Michael Rubin's Sports Empire

How He's Building Fanatics Into One of the World's Largest Companies

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Michael Rubin

Michael Rubin is a purebred entrepreneur and he has been since a young age.

Today, he’s the CEO of Fanatics, a global leader in licensed sports merchandise that’s valued at more than $30 billion, has more than 100 million customers, and sells millions of products.

Odds are, if you’ve ever bought any sports apparel, it was probably made or sold by them.

Michael is also the Executive Chairman of the Rue Gilt Groupe and Co-chair of the Reform Alliance, an organization working to transform probation and parole.

Oh, and until recently he was part owner of the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Devils.

Building successful companies for the past few decades has made Michael a billionaire multiple times over, with Forbes estimating his net worth to be $11.4 billion at the time of this writing.

And, unlike many other billionaires, he seems to be having the most fun doing it, as you might have seen with his famous 4th of July white party and Super Bowl parties.

He’s combined a relentless work ethic, relationship-building skills, and a love for business to create one of the largest sports companies in the world and despite all the success, he’s just getting started.

Let’s get to it.

Early Days

Michael grew up in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania, and was a terrible student and a horrendous athlete.

How bad of a student? He got a 780 on his SATs, a score that’d put you in the bottom 8th percentile today.

As an athlete, he was, as he would describe, the kid who got picked last. It’s fair to say, years later, he hasn’t improved much:

But what Michael did always have, even at a young age, was a love for business and an insatiable work ethic.

At 8 years old he was selling stationary and vegetable seeds door to door and in winter he sold snow shoveling services, with 5 other kids working for him.

By 12 years old, after learning how to fix and tune skis, he started a ski tuning shop in his parent's basement.

Shortly after, with his consignment business, he grossed $25,000 in the first year, and he ruffled the feathers of local competitors with his tactics:

Things turned dicey after Rubin started blanketing cars with brochures in the parking lot of a competitor. The owner called up Rubin's father, a veterinarian, and threatened to have the boy arrested. "My dad said, 'He's a 12-year-old kid. Does he really pose that much of a threat to you?'" Rubin kept leafleting.


By 14 years old Michael ran a ski shop, Mike’s Ski and Sport, in a local mall, using $2,500 in bar mitzvah gifts and the money he had made in the consignment business to fund it. He convinced his dad to cosign a lease so he could open it.

At age 15, he did $500k in sales, took home $100k personally that year, and bought, as he says, “half a Porsche,” splitting it with another friend, putting $40,000 into it.

But he didn’t tell his parents.

When Michael’s dad found out one day through a friend about the car, his dad told his mom, who couldn’t believe it at first, but once she understood that Michael had actually bought the Porsche, she was not very happy.

But Michael was just getting started.

Image Credit: Michael Rubin

Michael opened a second store in the 10th grade and he negotiated to have him and his employees attend high school part-time by the time he was in the 11th grade.

And he was already filled with ambition at just 16 years old:

When Michael Rubin was 16, he built a 142-foot ski ramp made out of 45,000 pounds of ice so customers at his ski shop could test their gear. In August. In 98 degree weather. "I believe there are two types of business people -- risky and rational," the then 16-year-old Rubin told Small Business Chronicle in September 1988. At the time, Rubin owned Mike's Ski Shop in the suburban community of Conshohocken, Penn. "And since I am the risky type, a ski run in 98 degree weather sounds great to me!"


But he also almost went bankrupt the same year.

It was a bad ski season with too many warm days, he had $80k in inventory left, $200k in liabilities, and he was sued 100 times that spring, with the local sheriff woman coming with the day’s lawsuits almost every morning.

He was able to hire a bankruptcy attorney at 16 years old and, thankfully for Michael, he found out he couldn’t legally incur debt until he was 18 years old.

He ended up paying only pennies on the dollar for that debt, borrowing $38k from his parents to pay it off, on the condition that Michael went to college. Mind you, he grew up in a middle-class family, and $38k was a lot of money for them.

Now, after going through the whole process of getting sued by 100 people, owing tens of thousands of dollars at only 16 years old, you’d think maybe Michael would be afraid to go back to that low point again and he’d take it easy, right?


He got right back to it.

In one interview he said, “I also was never afraid to fail. I just didn’t care.”

Michael would echo the same sentiment in another interview, “The thing that makes me a little bit different is I have no fear of failing at all. I like risk. I like the action.”

He lives for the game of business, that much is clear.

And he’d go on to mention that he never doubted himself because he was always on the grind. He knew he had a strong work ethic and he could work his way out of anything. It’s just how he’s wired.

Right after his earlier failure, he was back in the game.

