, free dating sites and flourishing social networks, the Beverly Hills company has seen its stock swoon over the past several years. However, things have picked up since an all-time low in August.

Still, the company’s board, under pressure from investors, turned down a March 2 offer from Great Hill Equity Partners III, a Boston-based private equity fund that owns 44 percent of Spark, to buy the rest of the company for $3.10 per share.

The bid represented a 5 percent premium to Spark’s March 1 closing price of $2.95 and valued the company at $64 million. The offer was widely denounced as low ball for Spark, which owns 29 niche dating sites, including its flagship, JDate.com for Jewish singles, that accounts for more than half its business.

Osmium Partners, another fund that owns 6.1 percent of Spark, called the deal “grossly inadequate” and vowed to fight any offer less than $6 a share. At least four lawsuits were filed on behalf of Spark shareholders charging directors with breach of fiduciary duty if they took the offer.

Shares have since risen, closing at $3.59 on April 22. However, that was well below the $7.75 the stock was trading at after debuting on the American Stock Exchange in early 2006. Shares hit an all-time low of $2 on Aug. 17, 2009.

Mark Brooks, editor of news site OnlinePersonalsWatch.com and a dating service consultant, believes the Great Hill valuation was probably about right – for now.

In July 2009, Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp. bought People Media, a publisher of niche dating sites similar to Spark, for $80 million. However, Spark reported a net loss of $7 million for 2009 and a decrease in paid subscribers of 5 percent. People Media was profitable at its time of sale.

Discounting for Spark’s down numbers, “I think the valuation is pretty solid at $3.10,” Brooks said.

However, he believes that Spark can do better. The company has 166,000 paid subscribers, giving it a critical mass, though it lags well behind industry giants Match.com with an estimated 1 million paid subscribers and Pasadena-based eHarmony.com with 760,000 paid users.

“I know the management at Spark Networks and they are smart people. Someone is going to acquire them,” he said. “They have a hallmark brand and they think they can do better once the market picks up.”

The decline in Spark’s business corresponds to a slump in the entire online dating sector, as paid providers face new competition from free dating sites and social networks such as Facebook, Brooks said.

A spokeswoman for Spark said the company would not comment for this story.

In a March 4 conference call, Spark Chief Executive Adam Berger outlined the company’s strategy for returning to profitability.

It included focusing on a few sites with growth potential, particularly its Jewish sites; increased marketing expenditures to attract new subscribers, even if it means reducing profit margins; and selling advertising on its site to open a second revenue stream in addition to paid subscriptions.

In late March, the company also hired Minneapolis-based financial advisory firm Piper Jaffray & Co. to consider all “strategic alternatives.”

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