I hate/love Panini: A two-sided essay on the current king of sports cards

The weirdest thing to me about the modern sports card collecting industry, after having awakened from a 25-year slumber of sorts, is finding that an Italian sticker company previously unknown to the vast majority of American collectors had snuck in and taken over the hobby.

I remember reading that Panini (like the sandwich?) had signed an exclusive contract with Kobe Bryant back in the late aughts, and that they’d also signed some sort of contract with the NBA (though at the time, it never would have occurred to me that they’d signed an exclusive contract to be the sole producer of NBA licensed cards; that exclusivity idea was entirely foreign to me as a collector in the 1990s), but I didn’t really think much of it. Trading card companies come and go, and even during my childhood hobbyist days, companies such as Pacific, Pro Line, and Classic flitted in and out of existence. Getting Kobe to sign a contract, well, he spent part of his youth in Italy, so he’s an easy mark, I thought to myself back then; no matter how big a name he is, nobody is toppling Topps and Upper Deck and Fleer. Ha, they’ll be lucky to last more than a few years in that dying industry.

Spoiler: They lasted more than a few years in the industry, and it’s no longer dying. Or, at least, it’s not dying in the same ways it was.

How we got here

Panini bought American trading card company Donruss in 2009, and climbed inside its skin like a symbiotic worm, appointing the top brass at Donruss to run the new stateside concern, and apparently backing up the old armored truck full of cash to make sure new products were as flashy and exclusive as possible. They signed licensing agreements with NBA, NFL, NCAA, NASCAR, all sorts of soccer leagues, etc. etc. and starting pumping out cards in all of them, plus some unlicensed stuff, including baseball minus the MLB license. They took all the biggest profit-driving card ideas from competitors — game-worn memorabilia swatches on cards, plentiful autographs, special relics like chunks of bats and balls and shoes, and super short print (SSP) parallel sets that drive the completionist collectors out there absolutely nutty — and turned the dial on it all up to 11.

And at least for the last decade or so, it’s worked. Financial figures from the trading card industry are kind of hard to come by because the top dogs in the U.S. yard — Topps and Panini — are both private companies. It looks as though trading card revenues in general have increased at least twofold since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, based on some market analysis type articles I’ve seen, and Panini with its global presence as a longtime leader in the soccer/football sticker market, has the deepest pockets in the industry. In 2018, Panini reportedly had global revenues of close to a billion dollars, or about double the previous year’s take, driven in large part by sales of its quadrennial World Cup soccer stickers and albums.

So revenues are up, the top companies are thriving, and yet I’m saying the industry is dying? It’s not as obvious an argument to make now as it was several years ago when revenue and collector interest had shrunk to a fraction of what it had been in the 1990s, but when you look deeper at who and what is driving the hobby, there’s not a clear path to continued future prosperity for trading card manufacturers when the current collecting craze dies off, as all crazes are apt to do.

Hate: Panini treats its customers like crud

As I’ve sunken deeper into the sports card collecting hobby, I’ve added industry analysts and corporate accounts for entities such as Topps and Panini to my social media habit. It’s an interest of mine, you know? I like to follow people and pages that are talking about this thing I’m interested in.

The first thing I noticed when I followed Panini America’s Facebook page a couple months ago is practically everyone who comments on their posts is negative. The posts take a few popular forms:

  1. Panini products are ridiculously expensive/you’re killing the hobby by pricing out normal collectors.
  2. I miss the old days of sports card collecting.
  3. Your customer service is abysmal/I sent in a redemption like 2 years ago and I’m still waiting on my card.

At first, I took this to be just some sour grapes from some of the Facebook grump community, but I’ll admit, that last species of comment immediately caught my eye. If you open a pack and pull a redemption card that promises you a very rare and valuable card, you send it in, and you’re waiting TWO YEARS to get the card, that’s a problem! At the time, I didn’t know the full scope of how widespread this particular issue is, but the fact that it was happening at all, the fact that I was seeing multiple people commenting to say things of this ilk, it raised some red flags for me. Oh, and I browsed a recent redemption report from Panini and learned that sometimes it’s more like 10 YEARS that people are waiting for cards.

Cards redeemed from 2010 and 2011 are in this week’s report. And to be clear: If you opened a pack of 2010 cards today and discovered a redemption card, you would no longer be able to send it in. So these are redemption cards sent in during the Obama administration.

