Ever since Michael Rubin purchased Fanatics in the early 2010s, the company has become a prevalent part of the sports retail scene on a variety of levels.
The brand operates online stores for MLB, the NBA, the NFL, the NHL, and other prominent sports leagues in the United States, and their ads can frequently be seen in the immediate moments after a team wins the NBA Finals, the Super Bowl, or the World Series.
In less than 10 years, Fanatics became the go-to spot for any sports fan looking to represent their favorite teams or players on gamedays, fight nights, and everything in between.
Now, as Fanatics continues its rapid growth, the sports juggernaut is extending its reach into a new venture that gained loads of steam throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: sports cards.
According to numerous reports, first by the Wall Street Journal and later by major outlets like ESPN, Fanatics shook up the card collecting scene by landing deals with unions representing MLB, the NBA, and the NFL for control of each sport’s trading card licenses.
The agreements end a run between Topps and MLB for baseball cards that lasted more than 70 years, a partnership between Panini and the NBA for basketball cards, and Panini’s tenure with the NFL for football cards. Each of Panini’s deals with the NBA and NFL started in 2009.
The MLBPA’s new deal with Fanatics reportedly begins in 2023, while the agreement with MLB itself would begin in 2026. The NBPA’s contract would reportedly begin in 2025, and the NFLPA’s would start in 2026.
Per a memo from MLBPA executive director Tony Clark that was obtained from the Wall Street Journal, the MLBPA’s deal is “more than 10 times bigger than any deal the union has ever struck.”
“All three unions—the MLBPA, NBPA and NFLPA—will have stakes in the entity that will now have control of the most lucrative sports trading card assets in the country,” the Wall Street Journal wrote.
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the NFLPA’s deal will last 20 years. Without a separate deal with the NFL itself, however, Fanatics would only be allowed to use player likenesses, rather than team logos.
Regardless of how the situation plays out, Fanatics’ insertion into the hobby will have major implications on card collecting as a whole.
Those who tried to buy boxes of cards throughout the pandemic understand how much the sports card industry has grown since March of 2020, with prices skyrocketing as product availability continued to decrease.
Retailers like Target were forced to halt sports card purchases in stores due to an added volume of loitering customers and a subsequent increase in violence, spearheaded by a violent sports card-related attack at a Target in Wisconsin.
It seemed like every sports fan wanted in on the hype surrounding sports cards.
Now, as the hobby transitions to more online sales in a new, post-pandemic world, collectors will have to adjust to the impacts of the Fanatics news, as well.
Collectors already enjoy purchasing boxes and letting them “marinate” in storage, with the added time after a product’s release increasing value in some cases.
If those same collectors know that high-end MLB, NBA, or NFL products from Panini or Topps will no longer be on shelves in any form in a few years, they may be more inclined to buy and hold until new deals start in the mid-2020s.
On the flip side, could Panini and Topps maximize their output now that each company has an end date in mind, flooding the market with a slew of products before they eventually lose their major stakes in the business?
Sports card collectors consistently worry about the return of a “junk wax era,” which almost killed the hobby in the 1980s and 1990s. Panini already maximized its retail debut of the popular “Select” brand in 2021, leading to complaints from collectors about the influx of cards for one of the most popular releases of the year.
But, in this case, Panini and Topps wouldn’t have much to lose if they increase the supply over the next few years, and Fanatics would seemingly be the only company left to deal with the impacts of the former two entities’ decisions.
To prevent that, could Fanatics make a play on Panini or Topps to keep them in the fold, a la Panini’s purchase of the Donruss brand back in 2009?
Fanatics is clearing willing to invest the money to enter the sports card industry in a big way, and bringing in the leaders that led the hobby to this peak could be the move in the coming years.
A play like that could help maintain the stability of the hobby from a production standpoint, while also ensuring a smooth transition when Fanatics eventually takes over these major licenses around the same time.
It’s an unprecedented and unpredictable situation, one that could change drastically in a matter of weeks, months, or years.
But, if the COVID-19 pandemic is any indication, sports card collecting is a hobby that’s naturally subject to loads of changes in a short amount of time.
It’s just a matter of how collectors and, in this case, companies adapt to the situation.