This month, the entertainment, sports and fashion giant WME | IMG added another acronym to its alphabet soup of a name: UFC. (Read the story by Ben Fowlkes in USA Today for greater detail.) While the $4-billion dollar deal has raised a few eyebrows for its steep company valuation, most analysts agree the price is justified given the UFC’s treasure chest of content. (Pay attention to what happens when their current media rights deal with FOX Sports expires in 2018). And while most of us are tired of hearing the phrase “Content is King,” the reality is that in a world with a seemingly endless amount of screens and where Pokemon Go can bring back a company from life support, compelling content is what wins.
This is no surprise to WME | IMG. The talent agency arm of the company (WME, nee William Morris Agency) has been representing top content creators for over 100 years. What has shifted is that the company is now not just representing that content but owning it, too. In the case of the UFC, WME represented the company for over a decade, negotiating its Fox Sports deal and seasons of “The Ultimate Fighter.” It can be presumed that WME | IMG’s institutional knowledge of the organization and its value in the marketplace certainly helped when making the decision to buy it.
This model follows WME | IMG’s acquisition of another growing sport, Professional Bull Riders (PBR), though at a much lower purchase price (reported to be $100 million). WME also represented that brand for many years before becoming its owner. In the past 15 months WME | IMG has helped the PBR expand into new areas through the company’s vast entertainment and fashion network. PBR recently announced “Fearless,” an original Netflix documentary series, set up by WME client David Broome (“The Biggest Loser”). The six-program starts streaming August 19. Just as reality shows like “The Ultimate Fighter” have helped UFC build its athletes into mainstream stars, WME | IMG is now rallying its agents and verticals to create name-recognition opportunities for PBR riders still considered niche players by most media. PBR riders will be touring 40 Walmart locations in the back half of the season, a new PBR mobile game is said to be on the horizon, more PBR Rock bars are set to open, and PBR bull-riders are working with IMG Models to fill the need for authentic cowboys in big brands’ ad campaigns. For example, Bonner Bolton, recovering from a broken neck, recently shot a campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue, and more Bolton shoots are in the works. WME Literary is also starting to shop his inspirational life story.
The latest example of WME | IMG’s content strategy at work is the sports doc GLEASON, opening in theaters on July 29 from Open Road and Amazon. Shortly after the IMG acquisition, former ESPN exec Mark Shapiro was brought on as Chief Content Officer and an original content group was formed to develop projects based on the company’s access to some of the best content and creators in the world. Again, the idea was to own versus represent. The first project that was announced was GLEASON, from filmmakers Seth Gordon and Clay Tweel, both WME clients who are behind films like the Oscar winning sports doc “Undefeated.”
GLEASON is an intimate look at New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason and his battle with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Based on over 1,500 hours of footage that was taken from his diagnosis through 2015, it is one of the rawest portraits of humanity on film. Yes there are moments of sheer sadness as a strong, athletic man in the prime of his life then struggles with a tortuous affliction. There’s the cruel, heart-wrenching irony Gleason faces when finding out he’s going to be a father in the same month his doctor informs him he has ALS, which inspired the creation of a video blog ensuring his son would one day get to know his father before an inevitable harrowing physical decline. But instead of feeling sorry for Steve, just about everyone attending screenings say they leave the theater deeply pondering the purpose and meaning of their own lives. And even now “in the chair” what Steve is doing to better the lives of others remains incredibly meaningful: forming an organization called Team Gleason, which has raised millions of dollars to end ALS, fiercely advocating for people with disabilities, putting life-enabling legislation through Congress with the Steve Gleason Act, and willing to existence this ALS awareness-raising film. Gleason and his resilient, courageous and very funny wife Michel said they wanted to show their new lives – the triumphs and the setbacks, the victories and the struggles – in the purest form.
The film also highlights how high-caliber brands are approaching their cause-marketing initiatives. Both Microsoft and Go Pro are on board as marketing partners. When Steve Gleason lost his ability to speak, he used the eye-tracking technology Microsoft had developed for people with disabilities to communicate again. Without being the intention, the film is a powerful and authentic product placement for Microsoft and its commitment to people with disabilities.
GLEASON may not seem like an obvious choice for the same company that is investing in bull riders and cage fighters. But they have one thing in common: they are all great stories.