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Fox pressured WWE to bring in UFC owner’s biggest rival for TV rights negotiations

Conflict of interest concerns from network executives prevented UFC owner Ari Emanuel from being involved in WWE’s television rights negotiations.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. v Conor McGregor - Weigh-in Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Just under two months ago, the UFC confirmed a five-year, $1.5 billion broadcast deal with ESPN and the ESPN+ streaming service, ending a seven-year run with Fox Sports. Meanwhile, Fox inked a five-year, $1.025 billion deal to air WWE’s weekly “SmackDown” series starting in 2019, and NBCUniversal retained rights to show “Raw” for a reported five years, $1.325 billion.

On Monday, Sports Business Journal published a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into how the UFC and WWE got their respective deals done. One of the intriguing things revealed was that UFC owner and WME-IMG co-CEO Ari Emanuel was asked by Vince McMahon to be involved in WWE’s rights negotiations — this was at a time when both companies were shopping their respective rights package. WME have been longtime representatives for WWE, and this development drew conflict of interest concerns from multiple network executives. The end result was WWE ultimately going with Endeavor’s biggest rival, Creative Artists Agency (CAA).

WWE’s negotiation period with NBCUniversal ran until mid-May 2018, but WWE executives started making the rounds well before that through a series of get-to-know-you meetings with various TV executives.

The networks, however, saw one big complication. Endeavor owns the UFC and the agency’s Emanuel is friends with the WWE’s Vince McMahon, who asked Emanuel to rep WWE during its media talks.

Networks didn’t feel comfortable negotiating with the same person for two competing sports properties. Executives at multiple networks viewed it as a clear conflict of interest and were not shy about pointing it out to WWE executives.

During a WWE event in Los Angeles in the spring of 2017, [Fox Sports president] Eric Shanks pulled Vince McMahon aside to make that point. Shortly thereafter, WWE hired one of Endeavor’s top rivals, CAA, to handle WWE’s media rights deal.

The fact that Fox pushed for the change annoyed Emanuel and offered another hint that Fox and the UFC would have trouble reaching a deal.

News of CAA’s involvement broke in April, after which a WWE spokesperson told The Wrap that they would continue a “longstanding partnership with WME as well as working relationships with other agencies and strategic advisors around the world.” That Emanuel was reportedly “annoyed” with the change of plans is certainly new information.

Also of note is Fox’s negotiations with the UFC. One of the scenarios that the network had mulled was to pay an average of $200 million annually, but for a reduced number of events and relinquishing rights to The Ultimate Fighter. They were unwilling to go anywhere near the $400 million range as was expected by Endeavor.

Professional investors knew numbers given during presentations always were inflated and they discounted it anywhere from 15 to 25 percent. Even the discounted number, though, still was higher than Fox wanted to go.

Another option was to split the rights with another network, as was rumored in April. Ultimately, they decided to move on and turn their attention towards other rights, such as “Thursday Night Football” and WWE.

The entire article (link here) is definitely worth a read from all angles, including how ESPN got in the game following the departure of former president John Skipper.