This transcript comes from an interview conducted by Saeed Ahmad—a board member for the Harvard Association for Law & Business (HALB) and former President of the Pre-Law Transfer Society at UCLA. The interview was conducted on May 6, 2020, with the Founder & CEO of Paradigm Sports Management, Audie Attar. JSEL has agreed to collaborate with HALB by publishing this interview to provide its contents to a broader audience.
Saeed Ahmad, Harvard Association for Law & Business: We are excited to have Audie Attar, MMA super-agent and business executive as a guest speaker today. Thank you so much for joining us, Audie.
Audie Attar, Paradigm Sports Management: Yeah, thanks, guys. I appreciate you having me.
Ahmad: Absolutely. We’re gonna go straight into the Q&A. Audie, could you please give us a brief introduction about yourself and your journey to becoming the business mogul and super-agent that you are today?
Attar: Well, for those who don’t know, I grew up in Southern California and was a high school all-American football player. I ended up signing my letter of intent to play at UCLA and was part of the Pac-12 championship team. Unfortunately, we lost to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl my freshman year, but I was part of the number one recruiting class. I really enjoyed my time at UCLA, but also faced a lot of challenges. As a Muslim-American, I was at school when 9/11 happened. I lost my brother at a young age here in the US, and I have his name tattooed on me in Arabic. So, I had to face some racism and social changes that taught me a lot. Unfortunately, that got me suspended from my team going into my redshirt senior year.
I actually ended up wanting to still play, not just finish school, so I went to Idaho State. I led that team to its first Big Sky championship in over 10 years. At the end of the season, the head coach at UCLA was fired, and all my teammates stuck up for me to get my scholarship back. So, I ended up returning to UCLA after finishing my last year of eligibility playing ball and graduated from UCLA. That was very important to my dad; UCLA is one of the best schools in the country and the world from an academic standpoint. My father really wanted me to have that degree, and it’s a testament to the great teammates that I had who stuck up for me. I realized that while I made a mistake, it was under certain circumstances that many of us would have done the same thing. I graduated from UCLA and had an opportunity to either continue playing football in Canada or start my career. I was presented with an opportunity to get into the agent business with a startup at the time, with some friends from football. I took that opportunity and, in my first year, I became a top pick and was later recruited away from another firm. I spent seven years working my way up from associate to director.
During that time, I realized that my old boss didn’t really care about the athletes we were working with. Many of these guys were my former teammates and friends within the fraternity of the sport. I felt it was a crime the way they were treated because as soon as they got hurt, they would effectively stop answering their phone calls. In many sports, the game doesn’t retire; the athlete retires before they want to give it up. I felt there was more to do in this business, and I had a paradigm shift. So, I went back and decided to do this on my own. I went back to business school at Pepperdine University and Pepperdine Law to get my dispute resolution certificate. I felt I wanted to get my black belt and take my game to another level. During that time, I started to realize the broader vision I had for the business and the things I wanted to do to differentiate myself. My master’s degrees really helped me, and that’s where the name Paradigm comes from – a shift in experience. When I launched Paradigm, I wanted to get into high-growth sports, not just be a football agent but an entrepreneur.
Studying different opportunities and looking at MMA, which was part of my experience growing up in Southern California, I dove deeper into the sport, studying its economics, upside, and potential. That led me to my thesis of focusing on high-growth sports, scaling, capturing market share, diversifying into consumer products, content, digital technology, entertainment, and getting into teams, leagues, and promotion ownership. Today, we are the most successful combat sports agency in the world and have developed various consumer products. We continue to build out our ventures as well.
Ahmad: Thank you, Audie. Next question. As the founder of Paradigm Sports Management, could you tell us a little bit about the process that led you to land a superstar like Conor McGregor as your client?
Attar: Yes, the first major signing for me was a gentleman named Chris Lytle, who will arguably go into the Hall of Fame at some point. He was a major star. Then I kept on signing big names, but the next big star I signed was Michael Bisping. Michael is another Hall-of-Famer, a pioneer of mixed martial arts in Europe. When I signed Michael as a client, his brand was tarnished in the US due to his antics on the reality show and some of his fights. Often, tonality, especially in the present day, plays a crucial role in brand management. When I signed Michael, one of our tasks was to rebrand his image and show people who he really was.
This young kid, Conor McGregor, was just signed, and someone told me about him. My scouting is based on talent first, not just qualitative abilities or the “it factor.” Athletic ability has to be the main driver in our business. Conor McGregor was phenomenal – height, weight, speed – head and shoulders above everyone else in his division. When we first met via FaceTime, he was relatively unknown, and his first fight was extraordinary. Michael Bisping, being a pioneer in Europe, paved the way for many fighters, and that resonated with Conor.
