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UFC Sale Revives Talk of WME/IMG IPO

The sale of UFC to WME/IMG has revived talk that the agency is getting ready to go public. The latest chatter comes from Sports Business Journal, which in a lengthy report frames the acquisition as part of a broader strategy to grow revenue in advance of an IPO.

WME has been snapping up live events such as Professional Bull Riding and Miss Universe, and launched ELeague, an esports partnership with Turner Sports. SBJ also reports that WME put in a bid for the Formula One racing series, but backed out when F1’s main investor sought a $8.5 billion sale price.

The strategy seems to be to capitalize on growing licensing fees for live events, thereby offsetting stagnant revenues on the agency side of the business, and thus making the company more attractive to IPO investors.

An IPO has been rumored ever since WME paid $2.4 billion for sports powerhouse IMG in 2014. Silver Lake Partners took a 51% stake in the company to finance the acquisition. In March, Japanese conglomerate SoftBank invested $250 million in the company, with a valuation of $5.5 billion.

WME chiefs Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell have downplayed the IPO talk, couching it as an option rather than a goal.

“The question industry insiders were asking in the aftermath of the UFC deal was not if WME-IMG will go public, but when,” SBJ reports, projecting an IPO “late next year at the earliest.”

WME/IMG declined to comment on the report.

The $4 billion price tag for UFC depends heavily on skyrocketing licensing fees. SBJ’s sources pegged UFC’s EBITDA at $180 million, which would make the purchase price an astronomic 22 multiple. The UFC’s current contract with Fox expires in 2018. UFC told potential buyers that it projects media rights revenues could jump from $115 million per year to $400 million under a new contract, SBJ reports.

While there are many reasons to be bullish about UFC — especially its potential for growth abroad — there is a risk that the pace of growth in sports media rights could slow. SBJ notes that Fox Sports and ESPN have been in cost-cutting mode lately.

WME/IMG outbid several competitors for UFC, including Dalian Wanda and China Media Capital. SBJ adds ESPN, Fox and Time Warner to the list of suitors that were interested.

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