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Fanatics, a sports merchandising company with a $27 billion valuation, has brought on the former marketing whiz at Airbnb to help the firm develop a brand identity as it looks to go public as soon as next year.
The company founded by Michael Rubin in 2011 got its start by selling official sports team merchandise but in recent years has expanded into trading cards, digital collectibles, NFTs and is now looking to get a piece of the sports betting pie.
To elevate the online retailer into the Amazon for sports enthusiasts, Rubin added Jonathan Mildenhall to the company’s board last week following his successful stint as Airbnb’s chief marketing officer. He also worked for Coca-Cola.
“The Fanatics brand is not yet on par with the business,” the 54-year-old Mildenhall told The Post. “We need to figure out what the Fanatics story is going to be.”
That story will most certainly include the famed Topps trading cards, which Rubin bought for about $500 million this year after persuading Major League Baseball to cut its 70-year relationship with the company last year.
Rubin convinced MLB, with whom he had signed a merchandise deal two years earlier, that he could expand the trading cards business much more quickly than Topps by getting into non-fungible tokens (NFTs). He also offered the MLB Players Association a stake in the sporting card business.
Rubin and MLB cut a deal without Topps knowing about the secret negotiations and he then secured trading card contracts with the NFL and NBA. Fanatics also owns Candy Digital, a digital collectibles company, and has applied for betting licenses to develop a site that could one day rival FanDuel and DraftKings.
“My expertise is to develop culturally significant brands,” said Mildenhall, who was ranked the world’s eighth most influential CMO by Forbes in 2017. “What I want for Fanatics is to become a brand you can’t take back from the world.”
He pointed to his work with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky in creating a story that would separate it from VRBO and Home Away, two online rental sites which did largely the same thing. They established a message that Airbnb created a sense of belonging, giving travelers a chance to live like a local.
“They probably now have the most significant brand in the last 10 years,” Mildenhall said.
“We want to unlock the equivalent of belonging for Fanatics,” he added. “So, it is clear what the business offers.”
The 49 year-old Rubin is becoming a bit of a celebrity, owning a stake in the Philadelphia 76ers and palling around with rapper Meek Mill as well as new Sixers guard James Harden. He also partnered with Jay-Z in February to purchase vintage team jersey maker Mitchell & Ness for around $250 million.
While Rubin can build a business and make connections, he does not know how to create brand identity, Mildenhall said, adding that most sports fans are only vaguely familiar with Fanatics.
Mildenhall wants Fanatics to attain the immediate recognition that other brands enjoy. For Nike, the effective story is human potential, he said, and for Coca-Cola it was happiness in a bottle.
“I don’t know what that big idea is yet for Fanatics,” Mildenhall said, adding that is what he and Rubin need to discover.