Michael Rubin, founder and executive chairman of Fanatics, is an internet entrepreneur, professional sports team partner and social activist who has been at the forefront of innovation across global commerce for decades. He is the founder and executive chairman of Fanatics, the world’s largest retailer of officially licensed sports merchandise that has changed the way fans purchase their favorite team gear by serving the ever-growing real-time demand of today’s consumers. Rubin is the executive chairman of Rue Gilt Groupe, the premiere off-price, eCommerce destination that includes RueLaLa.com, Gilt.com and ShopPremiumOutlets.com. He also founded GSI Commerce, which was sold to eBay in 2011 for $2.4B. In addition, Rubin also is a partner of the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Devils.
In 2019 he co-founded the REFORM Alliance, which aims to move one million men and women out of the criminal justice system within five years, while keeping communities safe by changing laws and public opinion. Most recently, Rubin started the viral “All In Challenge”, where celebrities, influencers and brands donated valuable possessions or once-in-a lifetime experiences to raise more than $60 million to fight food insecurity during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Named annually as one of the most influential people in sports business, Rubin has also been named to the Bleacher Report “Power 50” list of most influential people in sports.
THE EARLY YEARS OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Rubin grew up in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania where he started a ski-tuning shop in his parents’ basement when he was 12 and two years later – using $2,500 in bar mitzvah gifts as seed capital and a lease signed by his father – he opened a formal ski shop in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, named Mike’s Ski and Sport.
By the age of 16, he was some $120,000 in debt and was able to settle with his creditors using a $37,000 loan from his father under the condition he attend college. Rubin agreed, continuing to operate the business, which grew to five ski shops before he entered college. He attended for a semester before dropping out after realizing a large gain on an opportunistic transaction (buying $200,000 in overstock equipment at a deep discount with $17,000 borrowed from a friend and re-selling it for $75,000).
THE GSI COMMERCE ACQUISITION
Using the proceeds from his serendipitous overstock transaction and after selling his ski shops, he founded the athletic equipment closeout company KPR sports – named after his parents’ initials – which bought and sold over-stock name brand merchandise. In 1993, the year Rubin turned 21, KPR reached $1 million in annual sales; by 1995, KPR reached $50 million in sales. In 1995, Rubin purchased 40% of the women’s athletic shoe manufacturer Ryka.
In 1998, Rubin created Global Sports, which would later become GSI Commerce, a multibillion-dollar e-commerce company. At 38, Rubin sold GSI to eBay for $2.4 billion reaping a $150 million windfall. Since eBay just wanted the order fulfillment business for large retailers so it could better compete with Amazon.com, Rubin was able to buy back the consumer businesses of GSI at a fire sale price. He repurchased several brands, including Fanatics, Inc. and Rue La La, a flash seller. In 2018, Rue La La acquired Gilt Groupe to form Rue Gilt Groupe.
“My focus is building great companies in growing the industry through innovation and investing in a v-commerce model that best serves the real-time expectations of customers with more unique products readily available across retail channels.”
DISRUPTING AN INDUSTRY
Immediately after repurchasing Fanatics after the eBay acquisition, Rubin saw a monumental opportunity to transform the staid sports licensing industry which was ripe for disruption; while most industries had already adapted to the on-demand economy, the $25B global sports licensing market has been slow to change. Knowing that retail giants Amazon and Alibaba were dominating e-commerce, Rubin’s vision was to create a differentiated business – dubbed vertical commerce (v-commerce) – that would build a moat around those brands and establish Fanatics as the world leader in sports licensing. Through v-commerce, Fanatics has gained exclusivity of highly coveted manufacturing and merchandise rights for pro and college sports, allowing it to control the end to-end-end supply chain and create incredible speed to market, benefiting not only customers but the fans that shop with the company’s retailers and partners.
Over the past several years, Rubin has transformed Fanatics from a largely domestic e-commerce company into a new breed of retailer: a global, omni-channel, tech-infused, highly vertical company made for the digital era that is now positioned to service the real-time demand of today’s sports fans. Rubin has tackled the previously sleepy sector with innovations and vertical integration that benefits and disrupts the industry with speed, agility and on-demand manufacturing.
Combining world-class design, manufacturing and distribution, Fanatics has created, by far, the widest assortment of products that have ever been available to fans worldwide no matter where or how they want to shop – online, from their phones, at games or at some the world’s top events.
Rubin’s innovative approach to reaching fans in today’s on-demand world led to a $1B investment from the largest tech fund in history – SoftBank’s Vision Fund – which identified Fanatics as one of the most forward-thinking, technology-rich companies helping to shape the future of commerce and business worldwide. SoftBank’s belief that v-commerce is the next generation of e-commerce made Fanatics one of the latest players in the Vision Fund’s prominent partner roster.