Now collectors are amassing for a potential class-action lawsuit against Panini because so many redemption cards have gone unfulfilled for so long, even as new cards with signatures from the players with cards waiting to be redeemed are released. And due to the fine print on the redemption cards reserving the right for Panini to make substitutions of “comparable value and scarcity,” some people wind up getting cards of different players, or from different rarity tiers, so there’s some argument about what “comparable” really means.

All I can say is none of this makes me want to purchase any sealed Panini product! Why would I want to spend hundreds of dollars on a box with maybe 80 or so cards in it, and then there’s a chance the main “hit” from the box will be a piece of plain cardboard with a weak promise of receiving a rare card at some point in the distant future?

And that kind of sums up all three of those negative comment types from above, doesn’t it? The products are expensive, you can’t trust the company to follow through on its promises with regard to redemptions, and those two factors combine to make ripping Panini packs less fun than it could be.

But to be honest, the Panini products I have opened to this point (and I admit, it’s not been many) have provided a pretty high amount of card-collecting fun.

Love: Panini makes pretty, fun cards

How can I tell you in a meaningful way that despite all the things that many people (myself included, to be honest) think may be “killing the hobby,” some of those things actually result in some really attractive, satisfying, addictive, and fun cards? How can we parse the Stockholm syndrome on display in such a statement? It probably helps that I haven’t had the misfortune of pulling one of those nasty redemption IOU cards, admittedly.

When I re-entered this hobby last fall, my first move was to purchase some cheap boxes of packs from sets of my youth to recapture that pack-ripping thrill I’d been missing. I had some fun with those boxes, but the main takeaway from those experiences is that opening those old packs was a much more dull, repetitive experience than I’d remembered/realized as a kid. These sets had 500, 700, 900 cards in them. Seemingly every single player who wore a uniform in a given season was depicted on a card, which meant that in every 15-card pack I opened, usually about 13 of the cards were bench warmers, backups, also-rans — basically trash cards that I didn’t want. As such, after I finished opening a box of even the sets I really liked, like the 1991-92 Upper Deck basketball, I had a big stack of cards that I literally threw away. I thought about whether I would keep them for some future art project or something, but then I got real with myself and admitted that would never happen. I threw away well more than half the cards in most of those boxes.

So if the reality of opening packs in ye olden days was that you might get somewhere between one (or zero, god forbid) and four cards worth keeping, and MAYBE one every few packs that might have some measurable financial value, if you were lucky, then what really is the use of having 13 or 15-card packs? When I first saw that almost every modern set offers five to seven-card packs, I blanched: Think of opening a pack with that few cards and ALL of them suck?

But I was using the old math. Today’s sets, with very few exceptions, are about half the size (or less) of those old monster sets. Outside of the “base” sets in each sport, which still include cards for even the least utilized players around the league, most sets are much more selective about which players are included, which vastly increases the percentage of worthwhile cards in a pack.

Of course, Panini isn’t alone in this trend of smaller, more impactful sets. But I have admired the consistently high quality of the cards I’ve pulled from Panini product, even the more basic sets such as Donruss. When I opened a blaster of the 2020 Absolute football set, I noticed that each of the eight-card packs included at least three rookies. That’s each individual pack! So I had, from this one small box of cards, a good stack of exciting new players, including some of the top rookies from the last draft class. And each pack promised some sort of insert or parallel. So of eight cards in a pack, that’s four cards that are keepers right out of the gate (it’s too early to tell which rookies will eventually break through, so I felt it prudent to keep all the rookie cards, even the seemingly scrub ones, just in case). So we’re already comparable to the upper echelon of memorable packs I was opening as a kid, and this is a guarantee from EACH pack of a pretty mid-level football set. We’re not even talking about premium offerings.

Another blaster box of Panini baseball cards that I’ll be writing about soon charmed me from the very first card of the very first pack I opened. It was a Ken Griffey Jr., and it was a 2020 product. It was just a base card, and I know that’s all about luck of the draw, but Panini seems to have led the way in an industry-wide realization that legendary players still sell. Keep your set checklists tight, and add a list of proven fan favorites from a wide variety of eras, right there in the base sets. Sprinkle legends in with the autographs and relics and special cards, too. It’s a lot more fun to draw a Willie Mays than the utility outfielder for the Minnesota Twins, period.

