Last month, after three days in New York, Michael Rubin was anxious to return to Philadelphia to attend the home opener of the 76ers, the N.B.A. team of which he owns.
He left his 8,000-square-foot penthouse apartment in Greenwich Village and hopped into a waiting Mercedes-Benz van, whizzed 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 increased: Because Fanatics manufactures more than 50 per cent 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 business’s success has put Mr Rubin at the nexus of nearly every big sports league, an unusual position not even media executives enjoy since networks mostly broadcast different sports. It has also made him a billionaire.
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Investors have valued Fanatics, its new trading card, and NFT companies at $30 billion. Jay-Z is teaming up 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.
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 confident 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 lasted only a semester.
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In 1998, Mr Rubin realized that many of his customers needed help to expand into e-commerce. So he developed a business to manage online purchases, payments, fulfilment 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. (Kinetic’s umbrella company 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. He created many offerings beyond jerseys and baseball caps, pushing the company to respond to consumer demand in real-time.
He started pitching the sports leagues while 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 between work and pleasure.”
Splashy events are part of the strategy. Fanatics is known for two Super Bowl parties (one, lunch on Friday of Super Bowl weekend for 100 people and 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 were there, including Jay-Z and Beyoncé; the M.L.B. commissioner, Rob Manfred; Mr. Harden and Megan Thee Stallion.
“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.”
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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. In 2017, he encouraged the N.F.L. to invest in Fanatics (in a fund-raising round that brought investment from several other leagues, according to a Fanatics spokesman). The N.F.L. put in $80 million, and now Fanatics is “worth at least ten times what we invested,” Mr. Kraft said.