LOS ANGELES — There is a sense of nostalgia associated with trading cards. Fans remember the trips to the collectibles store with mom or dad, picking out the most expensive card of a favorite player, protecting the cards in books and holders, the excitement of opening a pack with the rookie card of the top pick. Plus, cards were an investment. Keeping them in mint condition meant the prospect of big bucks down the road.
Then the card market collapsed. It was saturated. Was it cool to own a player’s rookie card if everyone had one? It sure didn’t help the economics of the business. Things had to change. Recently the market has evolved, and Panini Inc. has been a driver in this evolution. The company was front and center at the NFL Rookie Premiere event last week.
“The NFL Rookie Premiere is our Super Bowl,” said Jason Howarth, vice president of marketing for Panini America, Inc. “We really get to meet the rookies and get to know them, and how we can partner with them.” Howarth wasn’t joking. Rookies such as Johnny Manziel, Tajh Boyd and Teddy Bridgewater were in and out of the Panini Inc. room, signing cards and other memorabilia.
Rookies drive the category. Everyone wants players’ rookie cards. It is what drives value in the industry, and Panini doesn’t just stop at cards. The market and offerings are amazing. Sure, they provide your typical pack of cards, but they also provide higher end offerings such as Panini National Treasures. These collector boxes can go for upward of $500. Panini offers cards with pieces of game jerseys sewn in. The company also cuts up pylons and sells pieces of it to collectors. Panini is changing the market and creating lasting memories and, perhaps, lasting values.
Panini also looks for new ways to engage with rookies. On Saturday at the rookie photo shoot (the first time these players are photographed in their official game uniforms), Panini let the rookies take control of its Twitter feed with over 150,000 followers.
It’s not just the big names Panini seeks. Howarth said that a player he enjoyed working with last year was former Michigan star Denard Robinson. Robinson was not a high draft pick, but he matched the brand. Howarth said Robinson attended the Pop Warner Super Bowl with Panini, and his fun-loving personality was perfect for the kids playing in the games. Memorabilia companies aren’t just providing memories through the cards and collectibles, Panini is providing experiences.
Michael Colangelo is Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute.