NBA Names Panini as Exclusive Trading Card Licensee

The National Basketball Association has announced plans to go with one company as its exclusive trading card licensee for next season, but who they have selected will likely surprise many within the sports card hobby.

The league has signed a multi-year, exclusive licensing agreement with The Panini Group, known best as a publisher of sticker products and comic books overseas. The company, headquartered in Modena, Italy, will create a new subsidiary known as Panini America to handle its domestic trading card business.

Panini will produce league-licensed trading cards, stickers and sticker albums beginning with the 2009-10 NBA season. Together with the league, Panini said it will provide significant retail marketing and promotional support, including TV, print and online initiatives and in-store events for both hobby shops and mass-market retailers.

The league said one of its primary reasons for choosing Panini was the desire to grow the NBA’s collectible business overseas as well as in the U.S. “Over the years, NBA trading cards have served as an important source to connect fans of all ages with our game,” said Sal LaRocca, executive VP of the NBA’s global merchandising group.

“As we look to the future of our trading card business, there is a general consensus, including with our current partners, Topps and Upper Deck, that moving forward with an exclusive partner is the best way for us to energize the category on a worldwide basis. Panini’s position as the leading global company in this industry aligns best with our global growth strategy. Our exclusive partnership with Panini provides us with the best opportunity to re-create the trading card market by developing the key retail channels with a variety of products and promotions geared toward all consumer segments.”

Panini has had licensing arrangements with the NBA in the past, producing league-licensed sticker products overseas from 1988-96. Currently, Panini distributes collectible products in North America for properties such as Disney’s Hannah Montana and High School Musical, and Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter, as well as with the UEFA Euro 2008 and FIFA World Cup sporting events.

“The NBA provides Panini with an international platform to expand the global trading card and collectibles markets by building our business in the U.S. and attracting new collectors around the world,” said Peter Warsop, Panini Group licensing director. A statement on the Panini website states the company will create “a program of activity which will focus attention on the NBA brand through an unprecedented marketing campaign which will recreate the domestic trading card market.”

While it had been rumored for several months that the league was considering a move to an exclusive licensing agreement for trading cards, the choice of a company with no track record in the domestic trading card business is likely to surprise many within the hobby. Upper Deck has been an NBA licensee since the 1991-92 season. Topps has been a licensee since 1992-93, but also produced NBA cards in 1957, and continuously from 1969-82.

Topps issued a statement saying it could not justify the investment required to become the league’s exclusive card licensee.

“We’ve had a strong relationship with the NBA, but the deal they made with Panini does not make economic sense for Topps,” the statement said. “It may be great for the NBA, but the value wasn’t there for us and we’ve decided to invest elsewhere for the time being. We wish our colleagues at the NBA well and look forward to working with them in the future.”

Upper Deck said the decision will not affect its remaining NBA products for this season.

“While Upper Deck is disappointed with the NBA’s decision to grant exclusive trading card rights to a new licensee, they are reinforcing their commitment to producing the highest quality, most innovative and value-rich basketball products,” said Upper Deck’s VP of Sports, Bernd Becker. “Our focus remains on delivering great products to the loyal collectors and consumers who have passionately supported Upper Deck basketball products. We are confident the remaining 2008-09 NBA sets will be some of the best our industry has ever seen.”

CLICK HERE to read more on this story, including comments from the NBA’s Lisa Goldberg.

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