By Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer
One of the NBA’s most powerful figures is leaving his NBA job.
Michael Rubin — the billionaire known for having the ears of star athletes, league offices and team owners — is selling his 10% stake in Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils, he told FOX Sports in an interview this week.
Rubin, 49, has played a key role in the Sixers’ recent transformation into perennial contenders but said his day job as the chief executive of Fanatics, the sports platform company he purchased in 2011, rendered his position with the Sixers untenable. Fanatics has exploded in recent years — in March, it was valued by investors at $27 billion, up from $4.5 billion in 2017 — partly thanks to its expansion into new businesses that put Rubin at odds with the rules and bylaws that govern professional sports leagues and prevent executives and owners from entering business relationships with opposing players.
Rubin has already succeeded in partnering with stars from other leagues, such as Tom Brady, who, Rubin said, is an investor in Fanatics. But Rubin felt he had reached the point where his ownership stakes in professional sports teams were holding both him and his company back.
“When we first bought the Sixers, Fanatics was only in the merchandise business. Now we have the trading card business and the gambling business,” he said. “By the end of the year, we’ll have individual contracts with thousands of players, and I’ll be taking bets on the Sixers.”
This conclusion, he added, had been in the works for around 18 months, dating to his decision to expand Fanatics’ footprint. “Fanatics just got to a size where it became no longer possible for me to run it and officially be part of the Sixers,” Rubin said. “No one came to me and said, ‘Hey, Michael, you need to sell.’ It was clear based on these businesses [that] we have no choice but to sell.”
That’s why, he added, he has “no interest” in buying another team at any point in the future.
“Michael’s commitment, passion and business acumen have greatly benefited the 76ers and the NBA,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement provided to FOX Sports by the league. “But Fanatics’ opportunity to build a global digital sports platform by moving into new and emerging businesses makes team ownership impractical for now. I look forward to continuing to work closely with Michael on expanding Fanatics’ partnership with the league.”
Rubin’s departure from the Sixers comes at a pivotal time for the franchise. The team is coming off a disappointing second-round playoff exit — its fourth time in five seasons being knocked out in the second round — and the clock is ticking on the prime of star center Joel Embiid.
The Sixers also have a major decision to make on the future of James Harden. The 32-year-old former MVP, whom they acquired via trade in February, has a $47 million player option that he could exercise for next season. He’s eligible for a rich extension on top of that, which could pay him up to an additional $223 million over four years, a steep price for a player who missed 23 games last season and is coming off his worst season since 2013.
Rubin, who is close with Harden, declined to comment on Harden’s contract, though when discussing the Sixers’ future, he did say that he is optimistic, partly because he expects Harden to return to the court next season more comfortable within the Sixers’ ecosystem, motivated by the possibility of a title run and no longer hampered by injury.
“I think the team is really well-positioned,” Rubin said. “I believe in this team and this group.”
Rubin first joined the Sixers in 2011, as part of the group led by private equity mavens Josh Harris and David Blitzer that purchased the team for $280 million (Harris and Blitzer later formed HBSE to house their various properties). He said he had known then-NBA commissioner David Stern since the mid-‘90s, when, as the young CEO of the e-commerce company GSI Commerce, he convinced Stern to give him the NBA’s business, though not without a heated back-and-forth.
“David comes, he’s like, ‘You know, who do you think you are to come pitch the NBA? You have no experience,’” Rubin recalled. “He’s screaming. I’m screaming back at him. It was my first battle with him, the first of many battles.”
But in 2011, upon being offered the opportunity to be part of the Sixers’ ownership group, Rubin said he called Stern seeking his advice.
“He said to me, ‘You know, do whatever’s best for you. I don’t care,’ and hung up,” Rubin said. “But then three minutes later, he calls back and says, ‘Michael, I’ve thought about this, and you’re the only one of these guys in this group I have control and influence over, so you’re going to do it, so if there’s an issue, I want to know I can come to you.”
Rubin spent his first five or so years with the franchise as an invisible partner. Executives with the team at the time never saw him around the facility. Some didn’t know who he was. It wasn’t until around 2017 that he became a regular courtside presence at games and, more notably, a key voice behind the scenes.
He and Embiid grew close, with Embiid accompanying Rubin’s family on vacation and training in Rubin’s home gym during the NBA’s 2020 pandemic shutdown. Rubin also helped lure Harden from Brooklyn and, according to people familiar with the Sixers’ internal dynamics, was a driving force behind the decision to hire president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, whom the team is reportedly paying more than $10 million per year. These same sources say that in recent years, Rubin and Harris, who serves as the team’s managing partner with Blitzer, have grown increasingly close.
“Given Michael’s tremendous success growing Fanatics into a global platform across every major sport, his decision doesn’t come as a surprise,” Harris said in a statement provided by the Sixers to FOX Sports. “I am so grateful for his years of partnership. Michael will always be a member of our HBSE and Sixers family, continue to be a presence courtside and a key partner in our collective commitment to be a force for good in Philadelphia.”
“Michael is a visionary and innovator who has played an integral role in helping us grow and position HBSE for future success,” Blitzer said in a statement. “He has been an incredible friend and business partner over the last 11 years and his instincts, work ethic, passion, and ability to bring people together have helped establish him as one of the industry’s most influential and successful leaders.”
Rubin might no longer have a financial stake in HBSE, which was recently valued as being worth $3 billion. But he said his allegiance to the Sixers and interest in helping them achieve their goal will remain the same.
“I’ll probably go to less games, but when there’s something going down that’s massive, I’ll stop what I’m doing to help. That’s who I am. That’s what I like doing,” he said. “I consider Josh [Harris] and Blitzer to be family. I consider Joel [Embiid] and James [Harden] to be family. And I look at Daryl and [head coach] Doc [Rivers] the same way. I have a lot of investment in the group and will do whatever I can to help those guys in whatever small way I can.”
One key question moving forward is what that help will look like now that Rubin no longer has to abide by league rules. As one high-ranking sports business executive who has worked with numerous NBA teams said, “He’s the biggest player in our business. Nobody has the relationships that he does. Nobody can connect with people on both the ownership side and player side like him.
“And in a player-run league like the NBA, I really do think he can be a competitive advantage.”
To that point, according to multiple sources, the league office recently told Harris that Rubin, freed from the constraints of the league’s collective bargaining agreement and anti-tampering laws, will be able to help the Sixers more than ever.
Rubin, however, was adamant that Fanatics is and will be his primary focus. His vision is a “kind of super sports app” where fans can get merchandise, place bets, buy digital and physical collectibles, access tickets and maybe even watch live games all in one spot.
“I think we can create potentially the most valuable company in sports long-term,” he said.
But he’s still adjusting to his new role outside the Sixers’ organization. Asked about the team’s future outlook, he said, “At the end of the day, we have one responsibility. It’s to win championships, and every year you don’t win a championship, you’ve failed.”
“I guess it’s still ‘we’ for a few more days,” he said. “And then it will be ‘they.’”
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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