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WME/IMG Takes Bold Swing with $4 Billion UFC Acquisition

WME/IMG is taking another big swing at transforming and diversifying its far-flung business operations with the $4 billion acquisition of mixed martial arts organization Ultimate Fighting Championship.

WME/IMG and its private equity partners Silver Lake, KKR and Michael Dell’s MSD Capital, L.P. and MSD Partners, L.P. confirmed the deal Monday. The agreement is said to be an all-cash transaction for the Fertitta family that owns UFC.

“We’ve been fortunate over the years to represent UFC and a number of its remarkable athletes,” said WME/IMG co-CEOs Ariel Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell. “It’s been exciting to watch the organization’s incredible growth over the last decade under the leadership of the Fertitta brothers, Dana White and their dedicated team. We’re now committed to pursuing new opportunities for UFC and its talented athletes to ensure the sport’s continued growth and success on a global scale.”

UFC president Dana White will continue in his role after the deal is completed. UFC chairman-CEO Lorenzo Fertitta will step down from day-to-day operations, but Fertitta and his brother, Frank Fertitta III, will retain a passive minority interest in UFC.

The deal is the biggest content acquisition for WME/IMG since the Hollywood talent agency and sports and events powerhouse were brought together in late 2013. UFC produces more than 40 live events a year and distributes its bouts to TV outlets in 156 countries and in 29 languages. The MMA giant is considered one of the U.S.’s fastest-growing sports franchises, one that has strong appeal to millennials.

“No other sport compares to UFC,” remarked Dana White, UFC’s President who will continue in that role. “Our goal has always been to put on the biggest and the best fights for our fans, and to make this the biggest sport in the world. I’m looking forward to working with WME | IMG to continue to take this sport to the next level.”

Bringing UFC into the fold is consistent with the effort under co-CEOs Emanuel and Whitesell to reinvent the company by putting it squarely in the content production and distribution business with properties such as the Professional Bull Riders league and the Miss Universe Organization — which were acquired in 2014 and 2015, respectively, by WME/IMG. Earlier this year, WME/IMG pacted with Turner Broadcasting to dive into the world of competitive videogame leagues with the launch of the ELeague TV and digital venture.

In a media landscape that is increasingly global and increasingly digital, UFC was a natural fit for a company that aims to be a heavyweight player in TV content distribution, advertising and sponsorship sales. WME/IMG’s quick expansion has separated it from the pack of its Hollywood talent agency competitors. Even CAA, with its investment in sports and sports rights deals, marketing and event-related services, has not ventured as aggressively into creating content that it controls outright.

The UFC deal will add further fuel to the speculation that WME/IMG is preparing an IPO in the near future, in part to help its primary private equity investor, Silver Lake, realize a return on the investments it has backed for the agency since they first teamed in 2012. The steady revenue and cash flow stream provided by UFC could go a long way toward smoothing out the inevitable ups and downs of the core talent agency business.

In the U.S., UFC and Fox Sports set a broad seven-year deal in 2011 for various rights. UFC also boasts that it is the largest pay-per-view operator in the world.

WME/IMG has represented the UFC for more than a decade as well as UFC stars including Ronda Rousey, giving it a ringside seat to the growth of the organization’s appeal in recent years. WME/IMG co-CEO Emanuel has developed a strong relationship with UFC president White, which surely played a role in driving the deal.

“We’re confident that the new ownership team of WME/IMG, with whom we’ve built a strong relationship over the last several years, is committed to accelerating UFC’s global growth. Most importantly, our new owners share the same vision and passion for this organization and its athletes,” UFC chairman-CEO Fertitta said.

UFC was founded in 1993 and acquired by the Fertitta brothers in January 2001. At present it has a roster of 521 athletes repping 46 countries. In 2013 it launched the digital streaming service UFC Fight Pass offering access to various events and a deep library of bouts, among other content.

UFC said it has some 46 million social media followers on platforms across the world, including 6 million Facebook followers in the U.S. along, as well as 5.8 million Twitter follows and 5 million Instagram fans.

Although the violence of UFC’s matches are surely a non-starter for some advertisers, UFC noted that it has struck partnerships in the past with blue-chip marketers such as Bud Lite, Doritos, Reebok and Harley-Davidson.

Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, and Proskauer Rose LLP served as legal advisors to WME/IMG Group. Freshfields served as legal advisor to MSD Capital. Barclays, Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC, Deutsche Bank Securities Inc., affiliates of Goldman, Sachs & Co., and KKR Capital Markets LLC are acting as the buyers’ financial advisors and are providing financing for the transaction.

The deal was led for the sellers by UFC CFO Nakisa Bidarian, with Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP as legal advisors, and The Raine Group and J.P. Morgan as financial advisors.

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