Throughout 2021, Fanatics chairman Michael Rubin spent his time bringing his company to an $18 billion e-commerce empire.
He took over Major League Baseball’s trading card license, guaranteed $1 billion in revenue, and also locked up baseball’s NFT rights. He lured the Dallas Cowboys e-commerce operations, started a Fanatics China operation and even got an investment from Jay-Z.
Hours before the Philadelphia 76ers, a team he co-owns, played a home game against the Miami Heat on Dec. 15, Rubin put the business aside, and focused on something more significant.
“I think of business all the time, but I didn’t running up and down that court,” Rubin said. “That’s actually amazing to me. I didn’t look at my phone for more than an hour. I didn’t think about work.”
The reason: Rubin needed to pay attention to families impacted by an unfair criminal justice system. He needed to show his friend, hip-hop star Meek Mill, that he remains engaged in REFORM Alliance, an organization created to push for a change in the criminal justice system.
And Rubin, 49, also needed to protect his basketball credibility and get the best of another musical superstar who joined 25 children and families at Well Fargo Center for REFORM Alliance night.
“He’s the only person that sucks at basketball more than me,” joked Rubin, referencing rapper Lil Baby. “I was not going to be outdone by Lil Baby in basketball.”
Making the call
Follow Rubin around long enough, and you’ll find he’s memorized Meek Mill’s story.
Rubin explains how Mill’s 2017 sentencing impacted him in front of 76ers coach Doc Rivers. He spoke about it in a TV interview while Sixers majority owner and Apollo Global Management co-founder Josh Harris closely monitoring.
“That means he’s figuring it out,” said Rubin of Harris’ learning how to give back. “Josh is more focused than ever on giving back to the community.”
Mill, the Philadelphia-born hip-hop star known in the criminal justice system as Robert Williams, was sentenced to 2-to-4 years in prison for a parole violation in 2017. The sentence caught national attention, and Jay Z provided more awareness about an unfair system.
In a 2017 New York Times piece, he wrote probation is similar to a “land mine,” adding one “random misstep” could bring “consequences greater than the crime.”
Williams’ case also caught Rubin’s complete attention when Mill invited him to follow the proceedings and “see what happens to Black people when they go to court,” recalled Rubin.
Mill’s story is well documented in a 2018 piece for ESPN’s The Undefeated. The article the details of Mill’s entry into the probation system since age 19, growing up in North Philadelphia.
When Rubin recalls the 2017 sentencing, he says: “The smartest thing he ever did was call me.”
In 2019, Rubin joined Mill, Jay Z, and sports owners including Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai to start REFORM Alliance. The organization wants to bring more awareness to injustices within the criminal justice system. REFORM board members pledged $50 million, according to CNN. And now-former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey increased that figure with his $10 million donation in May 2019.
REFORM claims to have raised more since then but would not provide CNBC with an exact figure. But since establishing REFORM, Rubin said 13 bills were passed in eight states, including California, where probation is now capped at two years for most violations.
He added legislation in Pennsylvania is now at the state senate level.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “community supervision,” — those on probation or parole — dropped from more than 4.1 million individuals supervised to roughly 3.8 million during 2020. And for probation only, down 8.3% the largest annual decline for those on probation since in 1980.
Rubin said REFORM has “made good progress” in helping to repair a “broken” system.
“We don’t want people to do something minor like smoking weed to go back to prison,” he added. “It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money, and we’re ruining families and hurting people.”
“Mike has learned a lot,” Mill told CNBC. “Now he understands the world I come from – where we come,” he added, referencing this reporter, also a North Philly native. “He understands the poverty, and I think he cares enough where he can participate to this level.”
The conversation at table one
To bring more awareness to REFORM and provide a NBA Christmas experience, Mill and Rubin collaborated to host 25 children ages 6 to 18 who have been negatively impacted by probation and parole violations.
Mill said he made call to Rubin with a simple request: “Can you help me make some kids feel special in my community.”
“The holidays is part of it,” Mill told CNBC. “Young kids not having parents in the house might not have good holidays.”
“Every kid here has a mom or dad that’s currently in prison or has been in prison for a technical violation,” added Rubin. “They didn’t commit a crime but went to prison.”
The young participants played a mini scrimmage game before the Sixers-Heat game. It was Team Meek Mill versus Team Lil Baby. Rubin joined Mill so he could compete with Lil Baby most of the game.
The two dove on the floor to obtain a loose ball, and the Atlanta musician got the best of Rubin on jump ball.
“I feel like they were trying me,” joked Lil Baby.
Asked why he accepted the invitation to join the REFORM event, Lil Baby responded: “I’ve been in some of these situations, so it was a definite for me. I come from that environment.”
The children also joined a Q&A session with Sixers coach Doc Rivers and watched Sixers fall to the Heat from a suite and courtside seats with Mill, Lil Baby and TikTok stars Charli and Dixie D’Amelio.
The kids also received gift bags stuffed with NBA merchandise.
“For these kids to be here and play basketball with Lil Baby and Meek Mill – we wanted to give them the best day of their life,” said Rubin.
And the event also served as another chance for Rubin to hear more stories about the “broken system.”
During the REFORM dinner with families, Rubin sat at Table 1 and joined Recco Ford Sr., a Philadelphia native who also received a 2-to-4 year sentence in 2015 because he was late to a probation meeting.
Ford said the conversation with Rubin at Table 1 was “surreal” and “motivational.” Asked what he sees when he looks at the Fanatics owner, Ford responded: “I see someone that has a lot of influence and giving back, and taking time to help.”
“This is a time to make real change happen in this country, and I feel like the organization is at the tip of that change,” said REFORM CEO Robert Rooks. “The business side to this: How can we do more of these events and stand-in for our loved ones in the community.”
Back to the business
After the scrimmage concluded, Rubin retrieved his phone, but nothing significant had happened during the game.
MLB, Fanatics’ biggest sports client, is still in a lockout. The chatter on Wall Street was slow, and the $18 billion company was fine.
“Eight text messages and only nine emails – it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” Rubin said. “I’ll go back [to New York] more excited about this event more than anything I did in business today.”
With the fun over, asked what he sees when he looks at Michael Rubin, Lil Baby responded: “A businessman all day every day. And that’s why we click.”
Told Lil Baby refers to him as “my older dude,” Rubin laughed.
“He’ll call me up and ask a lot of different things. ‘What do you think about this company? Should I invest? Should I not invest? What do you think about this business situation?’
“He was in prison five years ago, and now he’s one of the biggest artists in the world,” Rubin added. “His worth ethic is insane.”
Asked what he wants peers on Wall Street to take from REFORM Alliance’s event, Rubin challenged them to give back.
“When you talk about people on Wall Street, you’re talking about people who are generally better off,” Rubin said. “They’ve got a responsibility to make a difference.
“Meek is lucky, and I’m lucky,” Rubin added. “It’s our responsibility to give back to our communities. Anyone who is fortunate to be in a good position and doesn’t give back is not a good human being.”