Saturday, March 25, 2023

Radicals in search of brand identity: Former Airbnb marketing executive

Fanatics, a $27 billion valuation sports merchandising company, has brought on a former Airbnb marketing specialist to help develop a brand identity as it looks to go public next year.

Founded by Michael Rubin in 2011, the company got its start 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.

In a bid to elevate the online retailer to Amazon for sports enthusiasts, Rubin inducted 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 isn’t up to business yet,” Mildenhall, 54, told The Post. “We need to figure out what the story of the radicals is going to be.”

That story will certainly include the famous Topps trading card, which Rubin bought last year for nearly $500 million this year after persuading Major League Baseball to cut his 70-year relationship with the company.

Baseball Cards
The fanatics bought Topps this year for about $500 million after persuading Major League Baseball to cut its 70-year relationship with the company last year.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rubin convinced MLB, with whom he signed a business deal two years ago, that he could expand the trading card business more quickly than Topps by joining non-fungible tokens (NFTs). He offered a stake in the sporting card business to the MLB Players Association.

Rubin and MLB cut a deal without Topps knowing about the secret negotiations, and they then secured trading card contracts with the NFL and NBA. Fanatics also owns Candy Digital, a digital collectibles company, and has applied for a betting license to develop a site that could one day rival FanDuel and DraftKings.

“My expertise is developing culturally significant brands,” said Mildenhall, who in 2017 was ranked the world’s eighth most influential CMO by Forbes. “I want to be a brand for fanatics that you can’t take back from the world.”

Hardcore Wear
Fanatics, founded by Michael Rubin in 2011, got its start by selling official sports team merchandise, but has expanded in recent years to trading cards, digital collectibles and NFTs.
B51 / Mark Brown / Getty Images
Jonathan Mildenhall
“My expertise is developing culturally significant brands,” said Mildenhall.
Fraser Harrison / Getty Images

He pointed to his work with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky in creating a story that would differentiate it from VRBO and Home Away, two online rental sites that used to do much of the same thing. He established a message that Airbnb instilled a sense of belonging, allowing travelers to live like locals.

“They’ve probably had the most important brand in the last 10 years,” Mildenhall said.

“We want to unlock the equivalent of belonging for the fanatics,” he said. “So, it’s clear what the business offers.”

Rubin, 49, is becoming a celebrity, owning a stake in the Philadelphia 76ers and hanging out with rapper Meek Mill as well as new Sixers guard James Harden. He partnered with Jay-Z in February to buy vintage team jersey maker Mitchell & Ness for about $250 million.

While Rubin can build a business and build relationships, he doesn’t know how to build brand recognition, Mildenhall said, adding that most sports fans are only familiar with fanatics.

Mildenhall wants fanatics to have the instant recognition that other brands love. For Nike, the dominant story is human potential, he said, and for Coca-Cola it was happiness in a bottle.

“I don’t know what that big idea for the fanatics is yet,” Mildenhall said, adding that he and Rubin need to find it.


Nation World News Desk
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