Talent Agency Wars: UFC Becomes Newest Battleground for WME and CAA

DEAN MOUHTAROPOULOS/GETTY IMAGES; ALBERTO E. RODRIGUEZ/GETTY IMAGES; MICHAEL KOVAC/GETTY IMAGES
CAA's Richard Lovett (left) and WME’s Ari Emanuel slug it out over the UFC.

WME-IMG bought the MMA league for $4 billion just as CAA Sports was signing a group of top stars, and the league's fighters soon moved to unionize.

Never mind A-list actors. The latest battleground in the talent agency wars might be mixed martial arts.

Over the past six months, WME and CAA have begun staking their claim in the octagon. In July, WME-IMG acquired UFC for nearly $4 billion. That came on the heels of CAA Sports signing top UFC stars Cain Velasquez, Rory MacDonald, T.J. Dillashaw and Tim Kennedy as well as MMA coach Firas Zahabi (the agency has long repped Georges St-Pierre). That puts CAA in the awkward position of negotiating for clients with a league owned by its biggest rival.

But observers wonder if CAA's push is an effort to undercut WME's purchase. After all, some 90 UFC fighters banded together to unionize in August led by onetime uber-sports agent and Arli$$ inspiration Jeff Borris — a move that presumably could put a dent in WME's profits (UFC had been a cash cow thanks to fighters enjoying only a small cut of revenue, unlike other unionized sports). UFC also faces a class-action lawsuit filed by former fighters Jon Fitch and Cung Le, who claim compensation was suppressed thanks to UFC's monopoly on the sport.

A CAA insider says its signings were in the works long before WME bought the premier promoter, whose programming reaches 1.1 billion television households in 151 countries. Others question whether WME is playing both sides given it owns the league and reps fighters such as Ronda Rousey. But a WME rep says it doesn't handle Rousey's fighting deals, instead repping her for endorsements and film and TV. Furthermore, it carefully considered the impact of unionization before it purchased UFC with Silver Lake, KKR and Michael Dell.

"Between its international reach, strong millennial fan base and content opportunities, it presents such a unique value proposition," a WME-IMG spokesperson says.

That sentiment is echoed by UFC manager Glenn Robinson, who handles 40 fighters. "I don't think they would have bought this without analyzing it and knowing the potential hurdles," he says. "Ultimately, I think WME-IMG buying UFC will be good for the fighters because they know how to deal with unions like SAG, and they have a bigger plan where they're going to mix Hollywood with fighting."

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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