We had to differentiate ourselves, present a value proposition that was hard to refuse. We met Conor right before his first fight, and immediately after his second fight, we signed him. The first fight we worked on was his US debut against Max Holloway in Boston, the first fight on Fox. It was a turning point for the sport with the Fox deal, marking the first pay deal for the USA as a real asset to the rights deals.
Ahmad: On a similar note, Paradigm Sports Management recently signed Manny Pacquiao. How did you manage to get a legend like Manny?
Attar: I think it’s the same principle – keeping your head down and delivering results. The scoreboard doesn’t lie, as we say in sports, and it applies to business. People will ask, “Have you done it?” That’s what matters. Signing a veteran like Manny Pacquiao came from what we had already done, especially architecting the Mayweather-McGregor fight, which many thought was impossible. We were able to mobilize two jurisdictions and make our client significant money. There’s no precedent for what we’re doing in this emerging market, and that’s what allowed us to sign Manny.
Manny is at the end of his career, likely to run for president of the Philippines. He only has a few fights left, and there’s an element of legacy that he hasn’t fully built for himself. His legacy athletically is there, but the opportunity to build an enterprise around it was a missed one, largely due to the team he surrounded himself with. Working with him, I noticed many people vying for attention and different things, which could be the demise of an athlete. They get pulled in different directions instead of focusing on a deliberate strategy to elevate their career.
Ahmad: Thank you, Audie. Now, I have a question that holds major relevance today for college athletes, especially in light of recent developments. I quote from a recent NBC article: “The NCAA Board of Governors recently approved a recommendation where student athletes could receive income for third-party endorsements, as well as social media opportunities, other business ventures, and personal appearances that fall within certain guidelines, starting in the academic school year.” How does this change the game for the management of student athletes, and is this initiative long overdue?
Attar: I’m going to give you guys a little history lesson. The National College Players Association (NCPA) was actually started with my team and my former teammate, UCLA Bruin Ramogi Huma. Effectively, what happened was that Mogi got injured and had a career-ending injury that unfortunately ended his football career. They were trying to take away his scholarship, which was a big deal at the time. So, he was fighting not only for his own rights but also for ours, trying to get us a bigger share of the pie because our stipends were so low when we were in Westwood.
There was a point in time where things had to change, and Mogi was really the catalyst for where all this is today. He started that movement, which is now not only a nationally recognized movement and effort but something that I’m so proud of him for. We just had a football alumni Zoom a couple of weeks ago with a bunch of us, and it was fun reflecting back on how we were the initial petition that actually got it going.
So, how do I feel about it? When you have a multi-billion-dollar business, the difference between what I can tell you from my experience is that we couldn’t go abroad in the summer, we couldn’t travel to a summit, and I couldn’t have a real job. They tell you to go get wet when you expect me to do all this. Now, it’s a bit more regulated in terms of practice time and such, but back in the day, it wasn’t that way. The fact is that it is not an amateur sport; it’s a professional sport, and they’re treated as professional athletes in every way. The only amateur element is they have to go to school.
The fact that they have to juggle these two things is really difficult, but it’s doable, and I think that is the answer. I do know that if they’re making billions of dollars, some of it should go back to the athletes or at least let the athletes have the ability to build up some type of savings fund that allows them, if not after graduation, to earn that income maybe at a later date. Maybe it pays for credit for graduate school. I tell you, I didn’t pay for undergrad, but when I had to pay for graduate school, it was difficult. Maybe there’s a way to tie that in to encourage athletes to go beyond just their undergraduate studies. I don’t know what the final answer is, but I do know that I agree that they should get a piece of the pie.
Ahmad: I’ve noticed that Paradigm Sports employs quite a few attorneys/agents, including Jordan Lee and the newly hired President of Global Soccer, Soroosh Abdi. What are the specific roles that attorneys bring to Paradigm, and how do their skills align with the field of sports management? Why is diversifying your staff so important to your agency’s success?
Attar: I think we have six in-house attorneys, and they’re not litigators, per se, going out to litigate cases. But why I think it’s important is, first and foremost, it doesn’t always have to be just the JD. When I went and got my graduate degrees, I felt that I would be creating more value for myself and have a competitive advantage by having an MBA and a dispute resolution certificate. I felt that because a lot of business and what we do is trying to quantify, articulate, and argue value, there’s a lot of numbers in that, not just language. On the flip side, you’re also negotiating and understanding business law, and that’s where my dispute resolution studies came in. I felt that was very valuable in honing my skills and sharpening my tools as it relates to JD.
