Fanatics in search of a brand identity: Jonathan Mildenhall

Fanatics, a sports merchandising company with a $27 billion valuation, has tapped the former Airbnb marketing ace to help the company develop a brand identity as it plans to go public soon. ‘next year.

The company founded by Michael Rubin in 2011 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 slice of the sports betting pie.

To elevate the online retailer to Amazon for sports fans, Rubin added Jonathan Mildenhall to the company’s board of directors last week after his successful stint as chief marketing officer of Airbnb. He also worked for Coca-Cola.

“The Fanatics brand hasn’t quite lived up to the business yet,” Mildenhall, 54, told The Post. “We have to understand what the story of the Fanatics will be.”

That story will almost certainly include the famous Topps Trading Cards, which Rubin bought for an estimated $500 million this year after he persuaded Major League Baseball to end its 70-year relationship with the company last year.

Fanatics bought Topps for around $500 million this year after persuading Major League Baseball to end its 70-year relationship with the company last year.
Sportswire icon via Getty Images

Rubin convinced MLB, with whom he had signed a merchandise deal two years earlier, that he could grow the trading card business much faster than Topps by getting into non-fungible tokens (NFTs). He also offered the MLB Players Association a stake in the sports card business.

Rubin and MLB made a deal without Topps knowing about the secret negotiations and he later secured trading card deals 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 building culturally meaningful brands,” said Mildenhall, who was ranked the eighth most influential CMO in the world by Forbes in 2017. “What I want for Fanatics is to be a brand you can’t. not take back into the world.”

fanatical clothes
Fanatics, founded by Michael Rubin in 2011, started out selling official sports team merchandise, but in recent years has expanded to trading cards, digital collectibles and NFTs.
B51/Mark Brown/Getty Images
Jonathan Mildenhall
“My expertise is in building culturally significant brands,” Mildenhall said.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

He highlighted his work with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky to create a story that would separate him from VRBO and Home Away, two online rental sites that did much the same thing. They established a message that Airbnb created a sense of place, giving travelers a chance to experience like a local.

“They now have probably the biggest brand in 10 years,” Mildenhall said.

“We want to unlock the fanatic equivalent of membership,” he added. “So what the company is offering is clear.”

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

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

Mildenhall wants Fanatics to get the immediate recognition that other brands enjoy. For Nike, the effective story is human potential, he said, and for Coca-Cola, it’s happiness in a bottle.

“I don’t know what this big fanatic idea is yet,” Mildenhall said, adding that’s what he and Rubin need to figure out.

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