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'We Aren't Going Anywhere': Unpacking Caitlin Clark's Exclusive Trading Card Deal With Panini America

Panini America recently secured Caitlin Clark to an exclusive multi-year trading card deal.
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Panini America wanted to find the perfect female athlete to build around, and months after starting its pursuit, the trading card manufacturer announced an exclusive multi-year deal with Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark last week.

Already considered one of the most popular and exciting basketball players in the world, Clark is poised to become a major focus in the trading card and memorabilia industry after recently setting the record for most expensive women’s basketball card.

Previously a signer for Topps and Fanatics Collectibles, Clark’s deal gives Panini America full exclusivity for trading cards and memorabilia.

Much like recent excitement for key rookies like Victor Wembanyama and Connor Bedard, Clark’s Prizm WNBA cards are expected to be some of the most popular chases in the hobby.

SI Collects recently spoke with Jason Howarth, Panini America’s Senior Vice President of Marketing and Athlete Relations, about signing Clark, future products and why it was so important to add a major female athlete to its lineup.

Sports Illustrated: What are the general feelings around Panini right now after signing Clark to a multi-year deal?

Jason Howarth: For us, we’re always working with athletes — and I was saying this earlier — with Caitlin, when we started the process in terms of identifying her and wanting to work with her back in October, we looked at her as that transcendent athlete. That was at the beginning. That was before the season started for her, and obviously coming off of the tournament last year, our eyes were kind of focused on, ‘Hey, if we’re going to start to build out who that female athlete is and who we want to align ourselves with, how do we want to go about doing that?’

And we felt like she was the first person that came to mind and we wanted to kind of start to build that as our anchor, so we dove into it. We watched a lot of games this year and the excitement continued to grow for Caitlin everywhere she went. So we were excited to be able to announce it. We were holding it in our back pocket for a while and were just waiting for the right opportunity — but we wanted to make sure that we didn’t take away from what she was doing on the court. So we let her have that moment and do what she needed to do. And she’s still got some moments here at Iowa before she goes to the WNBA, so we felt like this was the perfect time to announce it.

SI: What was the process like from when you first identified her as a possible partner to the announcement?

JH: You know, every athlete is different. So it’s unique to that approach because you really have to cater it to the individual athlete, so there’s that part of it. But then working with our product development team to figure out, if we do this, where are we gonna go? How are we going to do this? What are your thoughts in terms of how to incorporate this into our product — are there other things that we can look at? You know, those are all elements that kind of fold into the conversation internally, and we’re figuring out to what level we want to go here.

For us, the opportunity to be able to partner with Caitlin for trading cards exclusively, including autographs as well as memorabilia, that was really compelling. It was funny because, up until last week, we didn’t know whether she was staying or going [to the WNBA] or what that meant and all of those things. But like I said, from the very beginning, we knew that she was that athlete that was kind of going to transcend the game, so we felt very strongly that she was the right play for us.

SI: How does the dynamic change for Panini if Clark stays at Iowa or leaves for the WNBA?

JH: I don’t think the process changes at all or doesn’t change too much. Again, we’re in this NIL space and the NIL space has only really existed for three years. When you want to change the dynamic, how do you go about doing that? What does that look like? How are you building products that cater to the NIL marketplace? So, we started to lean in on that side of it. Obviously, knowing we have the WNBA rights, it was a matter of is Caitlin coming out this year or she coming out next year? And obviously we had no idea what her decision was going to be. I think you could argue the level of excitement for the WNBA with her as the face is going to be super compelling. I know that the league is excited about it, I know she’s excited about it. You know, there’s lots of things on that side of it. So, I think you see what she’s done in basketball at the collegiate level — you know, lines out the door, people waiting all over the country to step into a gym.

There are a few players where I felt like I really needed to see this person play in an arena so that I can say I saw this person play. She’s one of those athletes. So you see that happening at the collegiate level and you see the ratings at the collegiate level that are absolutely bonkers. That’s going to transcend into her next move into the WNBA. We’re excited for that. We can’t wait for that moment. Like I said, she’s got a couple more things she wants to accomplish while she’s at Iowa over the next month and a half before she steps in the WNBA, and we’re rooting for her on that side.

