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NFLPA swaps Panini for Fanatics as trading card battle heats up

Players’ union takes up Fanatics deal early as Panini suffers latest blow.

22 August 2023 Ed Dixon

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  • Fanatics has partnerships with NFL, NBA and MLB
  • NFLPA pact was due to start in 2026
  • Panini filed antitrust lawsuit against Fanatics this month

The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) has terminated its trading card agreement with Panini in favour of starting its partnership with Fanatics early.

Digital sports platform Fanatics had struck a name, image and likeness (NIL) deal with the NFLPA in 2021 to produce National Football League (NFL) trading cards and other memorabilia. The 20-year tie-up hadn’t been due to kick in from 2026 but it will now begin effective immediately.

In a statement confirming the switch, the NFLPA said that the decision ‘has no impact on any individual players’ contractual agreement(s) with Panini’. The labour union also recommended that players with an existing Panini agreement fulfil their contractual commitments to the company.

Fanatics is betting big on trading cards as it looks to diversify beyond its core licensed sports merchandise business. At the start of 2022, the company confirmed its acquisition of trading card firm Topps in a deal reportedly worth US$500 million. As well as trading cards, Fanatics now has a presence in the likes of digital collectibles, events and, most recently, sports betting.

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Being jettisoned by the NFLPA is the latest setback for Panini, which has seen Fanatics land exclusive deals with the NFL, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB). Outside of the US, Panini still has a multi-year pact with English soccer’s Premier League.

The switch occurs amid an ongoing antitrust lawsuit filed by Panini against Fanatics earlier this month, alleging that its rival has ‘created an entirely new monopoly spanning multiple leagues and multiple players associations’ in the industry.

Panini alleges that Fanatics has engaged in ‘calculated, intentional, anticompetitive conduct’ by securing long-term, exclusive licensing deals with leagues and players associations, according to the lawsuit. The company also claims that Fanatics signed rookie NFL and NBA players to exclusive deals, disseminated ‘false, derogatory statements’ about Panini and nabbed its employees in an attempt to create ‘insurmountable barriers to entry’ in the trading card sector.

Fanatics, which is countersuing, has hit back, stating the lawsuit is a ‘baseless last-gasp, flailing effort by a company that has lost touch with its consumers, is failing in the marketplace and has tried unsuccessfully for years to sell itself’.

The lawsuit will rumble on but the NFLPA’s move to get going with Fanatics early is a major win for the Michael Rubin-led company and a big blow for Panini as it battles to remain relevant in the US market.

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