Summary List Placement
In December 2019, I shadowed Fanatics chairman and Philadelphia 76ers partner Michael Rubin as he hosted a holiday giveaway for 50 families who were affected by the unjust imprisonment of a parent.
Arranged by Rubin and his Reform Alliance co-founders Meek Mill and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, the event included an NBA store shopping spree for the families and a trip to a Patriots home game on the team’s private plane.
Rubin’s demeanor throughout the event and his genuine interactions with the families worked to dispel a general disbelief between myself and a few of the reporters in attendance that a white billionaire could be a down-to-earth person.
Quavo, of the rap group Migos, a friend of Rubin’s, shared the same sentiment when I asked him about the billionaire NBA co-owner in a Zoom call last month.
“‘Damn, this man really knows what the culture feels like,'” Quavo said of his initial impression of Rubin. “I feel like he was always like a different type of owner, man. I feel like he was just very down-to-earth. Young guy, know what was going on, knows the lingo. And I related to him.”
‘A tornado of will’
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of last year, Rubin’s humanitarianism went into effect on a larger scale.
At the onset of the pandemic, when PPE was in short supply nationwide, Rubin shut down a Fanatics manufacturing plant in Easton, Pennsylvania, and used the material his company would normally use to produce official uniforms for Major League Baseball to instead make masks and hospital gowns for frontline healthcare workers. Fanatics ended up disseminating more than one million masks and gowns to healthcare centers in 13 states.
In April, Rubin followed that act by orchestrating the All-In Challenge. The viral charity campaign raised over $60 million to combat food insecurity by getting a wide swath of notable people to donate a prized possession or “once-in-a-lifetime” experience for fans. Participants included Leonardo DiCaprio, Drake, Kim Kardashian, Kevin Hart, DJ Khaled, Tom Brady, Justin Bieber, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, among others. Rubin said that the effort garnered more than a million and a half individual contributions.
Gary Vaynerchuk, an entrepreneur and friend of Rubin’s, led the All-In Challenge’s social media effort and described Rubin’s campaign as “a tornado of will” that involved 18 and 19-hour work days and countless phone calls to get celebrities to participate. “I always think that there’s a group of people in the world that just will things to success,” Vaynerchuk said of the effort. “And I think Michael has that gear.”
Robert Kraft, another friend of Rubin’s, had a similar perspective: “I’ve known a lot of people, but I’ve never known anybody quite as creative, productive, and successful at achieving what they set out to do. I don’t think failure ever crosses his mind, and he wills things to happen,” Kraft said, adding that Rubin’s work on the All-In Challenge was “symbolic of what he does with his businesses.”
I spoke separately and at length with Vaynerchuk, Kraft, Quavo, and Rubin to get a picture of the factors and qualities that have facilitated Rubin’s career trajectory and diverse network. A continuing theme that arose was what Vaynerchuk called a “chameleon-like compassion” in Rubin’s ability to deftly navigate the different fields he operates in — the ecommerce industry, the worlds of sports and entertainment, and the fight for criminal-justice reform.
An ‘offensive machine’ in ecommerce
Rubin, 48, began building his fortune in high school, when he started a successful ski equipment business out of the basement of his parents’ home in Philadelphia.
In his 20s, after dropping out of college at Villanova, Rubin founded an apparel and logistics company, Global Sports Incorporated. That company evolved into GSI Commerce, which by the late ’90s offered an innovative third-party software platform for brands wanting to take ecommerce in-house.
Kraft related that he started spending time with Rubin around 2011, right after Rubin had sold GSI Commerce to eBay for $2.4 billion. In the sale, Rubin fatefully hung onto the production arm of the company, Fanatics. Only in his late 30s at that point, Rubin had “already achieved something very special,” Kraft said.
“Nothing but power plays. Chess moves,” Quavo said, when asked to characterize Rubin’s business instincts. “He straight like a game of chess, man. He do ’em right.”
The primary chess move, and Rubin’s signature innovation in the field: Vertical commerce. Where several years ago licensed sports apparel companies would have to guess and fumble slowly after consumer demand for apparel, Fanatics innovated an approach to production that eliminated a dependence on third-party vendors and allowed the company to meet evolving sports-apparel demand in real time by making apparel on-demand.
As Fanatics has continued to acquire licensing rights among major league sports and apparel companies, its vertical commerce approach has allowed it to produce and sell exclusive merchandise, including official Nike products, to meet rapidly changing demand across the hundreds of partner sites it platforms. When Tom Brady signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020, for example, Fanatics was able to manufacture official Nike jerseys for the move within seconds of the announcement, a company rep said.
