Fanatics and Founder/Executive Chairman Michael Rubin made major moves in 2021. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Fanatics)
SNEAKERS & FASHION TRADING CARDS & COLLECTIBLES

The Year Fanatics Became a 1-of-1

Fanatics has grown from an ecommerce powerhouse to a brand that’s involved in every area of sports fandom — from cards and collectibles to betting to blockchain technology and beyond.

Fanatics has been around for more than two decades, but it has never had a year quite like 2021.

These last 12 months have been full of big-money fundraising rounds, big-name celebrity partnerships, and even bigger rights acquisitions. It’s the reason why the company has nearly tripled its valuation in the span of one year.

This is no longer merely an ultra-successful ecommerce sports merchandise giant. Yes, that will always be a fundamental part of what the company does, but now, Fanatics boasts a massive, game-changing stake in the sports trading card hobby, has dipped its feet into the booming sports gambling industry, and has gone all-in on the NFT revolution.

And while no single move they’ve made is altogether unprecedented, all these accomplishments coming together under one roof makes Fanatics a 1-of-1 suite of brands uniting the worlds of apparel, collectibles, gaming, and technology in a way we’ve never quite seen before.

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Fanatics’ 2021 Stat Line

Latest Valuation: $18 billion

Fundraising Milestones:

  • $320 million raise in March led by Neuberger Berman, Thrive Capital, Fidelity Investments, Franklin Templeton, and Major League Baseball
  • $350 million in September led by Silver Lake, Insight Partners, and Endeavor
  • $100 million in October for NFT platform Candy Digital led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2, Insight Partners, and Peyton Manning

Major Deals & Partnerships:

The Fanatics Story So Far

In order to understand how Fanatics ended the year valued at $18 billion — more than the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees combined — it’s important to know how the sportswear and collectibles retailer positioned itself over the last few years.

Shortly after Michael Rubin bought the company in 2011, he started pulling in investors and raising money. By the hundreds of millions of dollars. It allowed Fanatics to expand its partnership with the NBA and begin operating its flagship store in 2015, and in 2017 to team up with SoftBank to grow its presence in the Asia-Pacific market and to grow in the soccer space. That year, the NFL and MLB each invested $150 million as well. When Fanatics grossed $2.5 billion in ecommerce sales in 2019, it enabled an additional $350 million funding round in mid-2020.

So when the calendar flipped to 2021, Fanatics was riding years of momentum and had its hand in just about every major American league and the most important global sport, soccer. And it was riding years of momentum.

In February 2021, the company announced a joint venture with Hillhouse Capital to start Fanatics China, which a source told CNBC could be worth $1 billion on its own. With soccer dominating ecommerce in China, CNBC also speculated that it would facilitate Fanatics’ existing partnerships with Chelsea, Manchester United, Paris-Saint Germain, and Bayern Munich.

A month later, Fanatics’ valuation doubled after raising $320 million in a deal that included even further investment from Major League Baseball.

Call that a strong tremor prior to the earthquake that would come via Fanatics in summer 2021.

That’s when Fanatics replaced Topps as MLB’s official trading card partner beginning in 2023 — seismic news for the hobby that had considered Topps synonymous with baseball cards for 70 years. Notably, that handed Fanatics rights to both MLB’s traditional trading cards and its NFT offerings as co-operators of Candy Digital. And not even a week later, Fanatics acquired the trading card rights to the NBA and NFL, which are set to begin in 2026.

That gave Fanatics near-total control over the trading card hobby in the US; Fanatics Trading Cards alone is now valued at $10.4 billion as of September.

But the big-money moves were only part of the story for Fanatics in 2021. The rest is what has them set up to have a sky’s-the-limit 2022.

Fanatics in 2022 and Beyond

In some areas, we know what’s coming in 2022. For example, the Candy Marketplace, which will sell MLB NFTs is set to launch in January, and it looks like it will operate similarly to Dapper Labs’ wildly successful NBA Top Shot. This will also be the first full year of Fanatics’ 10-year merchandising deal with the Dallas Cowboys, far-and-away the most valuable franchise in the NFL.

What’s just as intriguing, however, is what we might see.

We know a Fanatics Sportsbook is coming, but we’re not sure exactly when or where. Rubin and Jay-Z have already teamed up to try for a license to form the Fanatics Sportsbook, and in October, casino.org reported that Fanatics had applied for patent applications for a branded casino, mobile betting app, and sportsbook. They’ve also tapped former FanDuel CEO Matt King to lead their sports betting division.

Though Fanatics wanted its sportsbook up-and-running when New York’s online betting market went live, it was not included among the nine operators granted a license by the state.

There’s also a messier subplot to follow in 2022: Just last week, two class-action lawsuits claimed the NFL and Fanatics violated federal antitrust law and conspired to “choke” the competition on ecommerce rival Amazon, allegedly resulting in higher prices for fan gear and fewer opportunities for other retailers to gain a foothold on Amazon. Such allegations were probably inevitable as Fanatics’ influence boomed, particularly with help from the major sports leagues.

But overall, though legal wrangling may lead to some changes in the way Fanatics conducts ecommerce operations, don’t expect the big moves and big numbers to slow as its new investments and new ventures take flight.

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Boardroom’s 2021 Fanatics Coverage

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