He heard of another ski shop going out of business a few weeks later and they were offering up $200k worth of inventory for $13k.

Michael went back to his dad to try and borrow more money.

His dad, unsurprisingly, said no.

So Michael asked around the neighborhood and finally found a neighbor willing to lend him $13k, but it came at a high price - $1k of interest charged per week.


No matter, Michael took the deal, and within three weeks, after going through the yellow pages and calling different ski shops to sell his inventory, he paid back the $13k loan, and $3k of interest, and ended up making $75k from that inventory.

And he did end up going to college, attending Villanova for all of a few weeks before dropping out to work on the business full-time, paying back his parents the $38k they loaned him.

He was obsessed with business and school just wasn’t for him.

Michael would later say of dropping out of college:

I was so anxious about advancing my business aspirations, it just was what it was. There was no stopping the freight train that was going in that direction.

Michael Rubin

And it was clearly the right decision.

Here’s how Michael described those few years:

At 16 I almost went bankrupt, lost it all, and by 18 I was the largest buyer and seller of closeouts in the ski business, and by 21 I was doing over $100 million a year, making over $10 million a year buying and selling closeout footwear and apparel.

Michael Rubin

Based on my research, he might have been off by a few years on his age when he hit that $100 million mark, but he was certainly in his early 20s when that happened which is absolutely wild.

Public Company CEO

Michael’s company, the one doing tens of millions in revenue, was called KPR Sports, named after his parents, Ken and Paulette.

He introduced Yukon, his own brand of footwear in 1994, and in 1995 he acquired 40% of RYKA, a struggling publicly traded women’s athletic footwear company, for $8 million.

He was already an established deal maker at only 22 years old.

By 23, he became CEO of the company.

In 1997, Michael would combine the Yukon and RYKA brands and create Global Sports, Inc. which would later become GSI Commerce.

By 1998, he was only 26 years old and GSI Commerce was doing more than $130 million a year in sales.

Mind you, this is the early days of the internet and his company was doing those types of numbers without e-commerce sales.

But he wasn’t yet a fan of the internet at that point:

In that year, the only analyst covering his publicly-traded company called him and asked Rubin how he was going to integrate the Internet into his business model.

“‘Hey Michael, what are you doing about this Internet thing?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he says, ‘Well, there is so much interest in the Internet.’ And I am like, ‘Oh, don't waste my time. It's all these young kids who lose lots of money. They barely do any revenue and the only thing they are good at is losing money. Don't waste my time with this Internet thing. I have no interest.' And I hung up on him," says Rubin.


That was all about to change.

Going All-In On E-Commerce

After Michael’s call with the analyst who was trying to convince him to get into e-commerce, Michael called the CEOs of the stores he was selling to and none of them knew how to setup the whole e-commerce thing either.

Realizing this, Michael saw an opportunity.

In 1999, he took advantage of it, handling the e-commerce purchasing, payments, fulfillment, and returns of customers like Ralph Lauren, Estee Lauder, and others.

He was fueled by an $80 million investment from Softbank, secured with a 30-minute conversation with Masayoshi Son that was set up by Mary Meeker. Softbank got 30% of the business for that investment and Michael got that much-needed capital to expand.

And expand they certainly did.

GSI Commerce would continue to grow, with sales reaching $335 million by 2004, when it broke even after years of losses and acquiring a number of companies like Fogdog and Ashford when the dot-com bubble popped.

Despite cumulative losses of $155 million in the early years, Michael wasn’t fazed:

We took a lot of noncash charges from acquisitions--we always had good Ebitda and cash flow; the loss was always from amortization. I didn't believe that maintaining stock price was a core interest of mine.

Michael Rubin

While he wasn’t fazed, a few years later, Michael would undertake one of his biggest challenges to date.

Navigating Crisis

During the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, Michael’s company’s stock price took a massive hit.

It dropped from around $30 to $3 and, because of a margin call, Michael needed to come up with a $3 million dollars.

But he didn’t have it and he was struggling to borrow the money given the financial situation at the time.

What did he do?

He called one of his backers, repeatedly to try and come up with the money.

Michael tells the story of calling the guy about 50 times, two or three times per day before he finally relented and lent Michael the money.

This was at a time of crisis when many others were trying to borrow money, so why did Michael get it?

Because he was so annoying, so unrelenting, that it was easier to just pay Michael rather than get yet another call from him.

And that relentlessness paid off big time just a few years later.

Enter eBay

After the financial crisis, Michael continued his acquisition spree, buying Rue La La in 2009 and ShopRunner in 2010.

Then, just like eBay’s influence on Marcos Galperin of Mercado Libre, they enter the picture in our story today of Michael Rubin.

