Twenty-three celebrities, including Ben Affleck, Adam Levine and Serena and Venus Williams, are investing in the rapidly expanding sports league, the UFC and its new majority owner WME-IMG said on Thursday.
Bringing on the celebrity investors who can provide promotional muscle for the brutal and fast-growing sport known as mixed martial arts is the most significant business move for the organization since being acquired for $4 billion by WME-IMG and a group of investors in July.
Mixed martial arts is a combination of kick boxing and wrestling practiced in octagonal cages by male and female fighters, who usually end their bouts bruised and bloodied.
The UFC is the leading provider of such events, which can attract thousands of on-site spectators and can generate large pay-per-view audiences.
Terms of the celebrity investments weren’t disclosed. But a majority of the new investors are represented by WME-IMG.
WME-IMG, known for representing Hollywood actors and directors, including Dwayne Johnson and Charlize Theron, has been on a spending spree since the William Morris Endeavor agency merged with rival IMG Worldwide Inc. in 2013.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC’s formal moniker, is its biggest acquisition so far. And WME-IMG’s growing roster of businesses has led to speculation it is planning an initial public stock offering.
Ari Emanuel, co-chief executive of WME-IMG, declined to comment on any IPO plans. To find his UFC investors, Mr. Emanuel approached celebrities who he knew to be fans of the sport. “They would always ask for tickets,” he said.
Mr. Emanuel sought out celebrities who could help make the case that the UFC was no longer a niche interest. “I think it’s a mainstream sport now,” he said.
The celebrity investors include figures far from the world of combat sports, such as TV talk show host Jimmy Kimmel and film director Tyler Perry. Their inclusion points to the growing mainstream appeal of the UFC, which started as little more than organized backyard brawls that steadily have gained acceptance as a mass-market sport. The UFC will host its first fight in the famed Madison Square Garden on Nov. 12, six months after New York became the last remaining state to legalize mixed martial arts.
For Mr. Emanuel, assets such as UFC give his company a more-stable stream of revenue to balance out the more unpredictable talent-representation business. Mr. Emanuel says only about half the revenue from across all WME-IMG holdings is drawn from talent representation, with the other half derived from assets it owns.
In addition to UFC, those include the Miss Universe Organization, which Mr. Emanuel bought from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in September of 2015, and Professional Bull Riders Inc., which, as the UFC, has been given the Hollywood treatment.
Actor Ben Affleck is one of a number of celebrities investing in WME-IMG’s Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts business. PHOTO: REUTERS
Since buying the bull-riding-event company in April 2015, WME-IMG has enlisted rock musician and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, a client, to record a new anthem for the PBR. It also helped negotiate a Netflix Inc. documentary on the sport and developed an over-the-top network of bull-riding programming it plans to launch in 2017.
Further WME-IMG plans for the UFC include more programming on the UFC’s digital subscription service, which would provide more than just fights.
The company also wants to see more UFC fighters cross over to other forms of entertainment, as its client UFC champion Ronda Rousey has done with some small roles in movies such as “Furious 7.”
Conan O’Brien, one of the UFC’s new backers, is already at work promoting his new investment. He was scheduled to perform a UFC-themed segment on his late-night talk show on Thursday.
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