Michael Rubin was a freshman at Villanova University when he first displayed a knack for pulling off big deals. Using cash borrowed from a neighbor, he bought $200,000 of overstock sports equipment and soon resold it for a $75,000 profit.
He’s been pouncing on opportunities ever since.
Today, Rubin has a net worth of about $8 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Seizing on the disruptive power of internet-based shopping, he has turned sports merchandiser Fanatics into an $18 billion powerhouse that sells everything from National Basketball Association jerseys to Kentucky Wildcat-themed portable barbecue grills. He owns about 40% of the company, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Rubin, 49, built Fanatics out of scraps left over from a deal with eBay Inc. a decade ago. Now the Jacksonville, Florida-based firm — which has tripled in value through multiple funding rounds over the past 12 months — is using its newfound heft to become a disruptor. Last month, it dethroned Topps Co. as the go-to producer of baseball cards by reaching exclusive agreements with Major League Baseball and its players’ association. It also added agreements with the NBA and National Football League.
“Fanatics came into the jersey and apparel space and absolutely took over,” said Mike Gioseffi, who co-hosts the podcast Sports Cards Nonsense. The speed and breadth of its recent moves into trading cards are “just unheard of.”
Fanatics is seeking to expand even further, with plans to enter sports betting, ticketing and media, according to company management. The sports-gambling industry could be an especially ripe target. It’s in the midst of consolidation and takeovers three years after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 26-year-old law banning sports betting in a majority of states.
A Fanatics spokesperson declined to comment on the firm’s expansion plans or Rubin’s net worth.
Rubin, part-owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers through a reported 10% stake in Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, is also executive chairman of Rue Gilt Groupe, an e-commerce company that owns fashion retail websites Rue La La and Gilt. He knows that his businesses are rapidly becoming ubiquitous.
You can’t get away from me,” he joked in a 2019 radio interview.
Like a Silicon Valley tech whiz, Rubin has disrupted brick-and-mortar industries by moving sales operations to online platforms. Despite his embrace of e-commerce, he still identifies with old-school dealmakers who founded companies on relationships and opportunism.
“I got a 780 combined on my SATs,” Rubin said in the January 2019 interview on the Breakfast Club, a New York-based radio show. “I wasn’t book smart, I wasn’t school smart at all, but what I had was common sense and street smarts.”
Raised in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania, Rubin started a ski-equipment business in his parents’ basement when he was 12. Two years later, using $2,500 in bar mitzvah gifts as seed capital, he opened a ski shop in nearby Conshohocken called Mike’s Ski & Sport, according to the website of his holding company, Kynetic.
His early venture quickly floundered. After falling $120,000 in debt, Rubin settled with creditors using a loan from his father that he got on the condition he attend college. He’d been at Villanova only a few weeks when he pulled off his profitable surplus sports-equipment deal.
Using the proceeds of that transaction, he started KPR Sports International, which bought and sold overstock brand-name merchandise. By 1995, the year Rubin turned 23, KPR had reached $50 million in revenue.
Around that time an analyst called him, asking what he was going to do about the internet.
“Don’t waste my time with this internet thing,” Rubin responded, and hung up.
But after the analyst called again, Rubin changed his thinking. He later persuaded many of the largest sporting-goods retailers to sign over their e-commerce rights to his company, GSI Commerce. GSI was soon providing online sales and marketing services to more than 2,000 brands, including the NFL and Polo Ralph Lauren.
Then came the deal of a lifetime.
In March 2011, eBay agreed to buy GSI for $2.4 billion, hoping to use its extensive order-fulfillment capabilities to compete with Amazon.com Inc., which was gobbling up vast swathes of online retailing. Because eBay only wanted the customer exposure, it sold two GSI businesses — ShopRunner and Rue La La — back to Rubin, along with 100% of Fanatics.
Rubin knew it was a steal. So did shareholders, who filed a lawsuit against GSI and eBay alleging the sale was “a Rubin-led leveraged buyout of key company assets.” Rubin, the suit added, would be able to “reap their true value for himself.”
The lawsuit was eventually settled, with GSI stockholders receiving an additional 33 cents a share on top of the $29.25 they were already set to receive.
Rubin has not let the potential of that deal go to waste. During an appearance on CNBC in March, he said he was toying with the possibility of taking the company public.
Meanwhile, in private, he was contemplating an incursion into several additional areas of sports business, attacking long-time incumbents as the new player in town.
Over the past six months, Fanatics has added a range of top executives to lead that charge. It brought on former FanDuel Chief Executive Officer Matt King to head sports betting and Warner Music Group Corp.’s Dan Goldberg for concert and festival merchandise. Other hires include Glenn Schiffman, former chief financial officer of Barry Diller’s IAC, and Los Angeles Dodgers ex-President Tucker Kain.
The first target was the trading-card industry. Fanatics’ exclusive agreement with MLB and its players’ union displaced long-dominant Topps, causing enough strife to shut down the firm’s plans to go public through a special purpose acquisition company. Fanatics also scored exclusive card deals with the NFL and NBA, ousting Italian collectibles company Panini.
Next up may be the gambling industry. Fanatics has joined with rapper and Roc Nation founder Jay-Z in a bid to get into mobile sports betting in New York. The legislature approved such wagering in April, and the state’s gaming commission is expected to select sportsbooks later this year.
In a filing to the commission, Fanatics made its commitment blunt: “Fanatics Sportsbook’s financial plan permits aggressive expansion.”