In March 2011, eBay acquired GSI Commerce for $2.4 billion.

Michael reportedly made $150 million personally on the deal.

Then he sits back, relaxes on a beach, and rides off into the sunset, right?

Far from it, my friend.

He instead buys back 3 of the consumer businesses for a little less than $500 million.

Here’s how it was described in Forbes:

The root of Rubin's coup stems from eBay's desire to get on the same footing as Amazon: fulfilling orders for large retailers, which buying GSI accomplished. It had no use for GSI's trio of consumer businesses--Fanatics (licensed sports merchandise), Rue La La (flash sales) and Shop Runner (a retail benefits program)--which would in fact compete with its vast network of small power sellers.

That left Rubin in a position to pounce. With a $150 million personal windfall, he was certainly positioned--and entitled--to kick back for a while. Instead, he hit the gas, buying back the scraps personally and moving quickly to build again. The bonanza would follow almost immediately, but to call him an overnight success undermines one of the most prodigious entrepreneurial sagas in America.


In that buyback, Michael purchased full ownership of Fanatics and 70% of Rue La La and ShopRunner, all of which would go under an umbrella company called Kynetic.

But guess what?

Shareholders were pissed:

Shareholders rebelled. Within days of the agreement they sued GSI's board and eBay, alleging that the proposed share price grossly undervalued the company and gave Rubin a sweetheart deal that they couldn't participate in. Less than a month after the deal closed, the parties settled for $24 million, an extra 33 cents a share. Rubin shrugs: "In most public company deals shareholder litigation is completely common."


Michael was up for the challenge of building his new companies, but knew he had some stiff competition:

I just watched two little companies, one in Seattle called Amazon, another in China called Alibaba, that have been literally decimating retail, I said if I don’t completely reinvent this business we won’t be here, we’ll be irrelevant. So, I actually have had this kind of like fear of death, and by the way, the fear of death is a great motivator to make you figure out how to make things work.

Michael Rubin

What was Michael’s plan for competing?

On the Fanatics website, they laid it out:

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 supply chain and create incredible speed to market, benefiting not only customers but the fans that shop with the company’s partners.


In June of 2012, Michael would raise $150 million for Fanatics from Andreessen Horowitz and Insight Venture Partners, valuing the company at $1.5 billion.

Jeff Jordan, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, said of Rubin at the time, “The guy only has one gear—forward.”

By the end of 2012, Fanatics would do $800 million in sales, Rue La La would do $400 million, ShopRunner would be valued at $600 million, and Michael would become a billionaire for the first time.

But, as he would mention more than a decade later, he was only just getting started.

Acquisitions, Collectibles, and Sports Betting

Fast-forwarding a few years, Michael continued to raise capital to fuel his ambitions.

As of this writing, they’ve raised about $5 billion in total, which includes a massive round from Softbank and even the NFL and MLB themselves.

In 2018, Fanatics made one of their best investments to date, buying a stake in the company behind Lids, with more than 1,000 retail locations.

Michael later said this was a 60x return for some of the early investors.

The same year, Rue La La acquired Gilt Groupe to form Rue Gilt Groupe.

Then, in 2020 Michale sold ShopRunner to FedEx for $228 million.

In 2021, Michael made a massive move, signing a deal with MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association to produce licensed trading cards, ending a 70-year partnership with Topps.

Not long after, Fanatics acquired Topps in early 2022 for $500 million.

But wait.

How was Michael able to pull this all off?

Here’s what Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB PA and the person who negotiated the deal, said about Michael:

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. He highlighted something that very few are willing to admit: The players have and bring tangible value.

Tony Clark

And for that tangible value, the baseball players association would get equity in the company, benefiting beyond the typical licensing fees.

For Michael, this move was a no-brainer, and it’s a testament to his dealmaking abilities that he was able to pull this off.

Trading cards were an industry where less than 1% was being spent on marketing and there were numerous opportunities to make the product itself better, including eliminating redemptions, which are essentially IOU cards when an athlete isn’t able to sign autographed editions on time.

There also was an opportunity to expand into licensed college trading cards, something they’d announce in 2022.

And it was a move Michael had thought about as early as 2019, something he reflected on in an interview with Bill Simmons in 2022 when talking about how he thought about expanding beyond the core Fanatics business:

If we can’t be the number one player in a space long term, I don’t think that’s interesting to us.

Michael Rubin

Trading cards made sense as an industry Fanatics is perfectly positioned to dominate in the long run.

Of course, everything Michael has done hasn’t been a home run.

