WME | IMG Co-CEO Ari Emanuel and UFC president Dana White took to the Palais stage this afternoon at the Cannes Lions Creativity Festival to share perspective on the future of their businesses, as well as their own professional challenges and what it takes to succeed.
In a panel titled “Survival of the Fittest,” the pair was asked about the biggest fight they have faced in their careers. Emanuel notably looked back to 1995 when he and three colleagues left ICM to found Endeavor. “We had no money, no clients. We had to go sign clients and it was a bad situation and they were threatening to sue us. It took about nine months, but at the end we won the confrontation… and we were off to the races.”
While that was “the toughest fight,” after WME took over IMG, “people said we paid too much,” Emanuel noted, musing, “You have to just not actually listen to the conversation… It’s just constantly a battle; people want to bring you down.”
Looking at his business now, Emanuel later added, “I’m pretty cocky, but I like the cards we’re holding.”
After merging with William Morris in 2009, and morphing into WME, the agency and Silver Lake Partners acquired management and licensing firm IMG for $2.4B in 2013. More recently, WME | IMG led a consortium to acquire the UFC, the world’s leading mixed martial arts franchise, for a reported $4B.
For White, it’s been a fight “from the day that we got involved in mixed martial arts” some 16 years ago, and “no media would cover us, we weren’t sanctioned by the athletic commissions. When we purchased the UFC, some of the brightest guys said it was probably the worst investment ever.” Now, since the sale to WME, people ask him, “’How do you get up put your shoes on and go to work?’ I never got into the sport game for money,” he said. “It’s about what you’re passionate about.”
Speaking of WME | IMG and its relationship to the UFC, Emanuel said, “Half of our business is representation and half is things that we own. The things we represent we try to expand globally.” The UFC now has “a global organization to help them… We do 900 events and 35,000 concerts a year. We have offices in almost every country. How we then take that and do a complement to all those businesses as a digital offering is our big challenge into the future.”
White noted that people “consume stats like crazy,” but allowed the UFC is lacking in some statistical information. Both he and Emanuel talked about putting sensors on fighters’ gloves, their shorts, on the mat, in the arena and more to capture things like the impact speed of a punch.
Overall, consumers and data will be key. Emanuel pointed to Amazon’s announced acquisition last week of Whole Foods, and said, “It’s winner take all, that’s kind of the way we look at the business as it relates to entertainment. We’re in every spectrum and then how we come to the consumer is going to be our next challenge.”
He also cited other internet giants like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Tencenct, Alibaba and Verizon saying, “They are going to be buying what they have to buy from us, and we are one of the biggest suppliers.” Further, “I think we have better sports than anyone in the world right now.”
The upcoming and long-in-the-works deal to get multiple world-title-winning boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr and UFC champ Conor McGregor in the ring is certain to be a knockout for pay-per-view cash, and Showtime. The two face off on August 26 in Las Vegas.
White explained today, “This is such a weird situation with two fighters talking back-and-forth publicly, then the fans started to get behind this thing, then the media. It got to the point where everywhere I went — and Mayweather and McGregor went — it’s the only thing anybody would ask us about.” McGregor has never been in even an amateur boxing match and, said White, “If he knocks out (Mayweather), he’ll be the biggest thing in sports ever.”
Mayweather is the current PPV champ with about 4.6M viewers for 2015’s bout with Manny Pacquiao. White pointed out that bookmakers in Vegas are looking at a 4.9M over/under line on the August match.
White was also bullish on the future saying that the UFC’s aim is to “cut the best TV deals, put on the best fights, go out and find the best fighters in the world” and put on the best live TV product. “When people talk about competition, they think I compete with boxing or other mixed martial arts.” But, “you compete with everything that competes for attention on a Saturday night… When somebody leaves your event or turns off that TV on Saturday they have to feel like they didn’t waste their time. Attention to detail is how you continue to win.”
During the conversation, Emanuel also noted that one thing “people don’t realize,” is that WME | IMG’s marketing and advertising business has profits of about $150M, so the firm is “a different type of animal people haven’t seen.” That’s part of a “vision” the company has had since 2008 for where it wants to go. “The first step was William Morris, then it was IMG, then it’s half our business is representation that shows us to where the world is going.” With the sports acquisitions, the mix gives the firm “a very interesting view on what all the markets are doing… So I think we’re in a really good place as more and more people need content and it’s easier to get to them.”
Asked if they had to purge one thing that’s getting in the way of progress, Emanuel and White agreed: “Sleep.”
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.