It’s been a high-intensity year for the copresidents of WME-IMG, Mark Shapiro and Ioris Francini, and the energetic execs insist they are only getting started. With Shapiro focused on the U.S. and Francini tackling the rest of the globe, the pair has deftly executed a strategy that sees WMEIMG own events and even sports leagues, not simply represent the talent on the field and the court, and in the ring. In the process, WME-IMG has evolved the way a talent agency is perceived. The perception of WME, itself the product of the merger of William Morris and Endeavor, took a hit in some quarters with the ambitious $2.4 billion purchase of IMG that made them major sports players. (While WME-IMG remains committed to representing talent, rivals like CAA focus more on repping athletes, leagues and brands.)
The WME-IMG stable now includes marquee sports properties including UFC and upside-rich entities including global basketball outfit Euroleague and e-sports franchise ELeague. Shapiro, whose resume includes a dozen years at ESPN and a stint atop Dick Clark Productions, refers to WME-IMG as a “full-stop shop.”
“Our company has really moved—the pendulum has swung when you view our perspective and our profile,” says Shapiro from WME-IMG’s Manhattan office. “We’re now a content ownership company— a full-fledged media company.”
‘Ultimate’ Growth Vehicle
Talent rep WME and sports and fashion power IMG came together in 2014, and the new venture has been keen to grow its live events portfolio, whether it’s the Professional Bull Riders organization, which WME-IMG bought last year, or the Miss Universe competition, which it scooped up in an opportune moment earlier this year. With some 5,600 employees operating in more than 30 countries, WME-IMG sees its business as falling into a half-dozen buckets: besides sports, there’s Hollywood entertainment, music, fashion, culinary and art.
The agency’s deal for mixed martial arts titan UFC, announced over the summer and closing in mid-November, is said to be worth a staggering $4 billion. Lorenzo Fertitta, then-chairman and CEO of the UFC, noted its new partner’s commitment “to accelerating UFC’s global growth.” He added, “Most importantly, our new owners share the same vision and passion for this organization and its athletes.”
Ultimate fighting has evolved over the past decade from ultra-violent extreme sport to a mainstream competition featuring elite athletes, evident in a massive pay-per-view event at Madison Square Garden Nov. 12 that saw Irishman Conor McGregor seize the title belt. Among the 20,000 at the world’s most famous arena were Madonna and Hugh Jackman, a nod to the sport’s shift to the mainstream and beyond.
The outspoken McGregor, with his unabashed boasts, is at times compared to Muhammad Ali. He, Ronda Rousey and other steel-cage stars have become full-fledged celebrities outside of the ring, and at times even household names.
New York only legalized the sport in March following a 20-year ban. Shapiro and Francini see huge upside for UFC. The league, they say, is an ideal fit for WME-IMG in many departments where the agency is a force, including talent, live events, TV and digital distribution and advertising.
“It’s going to get bigger. It’s a global sport,” says Francini, reeling off the various regions of the world—virtually all of them—where MMA is rabidly followed. “With the strategy that has been laid out, I think we’ll see phenomenal growth.”
Get in the Game
More in a nascent stage is e-sports; WME-IMG recently kicked off, along with Turner Broadcasting, a professional video game competition called ELeague that features 24 teams around the world. Baby boomers may scratch their heads at the concept of tuning in to watch young people play video games, but Shapiro and Francini know it’s big business in many corners of the globe, whether it’s viewed on site, on TV or on digital platforms such as Twitch.
Similar to the mixed martial arts world, they foresee a major consolidation of the many leagues, some established and some fledgling, around the world. Francini calls it a “happily chaotic and extremely successful ecosystem” that will streamline itself in the next few years.
E-sports captures the elusive 12-24-year-old demo, notes Shapiro. “It’s a very, very vocal and active and energized crowd,” he says. “They play an obscene amount of hours; they watch an obscene amount of hours.”
The WME-IMG copresidents are equally pumped about Euroleague basketball; the agency inked a 10-year deal, with an option for 10 more years that Shapiro describes as “massive.” Outside of the NBA, Euroleague is the world’s top hoops league, representing 18 nations. Francini notes its popularity not just in Europe, but in the Middle East and Asia as well. The pact involves production, distribution, sponsorship, hospitality and other revenue streams. “It’s rare these days to find a sport that is growing double digits,” says Francini, “and maybe needs a boost.”
Gary Stevenson, Major League Soccer Business Ventures president and managing director, describes the copresidents as go-getters with grand plans. He mentions working with Francini, who joined IMG in 2003, on a joint venture involving the Copa America soccer tournament this year, with Francini whipping up a workable deal that benefitted both parties in just 12 hours. “There aren’t many in the industry who can put a deal together in 12 hours,” says Stevenson.
Stevenson says he’s discussing a couple new ventures with Francini. “He’s global in his approach,” says the MLS exec. “A lot of people talk about being global in their approach, but Ioris truly is.”
Shapiro is equally renowned for his dealmaking. “Mark is a talented executive who has a deep understanding of the complex world of entertainment and sports, and he is someone who really thrives on innovating and finding creative solutions to meet the changing media landscape,” says NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
A Script for Growth
Sports of course represents just one of the various buckets Francini and Shapiro oversee. On the TV front, the agency aggressively moved to take over the Miss Universe Organization following the fallout between NBCUniversal and Donald Trump; Trump first bought out NBC’s half, before WMEIMG acquired the property outright. Under Shapiro’s and Francini’s leadership, the agency is repositioning Miss Universe as a year-round media brand focused on female empowerment, the copresidents say, more than an annual beauty contest. Digital video content will keep the competition fresh, and viewers sated, all year round.
IMG is also increasing its presence in scripted television sales, negotiating global distribution for AMC’s The Night Manager, Amazon’s The Grand Tour and other series with worldwide reach. Shapiro and Francini are more intent on packaging shows than repping the talent involved in the shows, spelling much greater financial upside.
Francini and Shapiro got a big vote of confidence Nov. 7, when both were named copresidents of WME-IMG by Ariel Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell, the agency’s co-CEOs. Francini operates from London while Shapiro works out of New York.
Both have their hands full growing WME-IMG into the sports and entertainment monolith they envision. “There’s a lot of verticals, a lot of employees, a lot of value creators,” says Shapiro with a smile. “There’s enough to go around.”