SBJ/April 24-30, 2017/In Depth

UFC’s leadership adjusting to life without Fertitta, but with global resources of parent company WME-IMG

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Almost nine months into life as part of WME-IMG, the two highest ranking executives who remained with the UFC to guide its next chapter answered quickly when asked how the organization has changed since the close of the $4 billion sale.

“First and foremost, the company changed by the amount of bodies we have here,” said UFC President Dana White. “That dropped big time.”

It took only three months for WME-IMG to do what many companies do after an acquisition: Cut staffing, in this case reducing the UFC’s head count from about 300 to 250 in the fourth quarter of last year.

White
Epstein
While White took the cuts hard, struggling with the departure of some longtime employees, he said he now has turned the page, in part thanks to the addition of several key hires in senior positions and also because he has seen the benefits of the UFC’s marriage to the larger entity.

“We dropped the number of employees, but now we have the resources of this 6,500-person organization,” said UFC Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Epstein. “Everything from legal to finance to cutting-edge technology to marketing agencies and PR. Consumer products. Our TV deals.

“This started off as a bunch of guys from Vegas trying to hold this thing together. Now, it’s an international group of people selling Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and golf and tennis and Premier League and college football.”

Without question, the biggest departure — and the one that created the most questions — was the loss of Lorenzo Fertitta, the UFC co-founder who for much of the last decade has been the company’s steady, guiding hand; the business school-educated yin to White’s street-smart, hard-charging yang.

While WME-IMG co-CEO Ari Emanuel has replaced Fertitta atop the organizational chart, he is not nearly as engaged with the daily management of the company. White and Epstein say they have divided Fertitta’s responsibilities as best they can, often realizing the breadth of them only as matters have arisen.

Turnkey Sports Poll

The following are results of the Turnkey Sports Poll taken in March. The survey covered more than 2,000 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.

Which of WME-IMG's core competencies will have the biggest impact on growing UFC's brand?

Media 26%
Global expertise 21%
Celebrity relationships 19%
Sponsorship 18%
Event management 4%
Not sure / No response 12%

Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. Turnkey Intelligence specializes in research, measurement and lead generation for brands and properties. Visit www.turnkeyse.com.


“First of all, you’re never replacing Lorenzo,” Epstein said. “The simplest thing is to say we traded Lorenzo for Ari. But there’s more to it than that.”

That’s because while Emanuel is a powerful force, he is not engaged in the daily business of the UFC in the way of Fertitta.

“Lorenzo Fertitta is a billionaire, and that guy was here every day — and longer than most of our employees were here,” White said. “There was no 9-to-2 for Lorenzo. And then, when he left the office, he had to deal with me on the phone 50,000 times.”

Though neither Epstein nor White knew what to expect of the new structure after the sale, they say decisions are made largely as they were before, albeit without the input of Fertitta. That, they said, is because Fertitta’s style was so inclusive, and also because Emanuel has left them to run things, albeit while often checking in on their thinking and progress.

“We always made the big decisions together,” White said. “If I wasn’t here, they wouldn’t make a decision until they talked to me first. If [Epstein and I] were talking about something, we would talk to Lorenzo. If it was Lorenzo and me, what does Lawrence think about this? That’s how we always did the decision making. There was never a hierarchy. Lorenzo’s style wasn’t like that.

“Everybody loved Lorenzo. Everybody in this company felt like they were part of the decision making. You don’t replace Lorenzo. Lorenzo is just a completely different animal.”

White has made no secret of the emotional toll the sale took on him. He described himself as “a mess,” often disengaged from his core responsibility, working with UFC matchmakers to produce the most marketable fight cards. He regained his stride, he said, as the clock was ticking on one of the more anticipated and lucrative events in UFC history, the December event that featured Conor McGregor at Madison Square Garden. White said he finalized most of those fights in the 24 hours before the card was announced.

“Maybe he wasn’t himself, but he’s back now,” Epstein said. “We want to take this thing to the next level. We built this thing and did a great transaction. But now we want to double and triple it. We’ve got so many dragons to slay.”

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