This article was originally finished on Wednesday afternoon. However, major news broke after the closing bell on Wall Street regarding Ari Emanuel and Endeavor that has us asking serious questions. We will layer our original article with questions and observations in italicized text.
Ari Emanuel’s vision for UFC as a political shop first and sports operation second is creating a lot of internal conflict for fight fans, especially those who have been around Mixed Martial Arts longer than five years. UFC is a voracious mercenary.
The UFC is transforming
I’ve been arguing the last few months that the business model for UFC is transforming into a government contractor where public guarantees are the name of the game. The deeper you marry the state, the more transactional your company becomes.
One day, you’re Dana White and you are featured in photos with warlord Ramzan Kadyrov’s boys. The next day, you’re singing the praises of the “core values” UFC shares with Bud Light and Dylan Mulvaney.
While you as a fight fan or member of the press are stuck reading the latest declarations on Twitter from Jake Shields or Firdaws Khalim, Ari Emanuel is already on his sixth business deal of the day.
That is what a political shop is. One day, a money mark is paying you millions of dollars and is open to fighters waving a flag. The next day, a country is paying you millions and nudging you to adapt your personal self-expression for assimilation.
The UFC that you grew to appreciate under Frank & Lorenzo Fertitta is not the UFC that you are watching today. Zuffa pushed the image of trying to be legitimate and kinda, sorta sporty. “The Zuffa Myth” was all about perpetuating a storyline that UFC was running towards regulation after the “dark days” of Semaphore Entertainment Group and that elder statesman Marc Ratner would make sure everything was A-OK.
Ari Emanuel has different goals than the Fertittas
While he wasn’t overly social and vociferous in public, Lorenzo could put on a charm offensive and smooth any scandal over. In retrospect, he was extremely underrated in terms of his effectiveness of selling pretty much anything while convincing you it was on behalf of a greater sporting good. Doing the possible that was thought to be impossible. He would acknowledge your presence and answer a question.
Ari Emanuel, on the other hand, is no-holds-barred. His family is global political royalty. The audience he cares about are those in the seats of power in business media and world governments. That’s his audience. They give him deference.
If you’re not a political animal that obsesses over the transactional nature of business, you are going to get burned very quickly. He is always several steps ahead of you in an interview or a negotiating session. You are the fish. Ari doesn’t care enough about your daily outrage or controversy because he’ll always figure out what side of the trade to be on to profit off of it.
Recently, Luke Thomas and Ariel Helwani found out the hard way that when sports gets political, you’ll never win taking a position — no matter how benign your comments may be. During the UFC 294 broadcast from Abu Dhabi, Luke made an offhanded remark about Abu Dhabi as a country:
It was exactly the kind of comment you would see on Twitter from wrestling fans during a WWE Saudi Arabia broadcast when they’re airing a public relations announcement. Naturally, Luke’s post stirred up a hornet’s nest. Talk about a quick way to adjust your favorables/unfavorables. Twitter may be a fake world of bots and censorship NGOs but the outrage machine never dies.
Ariel Helwani found that out the hard way during a recent discussion regarding Dana White being photographed with Ramzan Kadyrov’s sons. Covering that topic, a flag ban-or-no-ban, and what’s happening in Israel and global Palestinian protests all over the world isn’t exactly a routine format for a show called The MMA Hour.
I don’t think many J-School professors teach concepts like Section 702, National Security Letters, or Five Eyes these days. It’s why our recent article on UFC hiring former FBI boss George Piro stands out as an article I was proud of.
Bud Light deal shows the future of UFC branding
Politics is a whole different language than sports talk radio. Your friend one day can truly be your enemy the next. Someone you thought you really knew? Not so much. How does Ari navigate a political shop in a world where everybody is out to destroy each other? He just follows the energy and the money.
On Wednesday afternoon, Silver Lake announced their intentions to take Ari Emanuel’s publicly-traded Endeavor company private. Silver Lake owns 71% of Endeavor. The announcement by Silver Lake to “explore strategic alternatives” comes weeks after the launch of TKO. TKO traded as high as $118 a share but is currently $81 after hours. Endeavor has a 51% stake in TKO.
Everyone thought Ari Emanuel was buying a sport in UFC. What he was really buying was a sports-like company that could easily be transformed into the role of a government contractor with a service that appeals to culture, to sports, and politics.
This is why the limited amount of writers who are left covering Mixed Martial Arts are not vastly equipped to handle discussions involving the delicate nuances and details of geopolitical matters. You didn’t sign up for that.
There are only a few people like Karim Zidan in sports writing. I’m only comfortable covering Ari’s version of UFC because of my personal and professional experience covering the Japanese circus known as PRIDE. I had a ringside seat to the marriage of zero-sum politics and situational ethics in the fight business.
