Merger between UFC, WWE closes, creating powerhouse new entity that reaches a billion fans a year

NEW YORK, NY: - SEPTEMBER 12, Dana White, CEO, UFC, Ariel Emanuel, CEO, TKO + Endeavor, Paul Levesque(Triple H), Chief Content Officer, WWE, Nick Khan, President, WWE and Mark Shapiro, President and COO, TKO + Endeavor pose for a photo during TKO Listing Day on September 12, 2023 at the New York Stock Exchange in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 Zuffa LLC (Photo by Michelle Farsi/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
(L-R) Dana White, Ari Emanuel, Paul Levesque, Nick Khan and Mark Shapiro pose for a photo at the New York Stock Exchange as the merger of the UFC and the WWE closed Tuesday. (Photo by Michelle Farsi/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Dana White and Vince McMahon, arguably the greatest promoters ever, are officially on the same team after Endeavor's acquisition of the WWE officially closed Tuesday. The deal creates a new company known as TKO Group Holdings, which will bring together the UFC and the WWE.

The deal is valued at $21.4 billion, with the UFC valued at $12.1 billion and the WWE at $9.3 billion.

From a public-facing standpoint, not much will change with the new company. The UFC and WWE will be run as separate companies. Nick Khan, who joined McMahon in doing the deal from the WWE's side, will run the WWE as its president. White will continue to run the UFC, though he gets a new title as the company's chief executive officer.

Ari Emanuel will be the CEO of TKO Group Holdings, with McMahon as the executive chairman. Mark Shapiro will be president and chief operating officer of TKO.

But executives with both UFC and WWE are bullish on the deal, believing it will enable them to negotiate better broadcasts deals as a combined entity and deliver significant cost savings.

The WWE has broadcast deals with NBC and Fox, and UFC has one with Disney/ABC/ESPN, giving TKO relationships with three of the four major broadcast networks in the U.S. The WWE's deal with NBC for "Raw" and "Smackdown" end next year, and Khan has already begun talks. Its deal with Peacock for the WWE Network expires in 2026. The UFC's deal with ESPN expires in 2025.

"The timing is excellent," Lawrence Epstein, the UFC's senior vice president and chief operating officer, told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. "We both have the best agent in the world in Ari Emanuel ... to help us negotiate these deals. ... We had already built a great business in the UFC before the Endeavor acquisition [in 2016]. But what Ari has done in the last seven-plus years since the UFC was purchased has been incredible. For example, we would not have this ESPN deal without Ari and Mark Shapiro's involvement."

Epstein said ESPN's intention to ultimately go direct-to-consumer is a move that will benefit the new combined entity. ESPN has plans to pitch its content to the public. In the past, ESPN was on basic cable and its fee got so high that there were often rights-fees disputes with cable companies.

That raised the price of cable for all customers, not just those interested in sports.

But with streaming, customers can pick and choose what they want. Epstein believes this creates an opportunity for TKO, which creates a huge amount of content annually. The UFC and WWE combined to produce 350 annual live events that are viewed in 180 countries.

"This change, from digital cable and satellite to streaming, is right in front of us right now," Epstein said. "You'll see what is going to happen. Clearly, ESPN is going to go in the United States direct to consumer with a full suite of content, not a partial suite of content. Ultimately, I think that is very good for content creators like the UFC and WWE.

"You've got to have great content on your platform, whether it's streaming or linear. You have to have the best content and we've got some incredible content between these two companies."

Emanuel is considered arguably the greatest dealmaker in the business. He did broadcast rights deals for the UFC before he purchased the company via Endeavor and the WWE.

Khan, though, is also a well-known dealmaker in the sports industry. He helped negotiate Top Rank Boxing's deal with ESPN in 2017 and since McMahon hired him in 2020 to run the WWE, he's led the company to record profits in all three years. He played a big role in the completion of the WWE deal with Endeavor and, according to Variety, he received a $15 million bonus for his work.

The seeds of the deal, in a way, were sewn at UFC 276 in Las Vegas on July 2, 2022. WWE executives Khan, McMahon and Paul "Triple-H" Levesque attended the show as guests of the UFC. That night, Israel Adesanya defended the title in the main event against Jared Cannonier.

Adesanya made a dramatic ring walk that night, paying homage to WWE superstar The Undertaker.

"That was the show where Izzy came out with the urn in the theme of The Undertaker," Khan said. "I leaned over to Vince and said, 'Hey, what do you think?' And he said, 'I think it's brilliant.' And I just saw in that moment that there was so much more that each company could do together. I'm not suggesting just on walkouts, but you saw the power of UFC, its fighters and the crowd that it has. With a little WWE brought into that, I thought it was a great night all the way around."