The reason why I think it’s valuable in our business, and in any business, is because we’re dealing with contracts every day. Whether it’s a team or a promotion contract, a marketing contract, or a venture deal, and when you get to ventures, it’s about structure. It’s not just structure in California, but across the country and for us, across the world. You have to understand the different nuances. I think what a JD or MBA does for you is it allows you to develop a level of understanding. You’re not going to store everything in here, but it gives you the tools on where to go, where to start, and how to be not only a self-starter but to find the answer, to research and find the answer in a way that allows you to succeed, allows you to win, whether it’s litigation or negotiation.
That’s where it’s valuable, and for us as a company, everyone has a different role in different departments. If I were to explain how we staff our companies, it’s a team sport at the end of the day. Each position has different strengths and weaknesses. You have to look for the best player at each position. You can’t take a quarterback and put them at running back. You can’t take a wide receiver and put them at offensive tackle. You have to have people skilled at each position, and that’s the way you’re going to build a championship team.
Ahmad: Thank you. I’ve got two more questions for you. Yes, you’ve talked about contracts and negotiations. Could you briefly identify the process of negotiating a contract with entities like the UFC? How does it work, especially with big names such as Conor, Manny Pacquiao, Michael Bisping, or Israel Adesanya?
Attar: Well, it’s often tense, I can tell you that. A lot of that is because, going back to what I was saying earlier, in combat sports, particularly in MMA, there’s not a lot of visibility or transparency regarding comparable contracts. In simpler terms, real estate agents look at comps to establish market value, considering what neighbors sold their houses for. In MMA, this visibility doesn’t exist, primarily due to the sport’s youth and the absence of a union or collective bargaining.
The negotiation process varies for each client, depending on indicators like pay-per-view viewership and social media engagement. Unlike team sports, prizefighting is still driven by the modern-day pay-per-view model. We leverage the available data to formulate what we believe the value is. However, winning a negotiation isn’t about winning a popularity contest. The main goal is to earn the client’s trust and respect. If you achieve that, you’re doing your job right. It’s not a situation where they’ll simply give you what you’re asking for; it’s often more turbulent.
Ahmad: I’ve got one last question for you, and it’s really pertinent to the current times in light of the coronavirus (COVID-19) changing the world for the past couple of months. What have you been doing during this time, and could you name any negatives and positives that you have taken from the circumstance? What advice do you have for upcoming graduates and students, such as myself, who may face a depressed job market and even canceled or postponed graduations?
Attar: Alright, well, I’ll start with the bad. Okay, I need a haircut and lineup. I usually get one every two weeks, and the beard is getting thick. That’s the bad. And obviously, there’s the jobless rate, which is already staggering and will probably increase by another few million if not more. That’s a tough reality that I think everybody’s dealing with. I think one thing to understand is that this isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last time that the world has dealt with not only a pandemic but, let’s call it, a depression almost. Because we’re potentially heading into a depression, so those are the bad aspects.
On the positive side, all of us here are healthy and safe, and that’s a significant positive. I always look at things as half full rather than half empty. You could always complain about your situation, but I was born into a war, emigrated for a better life, and constantly faced challenges throughout my life. I’ve never tried to cry “woe is me.” I’ve always looked at the positives and known that I could control my destiny, even if that meant going through some hardship in trying times.
If all of us here are healthy and you’re graduating school and truly aspiring to go to law school, well, guess what? You’ve got a long way ahead of you. So, enjoy the journey, embrace the journey, count your blessings, and don’t complain. Even if circumstances aren’t the same for all of us, if you have to do anything to make ends meet, I applaud you. I had to do the same thing. I was sleeping on couches before I even started making money. Even when I started this business, I didn’t pay myself for the first five years, maxing out my credit cards to start it. At that point, nobody believed in my vision. It gets lonely and scary, but I always believed that if I worked hard enough, anything’s possible.
For those looking for a job right out the gate and don’t get one, it’s okay. Intern somewhere, be willing to work for school credit, just to get yourself an opportunity and a foot in the door because experience and network are key. Those are key for you to find the right opportunity and understand yourself, your strengths, and weaknesses. You may very well want to change the direction of where you start, and that’s okay. There are brighter days, always brighter days. Hang in there, believe in yourself, know that we still live in the greatest country in the world, and anything’s possible if you believe in yourself, work hard, and never quit.
Ahmad: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Audie. We know you’re a busy man, and we’re very grateful for having you here. We hope to have you in the future. Thank you.