Ari Emanuel Compares CAA To Walmart, Talks LIV Golf, Saudi Arabia & Endeavor Succession Plans In ‘Freakonomics’ Interview

Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel went to town on CAA, said his company almost invested $1 billion in the new LIV Golf tour, and projected that COO Mark Shapiro will take over the company whenever Emanuel calls it quits.

The wide-ranging conversation with Freakonomics Radio host Stephen J. Dubner has just gone online as a podcast and will also air on public radio stations. (Listen HERE.) Deadline was provided with a transcript in advance. In addition to covering a few newsy items, Dubner aimed to give listeners a sense of Emanuel’s day-to-day to arrive at his answer to a simple question: Is he enjoying himself?

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“I’m having a meeting, getting on a plane to England, then going to Madrid, then coming back, then back to New York, then coming back, then going to Cannes. Then I’m going to Tokyo. Yeah. And I enjoy it,” Emanuel said. “So when I don’t enjoy it, when I won’t show up is when I know I’m not in it. And when I’m not in it, I will not be in it. I’ll be out. And Mark Shapiro will be running the company. And it will be an incredible company, and that will be fine.”

Endeavor is in the process of acquiring WWE and merging it with UFC to create a separate public company, which will be majority-owned by Endeavor. It’s part of a diversification strategy he started years ago to make the company less dependent on the representation business via major subsidiaries like WME and IMG. “We still represent a lot of clients,” Emanuel said. “Anytime they need us, we’re there.”

The UFC, which Endeavor acquired in full in 2021, proved a talking point in the interview. Emanuel described UFC chief Dana White’s aggressive negotiating style and resourceful pivot during Covid to stage events on an island. White being caught on camera slapping his wife earlier this year (an act for which he has apologized) did not come up. Neither did the conduct of former WWE CEO (and still top shareholder) Vince McMahon in the wake of disclosures about millions in payouts to multiple women over alleged sexual misconduct and harassment. Emanuel hasn’t held back in condemning anti-Semitism and other objectionable actions and statements by figures like Kanye West or Mel Gibson but hasn’t publicly weighed in on White or McMahon.

Emanuel said he still loves agenting. “But when we bring things to the table — any of the people at the company (WME), unlike UTA or CAA, they have this whole other world they can pull from, which is what’s needed at an agency now. The problem when you’re at one of those other places is a client gets hot, Kevin Huvane or Bryan Lourd starts calling them around your back…That’s bad culture,” he said of the CAA co-chairs. “Remember, they were the biggest agents — [CAA co-founder] Mike Ovitz gave them everything. They had, for lack of a better metaphor, Tiffany. And you know what they did with it? And I think Walmart’s a great company. But let’s just say they made it Walmart.”

Emanuel continued, “I would pay the salaries of Bryan Lourd, Kevin Huvane to stay in the job. I would pay their salaries. It’s the greatest competition of all time.” Dubner noted that CAA declined comment.

Sports has been a major arena for Endeavor and the firm has many ties to golf. Emanuel said Endeavor was asked to help finance LIV Golf, a controversial new alternative to the PGA Tour that wound up being underwritten by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman had been a major investor in Endeavor. LIV has been accused of being used — along with its players, who defected from the PGA for huge paydays — for “sports-washing” the reputation of Saudi Arabia. Endeavor returned the $400 million investment from M.B.S. with interest after the state-sanctioned murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

“You know, we got a call. We got a call, like, from [Bryson] DeChambeau and Phil [Mickelson]. ‘Hey, do you want to finance this?’” — instead of the Saudis, Emanuel recalled. “I said to Egon, ‘Yeah.’ I said we would put up — meaning Endeavor — would put up $1 billion.” Egon Durban is chairman of the board of Endeavor and is co-CEO of its largest shareholder, private equity firm Silver Lake. “Egon then called somebody at the PGA. And, you know, we’re all connected in golf. And they said, “Please don’t do it.” So we stopped.”

Emanuel said he is friends with PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan and does a lot of business with him, so didn’t want to inflict undue injury. “But I just thought, you know, I’m always looking for the next sport, the next thing we can do,” he said. “So we pulled out. I said to Jay, ‘Jay, we’re pulling out. But you have got to figure out an economic solution here because it’s going to force you.’ And he did.”

Asked how he felt about LIV being financed by the Saudi fund, he said, “I haven’t really thought about it. I have enough on my plate. They’re doing what they’re doing.”

He described the original Saudi investment in Endeavor as the result of a series of meetings, including with MBS. “He’s incredible. I mean, he is as charming as could be. He had this whole vision, bringing entertainment and movies back. And he wanted to spend $30 billion in entertainment. Well, I can do math. $30 billion in entertainment, I mean, it’s money. And I thought his vision was incredible. So we — we negotiated. It took about nine months of negotiation for them to invest. I think it was $400 million. And then, you know, I think a bad thing happened. But let’s be very clear about something. I’m not defending what they did. You know, I’ve had a brother that’s been in two White Houses. Every country does bad things. They just don’t do it in an embassy.”

He didn’t rule out doing business with the Kingdom in the future. Asked why then he paid the investment back, Emanuel said: “I don’t know. I just, you know — I don’t really. I don’t really know.”

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