Panini betting big on universities, avoids player 'likeness' issue

PaniniPanini America, the world’s leading collectibles manufacturer, is undergoing an aggressive expansion into college athletics by agreeing to three sets of trading card deals with universities. And the payment arrangement to schools and players is designed to avoid the student-athlete likeness issues raised in the Ed O’Bannon case.

The manufacturer announced an agreement with Texas on Wednesday, following deals with Georgia, Kentucky and Miami and a separate agreement last week with 200 additional schools. Panini plans to feature collegiate athletes who went on to become professional stars with cards that include images of players in their collegiate and professional uniforms.

An obvious conflict is apparent at first glance: Schools again are profiting from student-athlete likenesses. The initial ruling in the Ed O’Bannon case included an injunction that allows ­– but does not mandate – NCAA schools to share with athletes any revenues generated from the use of their likenesses. While that ruling was specific to TV footage, a broad interpretation could have created problems for Panini. However, the manufacturer maneuvered around the issue.

The NCAA doesn’t prevent alumni from monetizing the rights to their likeness post-graduation, but its member schools still retain the rights to images of their student-athlete alumni that include school logos, names and uniforms. So as long as Robert Griffin III’s card features him in a Baylor uniform, the school owns the image and can sell it to Panini.

(Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE)
(Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE)

The Fields of Green spoke with Jason Howarth, VP of Marketing at Panini America about the deal’s implications and opportunities. “The way the process works is that the rights we have with the school are tied to utilizing the school logos and marks,” he said. “That means school insignia and mascots. The partnerships do not give us rights to players,” and Panini will not produce cards until athletes’ NCAA eligibility has expired.

Once out of the NCAA, players are compensated by Panini through players’ unions and autographs. The company already has exclusive agreements with the NFLPA (starting in 2016) and NBA as well as a partnership with the MLBPA.

“Two things come into play,” Howarth said. “First, we have our group player licensing rights through the NFLPA, NBA and MLBPA. Second, one of the key drivers once they come out of school is player autographs. We’ll go out and do a direct deal with that player.”

So players are compensated indirectly through their respective unions and directly for high-profile stars through autograph deals with Panini.

(Jeff Lewis/AP Images for NFL PLAYERS, Inc.)
(Jeff Lewis-AP Images for NFL PLAYERS, Inc.)

But what if a player doesn’t make it into the pros? Panini addressed this earlier with Baylor center Isiah Austin. Widely regarded as a first-round pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Austin discovered that he suffers from Marfan syndrome, a condition that ended any hopes of a professional career. However, Panini still struck an individual deal with Austin, and because Baylor is one of the 200 schools in the new Panini partnership, the company can now produce Isiah Austin trading cards.

The opportunities are limitless. Howarth predicted that with the university deals, Panini “can think of other players we will plan to incorporate into our collegiate products that we might not incorporate in our professional products.”

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