Beyond the balance of the sets and the lineup of players in the checklists, the cards themselves have to be worthy of a collector’s affections. Not every card Panini produces is beautiful, but man they make some good ones. Here’s a fairly random sampling of cards I have on hand:

  1. This Court Kings Bam Adebayo is among the first single cards I ever purchased off eBay. I was immediately taken with the abstract paint-spatter background in eye-catching colors.
  2. This holographic Status basketball card features two of my favorite players from my favorite NBA team, but just the graphic design on display here, with the futuristic fonts and strong vertical alignments, is enough to make it one of my favorite cards.
  3. These are all base cards from the 2019 Diamond Kings set, featuring legends and rookies. The whole thing with Diamond Kings (and Court Kings, and Gridiron Kings) is that the designs are meant to be evocative of paintings. The color, the light, the shading, it all just works for me.
  4. I’m kind of spoiling an upcoming post a little bit, but this is another card from 2019 Diamond Kings, part of a Babe Ruth insert set. It’s just neat, right? Very modern and stylish, but respectful of its subject.
  5. It’s difficult for me not to buy every Luminance single I see, in football or basketball, on eBay. I love this photography-forward design. I’m not sure if Panini is committed to the future of this set, but I hope they are.
  6. The 2020 Absolute football base design isn’t exactly the most gorgeous thing in the world, but it’s solid. It makes a nice use of team color on the border while keeping their photos large enough to not deaden their impact. I imagine Absolute isn’t a key set for them, just a lower-tier football option, but they don’t toss it off (though I did catch them reusing some photography in my review; I’m hopeful it’s just due to low photography inventories resulting from the pandemic and not a trend going forward).

All things in moderation

Last week, Panini released the first proper basketball set of the 2020-21 NBA season, NBA Hoops, which is their most basic offering of the season. Retail price on a hobby box was $300 (!) and they sold out on their website within about 10 minutes (!!) with several sealed boxes showing up on eBay within hours for as much as $900 (!!!). I watched it all unfold online, more or less in real time, with a heart full of disgust and a mind full of curiosity: How long could this go on? There’s no way the base Lamelo Ball rookie card was going to be $200+, as it was in the first 24 hours on eBay, for good, right? When does it slow down? It took a couple of days before that same Lamelo Ball card was going for more like $40 to $60, which is still probably a bit high for a base card, at least until he successfully finishes his first season. Today I see a few people still trying to sell it for $100+, and individual packs from opened hobby boxes are going for $30 to $40, which is just disgusting.

I wasn’t going to be in the running to purchase any of the NBA Hoops sealed hobby product. Even at the retail price, that’s too much for me. And for the other Panini offerings that I ostensibly can afford at retail, such as some of the sets’ blaster boxes and hanger packs, there’s essentially zero chance I’ll ever find them in stores or on the Panini website, where they’re all gone within minutes of posting. The NBA ecosystem is such that even after that initial megaton blast of people scooping up all the product and reselling it for insane prices, the secondary market for sealed NBA product is ALWAYS unreasonable, with blasters that retail for $20 sitting permanently at $80 to $300 or more, depending on the set and what can be found in it.

So I have to pick my spots. I can surf the singles market for NBA cards I want, knowing I’ll likely never get to open any packs myself. I can, however, find some football and a lot of baseball (the lack of an MLB license used to bother me, but now that I’ve seen how fun these sets are, it doesn’t bother me as much … it still seems to bother a lot of other collectors, though, which keeps prices relatively reasonable for me) in sealed packs and boxes. And there’s always the junk wax era if I really feel like opening a lot of packs cheaply. I know what I’m getting into with that, and I know what I’m willing to spend.

But what of young collectors? What of casual collectors like me who just want to occasionally buy some packs to open? When the leader of an industry sets the tone by gearing almost all of its business decisions toward pleasing the biggest spenders in the hobby, what happens when those big spenders stop spending? What happens when the “breaking” trend slows down and people stop paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege of watching a live stream of a guy (it’s almost always a guy) opening their packs for them? Revenues are soaring now, but at some point people around my level of collecting interest will probably give up, most kids will lose interest in products they can’t find or afford, and maybe the hobby just becomes an ultra-premium plaything for the wealthy. I don’t have the answers, but I don’t think this current gravy train is likely to continue in perpetuity.

In the end, I do feel a mixture of revulsion and affection for Panini. I appreciate the company’s commitment to making beautiful, collectible, valuable cards. I don’t appreciate their beyond poor customer service, nor the insane ecosystem of sweaty uber-collectors and “investors” who have essentially destroyed the supply chain by buying up all the product before it hits shelves, nor the company’s inability to admit that the supply chain is essentially destroyed.

3 thoughts on “I hate/love Panini: A two-sided essay on the current king of sports cards

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