Lorenzo & Frank Fertitta publicly contrasted UFC’s image away from PRIDE’s carnival of color. Ari’s UFC is starting to shift back towards the carnival, as we witnessed with UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi. What’s old is new again, except of course for the $14 billion dollar market cap on Wall Street.
How do you generate a $14 billion dollar market cap on Wall Street as a political shop? You cut deals left and right. Last week, you’re doing business in Abu Dhabi where flags were banned from Etihad Arena. The next week, you’re signing a $100 million dollar deal with InBev to push Bud Light after they lost significant market share due to an ad campaign involving transgender spokesperson Dylan Mulvaney.
Under their sponsorship agreement with UFC, Modelo became the number one brand. With Bud Light tanking, InBev has decided to make a dramatic U-Turn by signing with the frat boys that Alissa Heinerscheid said the company needed to move away from in order to become “lighter and brighter.” Ari Emanuel welcomed Bud Light back to the dark side for $100 million dollars.
In light of the news about Silver Lake exploring options to take Endeavor private, the speed of huge guaranteed-money deals with foreign governments and conglomerates by UFC should be viewed differently. Was TKO a trap door for Ari Emanuel or will it prove to be his trapeze-act to safety from Hollywood’s growing troubles?
Jason Whitlock at The Blaze framed the sponsorship deal as something you should celebrate because Bud Light is surrendering to Mr. Masculinity. Do it for America!
Bloody Elbow’s John Nash commented Tuesday night about how Ari Emanuel’s UFC is cashing in on the outrage trade.
“They’ve pivoted away from trying to go [for] blue chip sponsors to actually embracing being a conservative brand and going after conservative sponsorship because it will pay a premium, higher than it [normally] would and they can get a lot more of them. These [sponsors] are desperate to get sponsorship. Also, the ownership just likes UFC because their athletes don’t kneel during the National Anthem.
“Because they’ve built up this brand of the UFC, they totally lucked out because now Anheuser Busch needs them and Ari can just basically rob them blind at the crossroads as they come up because, ‘we need you, we need your help UFC’. Well, now they have to pay a premium. So now they’ve won on both ends. They’ve gone this other direction and now people are paying to wash the wokeness away. I’m just stunned that it actually worked this well. It landed right in their lap and they’re going to make a fortune.”
Dana White giving the hard sell
Proving the accuracy of Mr. Nash’s comments, Dana White appeared on Fox News with Sean Hannity in a blatant attempt to deflect criticism from the Bud Light sponsorship announcement. It was a striking appearance in two aspects.
First, notice how uncomfortable Dana is. Watch his eyes. Second, notice how Hannity frames the entire campaign around strident 2003 Bush Republicanism talking points. Save the farmers and distributors. Be a good Christian and give Bud Light a second chance for redemption. Only UFC can rehabilitate and salvage Bud Light. Buy Bud Light because they back Folds of Honor. It’s not about the money. Don’t believe me? Watch the video.
Avoid saying “transgender” or “Dylan Mulvaney.” Say “the controversy.” Tell the public you’re not into culture wars. Selling fights or selling a mission? Kayfabe is dead in the ring but alive and well outside of it.
Memo to Brendan Whitworth at InBev: the customers you need aren’t backing Sean Hannity any more. That audience is all about Jack Posobiec, Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, Raheem Kassam, Sebastian Gorka, Brenden Dilley, and Catturd.
The Hannity hit was classic Karl Rove & Frank Luntz messaging. While you’re engaged in whataboutism on transgenders and what Kadyrov or Middle Eastern powers-that-be believe in, Ari’s revolving door of multi-million dollar deals continues.
Wrestlenomics writer Brandon Thurston noted that Endeavor felt a spinoff of UFC into TKO would allow them to sell a story that their non-UFC assets were worth more than Wall Street was trading at. However, the market wasn’t buying the narrative.
As UFC reinforces its status as a political shop and public contractor in an unstable world, we’re going to see many writers who cover this business heading for the exits.
What will be left in this landscape is a handful of writers who will increasingly look around the room and realize that the cavalry isn’t coming for intellectual or emotional support. There isn’t going to be a new generation of writers covering Mixed Martial Arts the way it should be covered.
It’s why you should be actively supporting Bloody Elbow and our team of writers. If not us, then who? We’re here to be your advocate. Dishonesty in the fight business is nothing compared to dishonesty in politics. Now the two worlds are fully married.
It’s not your fault if you find yourself struggling because you’re trying to figure out how to feel about the UFC you once loved. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to wash down my Xyience Country Breakfast with some Mickey’s.
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