Who Is Michael Rubin, CEO of Fanatics?
Life isn’t all choppers and parties for the king of sports merch — he’s got plans.,
Last month, after a three-day stretch in New York, Michael Rubin, was anxious to get back to Philadelphia to attend the home opener of the 76ers, the N.B.A. team of which he is an owner.
He left his 8,000-square-foot penthouse apartment in Greenwich Village and hopped into a waiting Mercedes-Benz van, which whizzed him a mile uptown to his helicopter, propellers awhirl. Thirty-five minutes later, he landed in a parking lot near the Wells Fargo Center, where the 76ers play, and was chauffeured to the arena in a Lincoln Navigator.
Mr. Rubin, 49, is the founder and chief executive of Fanatics, a 10-year-old company that manufactures and sells licensed merchandise online to fans of professional sports teams and more than 150 U.S. college athletic programs.
It has grown quickly: Because Fanatics manufactures more than 50 percent of the products it sells, it’s able to respond quickly to real-time consumer demand by making items that reflect the sudden popularity of an athlete on an unforeseen streak, for example, or the rise of a mediocre team that unexpectedly start banking wins.
The success of the business has put Mr. Rubin at the nexus of nearly every big sports league, an unusual position that not even media executives enjoy, since networks mostly broadcast different sports. It has also made him a billionaire.
Fanatics and its new trading card and NFT companies have been valued by investors at a combined $30 billion. Jay-Z is teaming with Mr. Rubin and Fanatics on a forthcoming sports betting division.
Courtside at the 76ers game, Mr. Rubin backslapped a few fellow big shots, including the 76ers governing owner, Josh Harris, who recently left Apollo, the private equity firm he helped build; Jay Sugarman, the principal owner of Philadelphia Union, the Major League Soccer team; and David Adelman, the chief executive of the real estate behemoth Campus Apartments, with whom Mr. Rubin takes Sunday morning power walks. And he exchanged pregame “hey, man”‘s with players, including those on the opposing team, the Brooklyn Nets.
Toward the end of the game, as Brooklyn took the lead before beating the 76ers, 114-109, the shooting guard James Harden slowed his pace as he passed Mr. Rubin, giving him a bright smile and taunting wave. Mr. Rubin, keeping his hand on his lap, extended his middle finger, almost imperceptibly. Both men laughed.
Work Hard, Play Hard
By the time he was 14, Mr. Rubin had been buying and reselling old skis from his parents’ house in suburban Philadelphia for several years. With his father’s signature on a lease, he opened a retail location called Mike’s Ski and Sport.
That business went belly-up a few years later. Then Mr. Rubin moved into reselling liquidated merchandise to retailers, which helped cover debts and honed his deal-making skills. His parents were certain his business obsession was ruining his life, and his father made him promise to go to college. He enrolled in Villanova University but classes interfered with his meetings. Mr. Rubin didn’t last a semester.
In 1998, Mr. Rubin realized that many of his customers were struggling to expand into e-commerce. So he developed a business to manage online purchases, payments, fulfillment and returns, eventually adding big customers including Ralph Lauren and Estee Lauder. He sold that company, G.S.I. Commerce, in 2011 to eBay for $2.4 billion, personally netting $180 million.
As part of the deal, Mr. Rubin bought back a few consumer properties that G.S.I. had owned, including Rue La La and ShopRunner, membership e-commerce sites that offer flash sales and special deals. He also kept Fanatics, a sports e-commerce business. (His umbrella company, Kynetic, bought Gilt Groupe in 2018 and sold ShopRunner to FedEx for $228 million last year.)
With Fanatics, he zeroed in on earning licensing deals with sports leagues and created many offerings that went beyond jerseys and baseball caps, and pushed the company to respond to consumer demand in real-time.
He started pitching the sports leagues when he was running G.S.I., and continued as he built Fanatics. “Michael specializes in relationships,” said Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner who has been making deals on behalf of the league with Mr. Rubin for years. “Michael is always ‘on,’ and there is no distinction for him between work and pleasure.”
Splashy events are part of the strategy. Fanatics is known for two Super Bowl parties (one, a lunch on Friday of Super Bowl weekend for 100 people; the other a Saturday night bash for 1,000, with performers including Cardi B and Post Malone). This summer, he hosted a “white party” at the $50 million Bridgehampton home he bought last year. Some 300 guests, including Jay-Z and Beyonce; the M.L.B. commissioner, Rob Manfred; Mr. Harden and Megan Thee Stallion, were there.
“I do like bringing people together,” he said last month over lunch on his 5,000-square-foot roof terrace overlooking the Hudson River. “I have such a diverse set of friends, and I like to see them learn and grow from each other.”
One such friend is the New England Patriots owner Robert K. Kraft.
Mr. Rubin and Mr. Kraft hop in separate helicopters to meet on rooftop patios and drink tequila (on a recent night, with Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Baby.) They have been to the Canyon Ranch together to shed a few pounds. Mr. Rubin hosted Mr. Kraft’s 80th birthday party at his Hamptons house. And according to both of them, they talk on the phone every day. “I value loyalty, and he’s loyal to a fault,” Mr. Kraft said.
As he grew close to Mr. Rubin, Mr. Kraft started making more license deals for the Patriots with Fanatics, and in 2017, he encouraged the N.F.L. to invest in Fanatics (in a fund-raising round that brought investment from several other leagues as well, according to a Fanatics spokesman). The N.F.L. put in $80 million, and now Fanatics is “worth at least 10 times what we invested,” Mr. Kraft said.
