Don’t be surprised if you purchase a pay-per-view event one of these Saturday nights and see supermodel Gisele Bundchen trying to choke out Miss Universe. Be prepared to watch the Professional Bull Riders duck for cover when Brock Lesnar takes them to the mat for a pounding on the Longhorn Network. Are you ready for a Super Bowl halftime show where Ronda Rousey plays competitive video games while Snoop Dogg raps?
Ah, the beauty of the integrated world of big-money sports and entertainment, which got smaller this week when WME-IMG peeled off $4 billion to buy the Ultimate Fighting Championship, leading purveyor in our galaxy of the mixed martial arts.
UFC president Dana White said cage fighting is about to go to “the next level,” thanks to the welcomed takeover of his three initials by the other six. You may know what some of them stand for. WME – that would be William Morris, as in the William Morris Agency that was subsumed by the Endeavor Agency, in 2009. IMG stands for International Management Group, whose own management group now runs WME-IMG/UFC. One of the bosses is Ari Emanuel, brother of Rahm, the mayor of Chicago.
You’d need a wheelbarrow to haul the names of the 4,000 or entertainers and organizations represented by WME-IMG. They have supermodels and beauty contests. They have the NFL, hockey and the English Premier League.
They market the Southeastern Conference and dozens of major college sports programs, as well as the broadcasting arm of the University of Texas athletic department. They even own the eight seconds of hell pro bull riders must cover – without benefit of a timeout – atop a bucking Brahma. And they jumped ahead of the rest of the world with their 2015 acquisition of Global Esports Management, which sees competitive video games as the next big thing.
Now WME-IMG has UFC, too, and it will be the biggest thing that has ever happened to MMA, which has had nothing but big things happen in the past decade or so as it moved into the sports mainstream.
Maybe you don’t like seeing Miesha Tate get her nose rearranged by Amanda Nunes, or the blood mask that Nate Diaz wore before he got his arms around Conor McGregor’s neck, or the profane exchanges between combatants at most UFC news conferences. No matter. There’s going to be a lot more of them.
The math shows more and more people – especially younger viewers – are really getting into it. Officials expected a record 1.6 million buys for UFC 200 last Saturday night. It was the one where Tate lost her women’s bantamweight championship belt, and almost her nose, to Nunes, and where Lesnar beat the back of Mark Hunt’s head for a heavyweight decision.
The Fertittabrothers of Las Vegas, Frank and Lorenzo, bought UFC in 2001 for a trifling $2 million. In trading it in 15 years later for $4 billion, they have made UFC a worldwide brand.
“They had a plan, they had a strategy, and they executed it,” said David Carter, an associate professor of clinical management and organization and the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC. “They understood the value of content. They’ve understood that their real long-term growth is going to be in penetrating the international market. And what they did was, they brought the sport more into the mainstream than anybody thought possible. For quite some time, it was believed to be dangerous and maybe not the kind of sports entertainment we should have in this country. But they’ve worked diligently, to the point where the sport is not just accepted but embraced.”
UFC marketed itself to a fitness-minded audience that gravitated toward stars who are real, likeable people, with compelling personal stories, who interact with their audience face-to-face. Oftentimes, they train alongside their fans at gyms some of the fighters own. You can talk to Urijah Faber, for instance, just about any day of the week at his Ultimate Fitness gym on I Street. Faber remains one of the biggest names in the sport, as is Diaz, who is equally accessible at the gym in Lodi where he works out.
Faber likes the deal.
“WME-IMG is the biggest entertainment agency in the world,” Faber said. “It’s a company that builds stars, controls stars, controls the media, understands entertainment, and that’s what we are. We’re a sport, but we’re also entertainment. Now we’ve got another resource. I don’t know what that means for fighter pay, but as far as exposure for the sport, the progression of the sport, I think it’s massive.”
The crossover from UFC to the rest of the entertainment world and back already is underway. Besides knocking your head off, Rousey is an actress, with her parts in the movies piling up. Lesnar went from college wrestler to NFL defensive lineman to MMA to pro wrestler and back to UFC.
Who knows where it will end and who will cross over into what.
If the supermodel vs. the beauty queen ever comes off, take the 5-foot-11 Bundchen and her reach advantage over Pia Wurtzbach, the reigning Miss U., and then watch turnstiles whirl and the PPVs click.