“It’s a great story of incredible strategy: Go make the right deals with the right leagues; build out an incredibly competent execution model that brings more value to the leagues than they had in the past, which builds more momentum,” Vaynerchuk said. “What I would call ‘offense.’ That’s what I think about when I think about Fanatics, just an offensive machine. It feels like the reverse of complacency. It is in constant motion, acquiring licenses and relationships, and refining its best practices of what it does extremely well around email and search and sales and retail.”
Fanatics’ motion, as it were, has increased profoundly during the pandemic, despite a several-months absence of sports. A Fanatics rep estimated that 2020 saw three years’ worth of ecommerce industry growth in a single year. As a company that finds 80% of its sales through ecommerce, Fanatics is one of many online retailers that has benefited from the pandemic in an outsized fashion.
The company set an annual revenue record in 2020, and in August, it raised $350 million in Series E funding at a valuation of $6.2 billion. That figure more than doubled last month, when Fanatics announced it had raised $320 million in new funding that valued the company at $12.8 billion.
Still, Rubin said he feels like Fanatics is “in the first inning of a baseball game” in its trajectory. He said the company’s latest round of funding — all from existing investors, including private equity firms Blackstone, Silver Lake, Fidelity Investments, Neuberger Berman, Thrive Capital, and Major League Baseball — will go toward expanding its opportunities in vertical commerce, among many other expansion opportunities “over the next several years.”
“I think they got an incredible opportunity to invest in the company at this level,” Rubin said.
‘Michael Rubin party, man. Star-studded’
Many of the personal qualities that have led Rubin to success in business have translated into a certain magnetism toward him across social circles, according to his friends.
“I think he’s a very loyal person, almost blindly loyal. If you’re a friend of his or a team member in one of his businesses, he’ll do anything to support and help you,” Kraft said. “I think his relationship building and EQ capabilities are off the chart and allow him to get loyalty in return that really allows him as a businessman to get things done quicker and more efficiently, almost more than anyone. Well, he’s one of the top.”
“I think there’s a chameleon-like compassion and empathy and people skills. There’s a comfort within your own skin that is required,” Vaynerchuk said of Rubin’s ability to navigate disparate sides of society. “A very strong, kind of under-the-radar strength that he has is the ability to laugh at himself. I see that publicly and privately, and I think that’s powerful.”
In recent years, Rubin has developed a reputation for throwing Super Bowl parties that attract A-list names in sports, business, and entertainment. Jay-Z, Alex Rodriguez, Shaquille O’Neal, Emily Ratajkowski, Post Malone, and Dwyane Wade were among the guests at Rubin’s 2020 party in Miami. Jennifer Lopez, Rodriguez, Shaq, Cardi B, Lil Baby, Lil Uzi Vert, and Aaron Judge were among those who attended a suite party of Rubin’s at this year’s game.
Quavo, a regular at Rubin’s Super Bowl parties along with Kraft, also performed at Rubin’s parties in Atlanta in 2019 and Miami in 2020.
“Michael Rubin party, man. Star-studded,” Quavo said. “We all having fun, enjoying life, celebrating. Toasting to nothing but positive energy, good moves. He constantly introduce you to some of his guys, some of his business partners, some of his good close friends, that’s, you know what I’m saying, in the business, too. So it’s like an open book, and he just having fun is all. We all having fun.”
Regarding the parties, Rubin said, “One of the things I love doing is putting great people together.” Not specific to the parties, he expressed what he has gained generally from having “the most diverse group of friends on the planet.”
“I have a lot of friends with different backgrounds. I’ll walk up, by the way, and talk to somebody in the middle of the street. They’ll ask me questions, I’ll ask them questions,” he said. “So, I’m like a sponge. People don’t get, like, I really did barely make it out of high school, and I didn’t go to college. And so, I iterate. That’s the way I learn.
“People always say to me how lucky Meek is to have me as his friend. I always say how lucky I am to have him as my friend. Think of what he’s taught me about what happens in Black America, what happens in poor neighborhoods, what happens with the way he grew up. You know, I learned so much about culture from him,” he continued. “I think if you have a diverse group of friends, you can constantly learn from each other. Robert Kraft and I learn from each other. Meek and I learn from each other. Quavo and I learn from each other. Gary Vee and I learn from each other. One of my best skillsets is the diversity of friends that I have.”
Drake x Lil Baby x Meek Mill and Michael Rubin link up at the Bahamas 🇧🇸 pic.twitter.com/HE6QwPjeI9
— My Mixtapez (@mymixtapez) January 8, 2021
A noteworthy illustration of said diversity, in January, a picture of Rubin gambling with Drake, Meek Mill, and Lil Baby in the Bahamas went viral.
