Ari Emanuel Says COVID Nearly Ended Endeavor: ‘I’d Never Had to Fire That Many People’

The company’s CEO also spoke about the potential of so-called artificial intelligence on the “Freakonomics Radio” podcast

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Ari Emanuel, CEO of Endeavor, said the COVID-19 pandemic nearly killed his massive holding company, which owns the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and the William Morris Endeavor talent agency. 

Speaking to the podcast “Freakonomics Radio” in an interview that aired Wednesday night but was recorded earlier this year, Emanuel divulged the financial hardships his company faced amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, along with his thoughts on the future of the technology referred to as artificial intelligence. 

“Did you think COVID might kill Endeavor?” host Stephen Dubner asked Emanuel. 

“It was bad,” Emanuel replied. “I’d never had to fire that many people.”

Emanuel said were it not for Endeavor’s leadership team, which includes former ESPN executive Mark Shapiro, the company might not have made it. Emanuel also credited the continuation of UFC fights during the pandemic as a savior. UFC was one of the first major sports to resume during the pandemic, implementing the “Fight Island” COVID bubble events that inspired other pro leagues to continue amid travel and social distancing restrictions.

“Keeping the UFC on, you know, we did about — I might be wrong here — but I think about 70 percent of our revenue in the COVID year,” Emanuel said. “We had our ESPN deal. We then started making deals for writers. So we stored all the cash. We didn’t let anything out. We let people go, which was horrible, or furloughed them.”

“Did you think for a time, though, that you might—?” Dubner asked.

“Oh yeah,” Emanuel replied. “There was three months there I was like — I — you know, I mean, it was bad. And we were just counting cash. Like, how do we make sure the cash can last?”

Later in the interview, which took place before the Writers Guild of America strike began, Emanuel gave his thoughts on the future of artificial intelligence. 

“My son Leo is at Michigan, and he’s in computer science,” Emanuel began. “He and I were having this conversation. And I’m telling him, “programming is going to go away.” And he says, ‘Dad, here’s my opinion about it. Computer versus computer in chess, draw. Computer versus computer and human, computer-human win.’ And if you talk to George Gilder, he would say technology has only added to employment. Elon would say something else. It is going to be a very important development tool. Do I think you can create like Jim Brooks can? No. Could it help Jim Brooks? Yeah.”

The full interview, which touches on Emanuel’s acquisition of the UFC, his thoughts on LIV Golf and more, can be found here