UFC’s Owners In Bankruptcy; White In Jeopardy?

For many casual UFC fans, Dana White is the face of the organization, more so than any fighter. He’s the brash, bald pit bull who took UFC from the brink of collapse in its outlaw days to its current position as a billion-dollar industry, featured in high-profile puff pieces in magazines such as ROLLING STONE. But what many fans don’t know is that while he wields tremendous power, he’s only a 10 percent stakeholder in Zuffa, LLC, the parent company of the UFC.

The Palace Station and Dana White

The real power lies with brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, who also are co-owner of Station Casinos, a group of 15 casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere. And while the UFC’s business seems to be booming, Station Casinos aren’t: they recently made a Yahoo! list of “15 Companies That Might Not Survive 2009.” Would the Fertitta Brothers consider selling the UFC to raise the capital to save their casinos? If they do, the one person who could be screwed is White - something a lot of people would love.

A childhood friend of the Fertitta Brothers, White convinced them in 2001 to buy UFC from its original owners after bans from state regulators had crippled the sport. The cost? Two million dollars, an incredible bargain for a business the Fertitta Brothers told FORBES is worth more than $1 billion. White’s reward for that performance was securing a 10 percent stake in the company and the title of President.

Station Casinos went from a publicly-traded company to a private company back in 2007, with the LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL reporting the Fertitta family owning a 25 percent stake in the company. Colony Capital, headed by Los Angeles-based billionaire Tom Barrack holds the additional 75 percent. At the time, Lorenzo Fertitta told regulators that the move was done “so the company could pursue acquisitions and development more aggressively and more efficiently than public companies can.

But the financial realities of 2009 are far different than in 2007, and Station Casinos are in dire straits, to the point that they are proposing filing for prepackaged bankruptcy in a deal with lenders. Gambling revenues are down in Las Vegas, as are real estate prices (Station Casinos own significant real estate in Nevada) and the local economy. This hits Station Casinos especially hard, as they have built their reputation on catering to local players.

As MMA MANIA notes, the proposed bankruptcy settlement would put the Fertittas on the hook for a lot of personal investment:

Fast forward to 2009, when Station missed a scheduled $14.6 million bond interest payment last Monday after fourth-quarter revenue fell about 19 percent from 2007 to $290 million.

Station is seeking to acquire $2.3 billion of existing bonds by offering investors 10 cents to 50 cents on the dollar in secured notes and cash.

The casino group currently has about $350 million in cash to fund operations. Colony Capital (the Los Angeles-based real estate investment giant run by billionaire Tom Barrack) and Frank Fertitta, Station’s chairman and chief executive and Vice Chairman Lorenzo J. Fertitta, will invest an additional $244 million into the company if investors approve the prepackaged bankruptcy plan.

But would the $244 million be enough to stem the bleeding, or would the Fertittas be forced to pile even more money into their family business in order to keep it afloat? It certainly isn’t hard to imagine a scenario where the Fertitta family sells its 90% stake in UFC and uses that money to continue to prop up Station. Especially considering there are already, as FOX 5 LAS VEGAS notes, bondholders suing to stop the debt-structuring.

If a sale of UFC were to happen, what would become of Dana White? To say that White has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way is an understatement - even a puff piece in ROLLING STONE can’t help but mention his gruff, abrasive manner. He’s had high-profile disputes with some of the organization’s biggest stars, such as Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz, and had to defend claims that he is using the organization’s strength to bully fighters into less-than-equitable contract terms. Plus, he’s verbally attacked the competition at every turn, ripping into rival MMA promoters such as Mark Cuban and Affliction with a ruthless zeal.

Lorenzo Fertitta raised eyebrows last June by naming himself CEO of Zuffa, a move that put him in a more direct role with the UFC and ahead of White in the pecking order. At the time he told the media that the move was “no indictment” on White, but he also didn’t dispute a reporter for THE ATLANTIC who implied that he and not White was the person making the strategic decisions.

Make no mistake about it: UFC is not going away any time soon. If it were for sale, it would be highly prized by any major media company. But would Dana White’s rough and tumble style fit in a stuffy corporate setting? Or would new owners look to start over with fresh blood?

For all we know, UFC will remain in the hands of the Fertittas. But if the economy doesn’t improve and Station continues to sink, UFC could easily be sold. And White would then be in for the fight of his professional life.