17 aprile 2023
by Alessandro Galiani

The unstoppable rise of Ari Emanuel

Ari Emanuel with Donald Trump 
Ari Emanuel with Donald Trump 

Ari Emanuel, 62, co-founder of the Endeavor Talent Agency and co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor, is one of Hollywood's most powerful agents, a true legend in the media Mecca. Many consider him to be the model for the tyrannical and capricious character of Ari Gold, played by Jeremy Piven in the HBO series Entourage, a cult series that came out a couple of decades ago and was inspired by the 1990s Hollywood 'beginnings' of movie star Mark Wahlberg. It is also both a satire and a celebration of the Hollywood dream, a 'male' version of Sex and the City: fun and tongue-in-cheek, which the stars of the day, including James Cameron, Le Bron James, Scarlett Johansson, and Martin Scorsese, loved to be part of, showing off and poking fun at themselves. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, and in the meantime, Ari has grown, become even more powerful, almost a media 'tycoon' rather than a 'super' agent, as he has also often been called. In 2019, Ari tried to make the leap from super agent to mogul, but it went wrong.

He hired Goldman Sachs to list Endeavor on the stock exchange. The IPO was supposed to raise about six hundred million dollars. But the response from institutional investors was disappointing. Sources who know him well report that he “called all the Goldman guys motherfuckers. He cursed so many people he had to apologize a few weeks later.”

In 2019, Ari tried to make the leap from super agent to mogul, but it went wrong

It was the biggest failure of his career. Then the pandemic struck. Productions were canceled. Hollywood all but shut down. Endeavor inspired particular speculation, with many people wondering if it would fail. While Emanuel was building his company, he had made more than 20 acquisitions, many of them in the live events industry. Now those gambles looked dangerous; with sports, concerts, fashion shows, and TV and film productions all at a standstill, the company's revenues fell and its rating was downgraded to junk-bond status.

But Ari refused to be beaten. Rather, as he explained to Joe Ravitch, friend and business partner: “Joe, agents are like cockroaches. We’re going to survive nuclear war.” And in fact, he survived, he got back up on his feet. And his latest, most recent venture was to buy WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) and merge it with UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), the combat sports league owned by Endeavor, to create a giant of live entertainment and combat sports worth USD 21 billion.

The agreement is expected to close toward the end of the year, pending regulatory approval. And it will give Endeavor a 51 percent stake in the company, while current WWE shareholders will get 49 percent. For Ari, the WWE purchase is not just a deal, it’s payback. In 1997, when he was still an unknown but tenacious young man from Chicago, looking to make his fortune, he managed to convince professional wrestling impresario and WWE founder Vince McMahon to hire him as an agent. That was the springboard for his extraordinary career. More than 20 years later, last week, Ari inked a deal with McMahon to buy WWE, merge it with his UFC and become its owner.

“For the son of a Jewish immigrant from Chicago,” Ari tells the Financial Times, “it's actually a pretty incredible thing.” In the past 25 years, Ari has become an aggressive businessman with very close ties to the establishment that dominates the star-studded entertainment industry, on equal footing with the likes of Bob Iger from Disney and David Zaslav from Warner Bros. Discovery. He also merged Endeavor with rival William Morris, making it a giant with 11,000 employees spread over dozens of countries, acquired the sports media group IMG and Ultimate Fighting Championship, has a client list that includes 'heavyweights' including Oprah Winfrey, Martin Scorsese, Charlize Theron, Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and, since 2010, even Donald Trump. 

Not bad for a shy, hyperactive, dyslexic kid. “He was an annoying kid,” says his brother Ezekiel, an oncologist and former aide of Barack Obama. “He would get up at 5 am and could never sit still. Speaking of brothers, Ari's third brother, Rahm, is the former mayor of Chicago and Obama's former chief of staff, now the US ambassador to Japan, of whom it is said that despite being a staunch Democrat, he was financed by Donald Trump, thanks to the mediation by Ari , who in 2016 had become a close friend of Trump, then in the early days of his presidency. Even today, Ari is a tireless and highly ambitious manager and, as those who work with him report, pretty foul-mouthed, much like Ari Gold in Entourage. Emanuel is also known for his 'hygiene' obsessions: he is vegan and gets up at dawn to take ice baths, to strengthen - he says - his “mental strength”.

Emanuel likes hanging out with famous people, being the center of attention, but in his own way he also remains a humble guy

Photographed last summer on a yacht alongside Elon Musk, the slim Emanuel urged the Tesla founder, to “lose weight.” Emanuel likes hanging out with famous people, being the center of attention, but in his own way he also remains a humble guy. “In ten years, is anybody gonna remember Bob Iger?” he wonders in an interview with The New Yorker, referring to Disney's executive chairman. “Probably not. They’re gonna remember Steve Jobs. They're gonna remember Elon Musk. They’re gonna remember presidents, actors. You know, businessmen like me, they’re not really.” In addition, Ari is contradictory.

Of the 77-year-old Mc Mahon, accused of sexual misconduct, when asked if he had any doubts about their collaboration, he said: “None.” However, Emanuel, in 2018, was behind Endeavor returning 400 million to Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In short, Ari is a character, somewhere between legend and gossip, a bit of one and a bit of the other: a veritable self-made man of our time: maniacal, brilliant, a ‘bulldozer’ but also a visionary full of creative energy. A friend said of him: “He’s a loyal friend, but you don’t want to have him as an enemy.”

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