- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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Private investment firm Forstmann Little has agreed to sell sports, entertainment and fashion agency IMG to competitor William Morris Endeavor and its financial backer, Silver Lake Partners. The price of Wednesday's sale was not disclosed, but one insider said the deal will be worth about $2.3 billion.
The sale could have massive ramifications in the areas of athlete representation and marketing, depending on how WME is able to adjust to the sports world, in which it currently has relatively little stake.
With the acquisition, WME -- which makes its money primarily in the Hollywood and music representation businesses -- has a chance to pick up athlete clients, although IMG's business is no longer as driven by the fate of athlete contracts and endorsements as it once was. In the past decade under Forstmann, IMG let contract agents for football, basketball, baseball and hockey players go, as the margins on contract commissions thinned and the cost to acquire and retain clients grew. IMG did retain a marketing division that represents quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton for endorsement deals.
What remained was a robust golf business that represents the likes of Luke Donald, Ernie Els, K.J. Choi, Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington, Anthony Kim, Vijay Singh, Yani Tseng and Paula Creamer, and a tennis business that represents Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams and Li Na as well as broadcaster brothers John and Patrick McEnroe.
WME already markets for Serena Williams, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. It also represents commentators including Andy Roddick, Ray Lewis, Michael Strahan and Dan Marino.
The deal was spearheaded by super-agent Ari Emanuel, whose life was imitated with the character of Ari Gold in HBO's "Entourage." Emanuel famously left Hollywood agency ICM in the mid-1990s to form Endeavor, which grew even larger in 2009 when the firm merged with William Morris.
While WME continued to focus on Hollywood and music with clients that included Steven Spielberg, Adele, Alicia Keys, Bruno Mars and John Legend, Emanuel and co-CEO Patrick Whitesell were tempted by the sports world in recent years. IMG, meanwhile, represents Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake, and its modeling division has Kate Upton, Chrissy Teigen and Christie Brinkley as clients.
The ever-competitive Emanuel had two significant moments in sports in which he exerted his power, although neither worked out particular well.
It was Emanuel's idea to turn LeBron James' free agency choice in 2010 into the "The Decision," an hourlong show that aired on ESPN. Emanuel's team orchestrated the show even though James' contract was done by Emanuel's main competitor, Creative Artists Agency, and James' business manager Maverick Carter was working out of IMG's headquarters in Cleveland.
While the fallout from the critically panned show hit James maybe the hardest, Emanuel immediately defended the idea days later.
"Everybody can say what they want -- it was the wrong decision, there was too much hoopla, whatever -- but for me, it was about doing the event, getting the advertisers to participate and doing it for charity," Emanuel told Ad Age at the time.
The second big move made by Emanuel and his WME team was winning Tim Tebow's marketing rights in March 2012 even though Tebow's contract agents were his competitors at CAA.
WME convinced Tebow at the time that he was one of the most marketable celebrities on college campuses across the country, so Tebow passed up overtures to be repped by CAA for marketing purposes. Of course, the rest is history. Tebow barely played for the New York Jets in 2012 and was cut by the New England Patriots before the 2013 season. He eventually fired WME and hired CAA for his off-the-field work.
While this acquisition might be Emanuel's biggest power play yet, many insiders wonder how it makes much sense considering WME isn't adept in businesses that make IMG the most money. IMG is the largest independent producer of sports programming in the world, putting together more than 21,000 hours of television and more than 30,000 hours of radio per year. Its biggest growth engine is its college business, which through licensing, marketing and ticketing contracts with the majority of the BCS conference schools generated $483 million in 2013, the company said.
Over the past couple of years, CAA has turned into the biggest force in the sports representation world, partly by acquiring many of IMG's athlete representation businesses, including football, as well as growing an extensive division that represented sports broadcasters.
IMG was founded by Mark McCormack in 1960 after he signed his first client, Arnold Palmer. The company was purchased by Forstmann Little in 2004 for $750 million. Ted Forstmann, who led the acquisition at the time, died in 2011.
Private investment firm Forstmann Little announced Wednesday that it has agreed to sell sports, entertainment and fashion agency IMG to competitor William Morris Endeavor and its financial backer Silver Lake Partners.