In July, Ultimate Fighting Championship sold itself for $4 billion to a group of investors led by mega talent agency WME-IMG. (See the above Yahoo Finance Sportsbook video.) The fast-growing sports-and-entertainment equity powerhouse, which also owns Professional Bull Riders, an e-sports talent group, and Miss Universe, got the majority stake in the No. 1 mixed martial arts entity in the world.
And now the effects of the sale are starting to emerge.
At the time of the sale, WME-IMG said it would have no role in actually running the UFC. But on Friday, both companies announced that 23 new investors have joined the UFC ownership group.
It is a disparate and perhaps strange list: actors Ben Affleck, Sylvester Stallone, and Mark Wahlberg; musicians Calvin Harris, Anthony Kiedis and Flea of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, LL Cool J, Adam Levine, and The Weeknd; NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Cam Newton; New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft; TV hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien; TV chef Guy Fieri; Hollywood directors Michael Bay, Trey Parker, and Tyler Perry; tennis players Li Na, Maria Sharapova, and Serena and Venus Williams; and skateboarder Rob Dyrdek.
The companies are not disclosing how much each person invested. O’Brien joked on his show, “I think I have $40 worth.”
UFC president Dana White said in a statement that the star-studded list “is a strong indicator of UFC’s fast-growing global presence” and that all the new investors, “bring an incredible depth of knowledge and experience to help us continue to elevate this brand.”
So, what do the 23 glitzy names have in common?
Surprise: almost every single one of them is a client of WME-IMG, which formed in 2013 when Hollywood agency William Morris Endeavor, led by Ari Emanuel, bought sports agency IMG Worldwide for $2.4 billion.
Tom Brady and Robert Kraft are the only exceptions. Brady’s agent is Don Yee, who has his own firm, but Brady’s wife Gisele Bundchen is a WME client. And Kraft is an outlier on a list of actors, directors, television personalities, musicians or athletes, all of whom have talent agents.
All of the actors (Affleck, Stallone, and Wahlberg), directors (Bay, Parker and Perry), musicians (Harris, Levine, LL Cool J, Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Weeknd), and TV people (Fieri, Kimmel and O’Brien) are WME clients.
All of the athletes other than Brady (Na, Newton, Sharapova, and the Williams sisters) are under IMG.
Conan O’Brien explained how it all went down in a humorous segment on his TBS show on Thursday night.
“After the UFC deal was announced,” O’Brien told his audience, “WME gave some of their clients an opportunity to purchase a small ownership stake in the UFC… I said yes, so I now technically own a piece of the UFC.” O’Brien joked that he will soon fight UFC star Conor McGregor.
There are a few other threads that connect some of the people on the list. First, the Boston connection: Brady is the Patriots quarterback, while Kraft is the team’s owner; Affleck and Wahlberg are Boston locals, Patriots fans, and personal friends of Brady. Second, some of the athletes are sponsorship peers: Brady and Newton are Under Armour’s two biggest NFL ambassadors, while Na, Sharapova, and Serena Williams are Nike-sponsored.
That 21 of the people on an eye-popping list of 23 stars are all in business with WME-IMG is another reminder of how influential WME-IMG has become. But the bigger story is Emanuel recruiting his clients to put their money—and their brand power—into the UFC. The move suggests WME-IMG may be looking to bring UFC public.
Expect some of these people to soon lend a hand to UFC’s marketing, either by plugs on social media or appearing in advertisements. The names are sure to raise the profile of the sport.