SI: How big of a priority was it to add a major female athlete to Panini’s lineup?

JH: I think our first year producing a WNBA product was in 2020, so that’s when we started to step into that side. We’ve also got a great relationship with the United States Women’s National Team on the soccer side of things that is continuing to evolve and grow. For us, it’s always been something that’s been part of our DNA and we’ve been wanting to build on that. I think what’s interesting to us is you’re starting to see the shift in dynamic in the mainstream, where people are paying more attention to [women’s sports]. It’s a different time and we’re excited for what’s happening there.

We obviously have a number of plans that we can’t go into as it relates to building that base in the female athlete but we’re excited for that. We think there’s great opportunities there to kind of showcase them from a trading card perspective. I think the dynamic of trading cards is changing. I started with Panini in 2010, and in 2010 if you asked people what the demographic of a trading card collector was, it was a 45- to 55-year-old male. For us, there’s been an evolution of the trading card consumer and collectors are growing exponentially. It’s not just 45- to 55-year-old collectors. It’s not just 18- to 45-year-old males that are jumping into trading cards and doing case breaks. You see families at the National Sports Collectors Convention — the first NSCC that I went to did not feel that way.

So the dynamic of who is collecting cards has changed and evolved. I think there’s more collectors and more people wanting to consume products and more people that are intrigued about being able to collect the best athletes. That’s not gender specific. They want the best athletes, so from Panini’s focus, we need to make sure that we are bringing the best athletes to our trading card products.

SI: Collectors have had questions about Panini’s future since Fanatics has come into the trading card space. What does the Clark signing mean for Panini moving forward?

JH: I think people that collect cards kind of know the DNA of Panini and know that we’re not going anywhere. I think people recognize the heritage that Panini has had since 1961. We’re a global entity with 16 subsidiaries around the world. We’ve built the trading card category into what it is today. We’re not going anywhere. We’ve got the best brands in the category. From a global point of view, there is nothing more popular than our Prizm brand. Obviously National Treasures has its home and Flawless and you name it, you can go down the list. And then our inserts and everything else — I mean, those are Panini and are always going to be Panini and we’re not going anywhere.

I think we’re always gonna go after the athletes that make sense for us and fit within our products. I think if there are people that think that we weren’t going to do something, that we’re going to fall apart — if they feel like an announcement like this validates us, that’s on them. That’s their decision, but we aren’t going anywhere.

SI: How big of a win is it that Panini secured Clark to an exclusive trading card deal after she previously had cards with Topps and Fanatics?

JH: Look, we’ve always dealt with exclusives in this category, whether it was other manufacturers or our own. You know, Kobe Bryant was an exclusive athlete until he passed. We’ve got other exclusive athletes that are in the space. I think, obviously, Caitlin is one of those athletes that’s transcendent in the space. So when you have an athlete like her, you have an athlete like David Beckham, when you have an athlete to those levels, there’s a level of excitement that captures the attention beyond just the collector. There’s a reason why those athletes are special because they are hard to find.

We knew Caitlin was one that we felt confident about and we’re gonna lean in on so we’re excited about what we’re going to do with Caitlin. We can’t wait to see what happens in the next few weeks. She’s got some unfinished business and then we roll into the WNBA Draft on April 15.

SI: What do you think was so attractive about Panini’s pitch to Clark?

JH: I don’t want to give away our playbook, but what I’d say is we’ve got the most compelling brands and the biggest for each globally. She’s an athlete that transcends the game and we’re excited for what we can do with her on the court and off the court.

SI: WIthout giving away any spoilers, what can collectors expect from Clark’s first Panini cards?

JH: Obviously [Panini Instant] is a great conduit for capturing those moments and those opportunities as she makes this run. And then obviously we roll into the Caitlin Clark Collection, which will launch later this spring. That’ll be specific to her. You know, that’ll be super compelling, the team is excited about what we’re doing there. There’s going to be some unique elements that we’re incorporating into that product that kind of celebrates Caitlin off the court — you know, the first time she picked up a basketball. All those types of things really tell Caitlin’s story.

And then obviously you roll into our collegiate products, roll into our WNBA products. You can expect that we’re going to do all of those things and then we’ve got memorabilia with Caitlin too. So we’re excited about what that brings to the dynamic as well.

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