Until 2020, Mr. Rubin said, he had focused about two-thirds of his time on Fanatics. The rest of his time was captured by one side project or another.
First, he tried and failed to buy an N.F.L. team, the Carolina Panthers, which eventually went to the hedge fund executive David Tepper for $2.275 billion in May 2018.
After Mr. Rubin’s close friend Meek Mill was imprisoned in 2017 on a parole violation from a 10-year-old gun and drug charge (the conviction has since been overturned), Mr. Rubin became devoted, along with Jay-Z, to seeking Meek’s release through private lobbying and public pressure.
Mr. Rubin, Meek, Jay-Z, Mr. Kraft and others pledged $50 million to create Reform Alliance in 2019, with the mission to change laws and remove at least a million people from the probation and parole systems. “If you do all that work just for one rich guy to get another rich guy out of prison,” Mr. Rubin said, “you’re a real piece of” garbage.
In 2020, in the pandemic’s early days, Mr. Rubin created the All-In Challenge, which auctioned and raffled special experiences, including dinner with Peyton Manning and playing golf at Pebble Beach with Justin Timberlake and Bill Murray. The project raised $60 million for hunger relief organizations.
Many of the top-ticket items for the All-In Challenge were solicited by Mr. Rubin. He called Mr. Kraft to request one of his six Super Bowl rings for the cause, Mr. Kraft recalled. “I said, ‘That’s not even something I would think about.”
Today, a random woman now owns Mr. Kraft’s Super Bowl LI ring, having donated $1.025 million to win it. “I still don’t know how it happened,” Mr. Kraft said.
As Mr. Rubin waited out the early days of the pandemic in Villanova, Pa. — spending time with his partner Camille Fishel, 30; his daughter Kylie, who is 15 (from a marriage that ended in 2011); his and Ms. Fishel’s 1-year-old, Romi; and Mr. Rubin’s mother, Dr. Paulette Rubin, who died last summer — he looked for his next big thing.
It turned out to be more investment in Fanatics, in terms of time and energy, he said, as he realized the company could be more than e-commerce. “We have this incredible database with more than 80 million sports fans who are our customers, plus relations with 1,000 college and professional sports properties,” he said.
Fanatics knows what colleges customers went to, what professional teams they root for, what players they love. The question became: What more could Mr. Rubin sell them?
In August, Fanatics announced that it had lured M.L.B. and Major League Baseball Players Association, the players’ union, to leave their 70-year partnerships with the collectibles company Topps when the existing contracts expire, and to sign a deal with Fanatics.
Topps had been gearing up for an I.P.O. (through a SPAC), but the public offering was scrapped when the Fanatics baseball deal was announced. “I respect entrepreneurship, and I respect people who are broad thinkers,” said Michael Eisner, an owner of Topps, in an interview this week. “I think he will be an entrepreneur to watch in the future,” he said of Mr. Rubin.
Key to the Fanatics deal was a move that gave the baseball players association equity in the company, meaning that players would benefit financially from it, even beyond the licensing fees.
“For us, Michael is a disrupter and represented a disruptive model to the status quo that took into account both sides of the equation, the player side as well as the league side,” said Tony Clark, the executive director of the M.L.B.P.A., who negotiated the deal with Mr. Rubin. “He highlighted something that very few are willing to admit: The players have and bring tangible value.”
Fanatics Trading Cards instantly sought investment after these deals were announced; the company raised $350 million, valued at $10.4 billion. Last month, investors including Peyton Manning, threw in $100 million for Fanatics’ NFT company. The umbrella company, which brought in its own $325 million — and is valued at $18 billion — is rumored to be preparing for an I.P.O.
But now Mr. Rubin will need to execute on his promises for investors. “When the spotlight is on, as it is now, you have to deliver — for sports fans, collectors and the leagues,” said Greg Mondre, the co-chief executive of the private equity firm Silver Lake, and a member of the Fanatics board.
Bahamas, Bridgehampton, Super Bowls
Mr. Rubin’s business strategy of including players in long-term profit shares as well as his criminal reform efforts make him a rarity among white billionaires, said Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the former Los Angeles Lakers superstar who is now an owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and a member of Fanatics board.
“Michael Rubin’s got the Black card,” Mr. Johnson said. “And not just the one for spending money.”
Like many of Mr. Rubin’s business relationships, his with Mr. Johnson began as a friendship when the two men spent holidays with their families, together in side-by-side cabanas in the Bahamas. Mr. Rubin’s Instagram is filled with photos and videos of him at various vacation locales, including on yachts and at Super Bowls, and drinking at his Bridgehampton mansion with celebrities including Jon Bon Jovi.
“Michael works a lot,” said his girlfriend, Ms. Fishel. But, she said, she knows he’ll spend a block of time with his family when a deal closes. “Then again,” she said, “as soon as Michael finishes one deal, there is always the next one.”
Back at the 76ers game, Allen Iverson, the retired All-Star guard who played for the team for more than decade, arrived to his own courtside seats near Mr. Rubin’s. In a mask, New York Yankees cap and a lot of diamonds, Mr. Iverson was swarmed by cameras. After a few minutes, Mr. Rubin approached and greeted him as the cameras rolled.
When the game ended, fans mobbed Mr. Iverson for selfies, but a few bypassed him, heading straight for Mr. Rubin. “I want to be just like you,” one young man said, as Mr. Rubin gamely smiled for a quick picture. Then he high-tailed it out a backdoor. His helicopter was waiting.