The photo came a year after Drake name-dropped Rubin in his song, “When To Say When,” where he rapped, “I watched Michael Rubin win a million off a couple hands.”
I asked Rubin for his reaction to the lyric.
“A bit of a cringe,” he said, with a laugh. “Look, obviously it’s incredibly humbling to be shouted out in one of Meek’s songs and one of Drake’s songs. But you’re more proud of being shouted out for having someone’s back, like Meek said in his song, than having Drake have me, you know, win a million dollars in a few hands. I mean, look, I’ve played blackjack my whole life. I’ve always been a blackjack player, so no secret about that. But you’d always like to be shouted out for the good things you do on the earth, not that you like to gamble. How’s that for an honest answer?”
‘The right one to push those envelopes’
In January 2019, Rubin and Meek Mill recruited Jay-Z, Kraft, and a list of other prominent names to launch the Reform Alliance criminal-justice reform organization following Meek’s 2018 release from prison. Meek had been controversially sentenced to two-to-four years in prison in 2017 over a technical probation violation, a moment that Rubin attended in court and recounts as “surreal.”
In the two years since its launch, the Reform Alliance has gone on to push for and help pass bipartisan legislation centered on the reformation of probation and parole systems in several states.
While Rubin is currently a co-owner in the Philadelphia 76ers as the team’s third largest shareholder (as well as a partner in the ownership group of the New Jersey Devils and Crystal Palace FC, a UK premier league soccer team), he stands to reason — for the sources of this article and NBA commissioner Adam Silver, at least — as a prime candidate for a lead ownership position of a major league sports team, in part due to the social justice pedigree of his work on Reform and the All-In Challenge in the current cultural climate.
“I feel like he more connected to the streets and the fans and the people that’s on ground, because he communicate with guys like us, guys like Meek Mill, you know what I’m saying?” Quavo said. “He keep his ear to the streets and keep his ear to what’s going on. So I feel like if he get concerns and stuff from the fans or whatnot, or something that’s coming from the fans that may demand a little change or something like that. I think he’d be the right one to push those envelopes.”
“I think he’d be an outstanding owner in any league wherever, as long as he was passionate about it,” Kraft said. “I’ve seen him in operation. It’s all about winning and whether it’s in business or sports or securing new ideas and new ways of doing things; you know, he’s very open-minded and has this never-give-up demeanor that’s not just talk. I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen how hard he works at it.” He added, later in the call: “I think what Michael has done in terms of leading the organization of Reform Alliance and taking a very difficult time in COVID, then doing this All-In Challenge just showed his innovation skills and entrepreneurial efforts in the social justice area.”
I asked Rubin whether he believes a social-justice pedigree is important for a major league owner to have currently.
“Here’s what I’d say is, first of all, I think if you own a sports franchise, you have to recognize that you’re a steward of a community asset and you’re responsible for doing two things: winning championships and using the franchise to make the world a better place,” he said.
He added, however, that owners “shouldn’t fake” social justice efforts if they don’t care about the cause, which he said “a lot of owners” don’t care about.
“I think what you do has to be authentic. It’s become in fashion to focus on these issues since the tragedy of George Floyd, but none of these are new issues,” Rubin said. “You talk to anyone from Black America, they’ll tell you these are normal days. The only thing that happened was someone caught a good video of it, and social media blow it up. That’s the only difference. So I’d say, for an owner, if you care about these issues should make a difference. If you don’t care about these issues, then focus on making a difference in something that you do care about.”
After coming up short as a finalist to purchase the NFL’s Carolina Panthers in 2018, with a proposed ownership group that included Stephen Curry and Diddy — which Rubin says would have been a “great opportunity” for him at an hour and 10 minute commute from his home on the east coast — the chairman of Fanatics says a new bid for major league ownership isn’t a main focus for him currently.
“I’m not waiting for any opportunity to come at me. I’d say, first and foremost, my kind of role as the primary owner of Fanatics is one that I wake up and go to bed excited every day of the week. I love the business and, you know, I think we have, I think the opportunity we have ahead of us is enormous. And so that’s my primary focus,” he said. “I’m loving that I get to learn and grow every day. I’m doing that with Fanatics. I’m doing that for the Reform Alliance. I’m doing that with the Philadelphia Sixers. I’m doing that with my two daughters. So, I’m having a blast, and if something great comes along, incredible. If it doesn’t, I’m not losing any sleep.”