Fanatics’ foray into digital collectibles in 2021 with their NFT company, Candy Digital, didn’t live up to expectations after the brutal collapse of the collectible NFT market.

Though Michael raised tens of millions of dollars for the venture and it was once valued at $1.5 billion in late 2021, in January 2023 Fanatics divested their 60% stake in the company.

Nevertheless, Michael and Fanatics pressed on at breakneck speed, acquiring Mitchell & Ness in 2022.

The next big frontier?

Sports betting.

Michael talked about launching Fanatics Betting & Gaming in late 2022, with the first retail location of their sportsbook opening in Maryland in January 2023.

This launch into sports betting forced his hand in relinquishing his ownership stakes in the 76ers and Devils in late 2022. But he’s okay with it - he’s all about Fanatics, which by the way, would end up doing around $7 billion in revenue in 2022.

Beyond Business

Life is about more than business.

This hit home for Michael back in 2017 because of his good friend, Rapper Meek Mill:

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.


The judge had something against Meek and Michael would find out later she had a history of bad behavior.

But after seeing it in person, Michael vowed to get Meek out of prison.

He made calls to the governor, mayor, and district attorney. He also hired dozens of investigators all in an effort to free Meek.

It was a massive undertaking, working with many other people, but it paid off.

Meek was freed in April 2018, with more good news in 2019:

From that experience, Michael teamed up with Jay-Z and Patriots owner Robert Kraft to start the Reform Alliance in 2019 to help fix some of the systemic problems in the broken criminal justice system, with a mission of removing a million people from the probation and parole system.

It’s important to note, Meek went to prison not for committing a crime, but for violating probation. If you read the details of the case you’ll see just how insane it was that he was sentenced to 2-4 years in prison.

Then, in April 2020, Michael helped launch the ALL IN Challenge, to raise money for those in need during the pandemic, an initiative that would go on to raise $60+ million.

The Keys to Michael Rubin’s Success

When once asked what’s made him successful, Michael said it was three main things:

  1. Street smarts / common sense

  2. Relationship skills

  3. Work ethic

He’s a voracious learner, contributing to those street smarts, and an interview he did in 2023 highlighted that:

I need to learn TikTok, like, that should be my goal in ‘23, to actually learn TikTok because how great will that be for Fanatics if I could actually be great on TikTok for Fanatics, that would actually help us expand our collectibles business and our betting business and our merchandise business so I have to do that.

Michael Rubin

Everything, of course, comes back to Fanatics for him.

And as far as those relationship skills?

He’s been praised by the likes of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Dallas Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban, and many others for his ability to develop relationships and make deals.

He’s also surrounded himself with some of the best business minds around.

One important person, in particular, he’s close with?

Robert Kraft.

Robert, the owner of the New England Patriots, taught Michael how to be calmer and to think long-term. He also showed him just how much energy you can still have later in life:

Michael mentioned in an interview that there was probably nobody else he’d learned more from in business and life than Robert Kraft.

An NYT article mentioned how that relationship with Robert Kraft led to an investment by the NFL into Fanatics in 2017.

And, finally, it’s obvious to everyone just how hard Michael works.

But damn does he play hard too:

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 Beyoncé; 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 more thing that’s contributed to Michael’s success is that he’s never satisfied:

We work with the best sports properties in the world, close to a thousand collegiate professional sports properties globally and we have this incredible IP that we're fortunate to work with to be able to serve sports fans with, but we gotta do it better every day like we need to go into this with a mentality like what we're doing today, it's not near good enough. How do we get better? How do we do everything that we do a lot better for the sports fan? And so there's lots to do.

Michael Rubin

He’s had a ridiculous run as an entrepreneur and CEO and is really just getting started.

What’s next?

Building Fanatics into not only one of the biggest sports companies in the world but one of the biggest technology companies in the world.

With Michael’s worth ethic and laser focus, I think he’ll do it.

Michael’s Wisdom

In each edition of the Just Go Grind newsletter, I like to include a few more quotes at the end from my research into the founder who is featured, sharing their wisdom.

On being a voracious learner:

I'm a sponge so I'm always looking at like what's Amazon doing, you know? How are they pushing the envelope from a customer experience perspective? What's Netflix doing? What's Apple doing? What's Google doing? What's Nike doing? You gotta look at great companies and get ideas.

Michael Rubin

On building a winning company:

Make sure the opportunity you’re going after is big enough and figure out how you can make it better for your customers.

Michael Rubin

On doing business with friends:

I think for me, knowing that I’m in a pretty fortunate position, I always want to make sure anytime I do something with a friend, that I’m pretty damn sure it’s gonna work for them first, me second because if not, you’re dead.

Michael Rubin

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