Due to Rubin’s forward thinking acquisition strategy, uncanny ability to sign exclusive long-term deals with the major sports leagues – including significant 10-year deals partnering with Nike and both the National Football League and Major League Baseball – and long-term commitment to building vertical capabilities from manufacturing to distribution, Fanatics has become the world’s preeminent retailer of licensed sports merchandise.
RUE GILT GROUPE
Another of Rubin’s buybacks from eBay’s acquisition of GSI was Rue La La, a members-only online shopping destination. In 2018 Rue La La acquired Gilt Groupe to form Rue Gilt Groupe, connecting world-class brands with the next-generation shopper who have access to exclusive destinations and experiences at member-only prices. Rubin’s vision for Rue Gilt Groupe has brought theater and excitement to online shopping, creating a captivating e-commerce destination that strategically supports its brand partners.
In 2019, Rubin’s savvy deal making led to another transformative commerce venture, this time with Rue Gilt Groupe teaming up with Simon, a global leader in premier shopping, dining, entertainment and mixed-use destinations, to create a new multi-platform venture dedicated to digital value shopping. Rue Gilt Groupe received a $280 million investment from Simon for a 50% stake in the company. The partnership includes a new e-commerce destination, ShopPremiumOutlets.com, which combines Simon’s in-store retail leadership with Rue Gilt Groupe’s e-commerce expertise.
“I believe when the world faces a crisis, businesses and sports have an obligation to step up and make a difference.”
On November 6, 2017, Michael’s life would be changed forever. It was on that day that he attended a hearing with his good friend Meek Mill that had resulted from a technical violation of Meek’s decade-long probation. After hearing that Meek’s probation officer and Assistant District Attorney both recommended no prison time, Michael was stunned to witness the judge sentence Meek to 2-4 years in prison.
This event would become the impetus for eventually teaming up with Meek to create the REFORM Alliance, setting a course for a lifelong commitment to social activism. In the six months after that November day, Rubin would have an awakening that for the first time really opened his eyes to the systemic problems in the criminal justice system that extended well beyond Meek’s case.
He worked tireless over the year and half to educate himself on the issues he had never truly focused on in the past, and in January 2019 the REFORM Alliance was launched. REFORM aims to advance criminal justice reform and eradicate outdated probation and parole laws that perpetuate injustice in the United States. With the REFORM Alliance, Rubin and Meek teamed up Jay-Z, Robert Kraft and other big names in sports, entertainment and finance to raise $50 million in an effort to change probation and parole laws at the state level and move one million men and women out of the criminal justice system within five years.
ONE MILLION MASKS
When COVID-19 unexpectedly struck in 2020, Rubin and Fanatics were some of the quickest to get involved, utilizing their resources to make a positive impact and help those in need. As it was becoming clear that there was a drastic need for masks and gowns to help emergency personnel, Rubin and his team sprang into action. They crafted a plan to transform Fanatics’ 360K sq. ft. MLB uniform manufacturing plant in Easton, PA into one that could safely and securely make these necessary masks and gowns.
Once it was determined that Fanatics had the capacity to make a difference, Rubin called MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred to see if the league was ok halting production of its baseball jerseys. Commissioner Manfred loved the idea and asked how quickly it could get started. To assist in the fight, Fanatics manufactured more than one million items from the same MLB jersey fabrics that player wear on the field. These masks and gowns were quickly sent to hospitals and emergency personnel in 11 states, with Fanatics and MLB absorbing the $3M production cost.
ALL IN CHALLENGE
After addressing this first immediate need caused by COVID-19, Rubin wanted to do more, and quickly turned his attention to the next biggest issue being exposed by the pandemic – widespread food insecurity. Food insecurity is always an important cause, but COVID-19 has unearthed a staggering number of people affected by a lack of food resources including kids, the elderly and the millions of newly unemployed. Recognizing the dire need to address this problem, Rubin and Fanatics used their deep connections across sports, business and to create the ALL IN Challenge, with the hopes of raising tens of millions of dollars to feed those in need through four leading food charities: No Kid Hungry, Meals on Wheels, World Central Kitchen and Feeding America.
The ALL IN Challenge, which launched on April 14 and immediately went viral, has since become one of the largest digital fundraisers ever, raising more than $60M with over 530 of the biggest athletes, entertainers, leagues, teams, owners and corporations donating incredible prized possessions or creating once in a lifetime experiences available as online auctions or sweepstakes. More than one million fans worldwide have made individual donations to get involved – from playing golf at Pebble Beach with Justin Timberlake and Bill Murray, to throwing out the first pitch at the next World Series, winning Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl 53 ring and spending a weekend in Tampa with Tom Brady. The program has also elicited contributions from Patrick Mahomes, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Kevin Durant, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Di Niro, Meek Mill, Ellen DeGeneres, Ariana Grande, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning,