So, I was about ready to hit send on this month’s HND column when the news broke. (Is it just me, or does big Hobby news always break the week after The NSCC?) The Wall Street Journal reported that Panini America had filed an antitrust lawsuit against Fanatics in Federal court. And in response, earlier this week, Fanatics countersued. As some of you know, my day job involves antitrust enforcement, and many of you wanted to know my take on the Panini lawsuit and Fanatics countersuit.
(Before I go any further, I should point out that, although this suit was not brought by, or otherwise involves my employer, the opinions I express in this column are mine, and mine alone, and are not those of the Federal Trade Commission.)
First, does Panini have a case? Probably not, but that may not be the purpose of this suit. As I mentioned last week during my appearance on Hobby Hotline, Panini’s strategy may not necessarily be to win – although I’m sure they’d have no problem with that – but to drag this case through the courts for years in the hopes that Fanatics would offer a settlement to Panini’s satisfaction. This strategy of “Sue & Settle” is rather common. The Panini Group, parent of Panini America, is a large enough company to keep this case rolling through the courts for years. But short of actually winning, what kind of settlement would Panini consider a win?
Panini America is about to lose three of their major licenses to Fanatics. After 2026, all they’ll have left is the UFC and NASCAR licenses and the various soccer licenses (FIFA, US Soccer, Premier League, Serie A, and La Liga, among others). Maybe they’re looking for a payday, and in that case, an offer to buy out the remainder of Panini’s NFL/NFLPA, NBA/NBPA, and WWE licenses at a rate higher than what Fanatics previously offered, or even purchasing Panini America outright, might be something Panini would accept. Ideally, Panini would like to be able to continue producing fully-licensed football and basketball cards after their current licenses expire in 2025 and 2026, respectively. Would Fanatics consider, as the price of ending a highly expensive antitrust lawsuit, granting Panini America a sublicense to produce a limited number of football, basketball, and even baseball cards per year? I’m sure collectors would love to see a second licensee in each sport.
Before I take up Fanatics’ countersuit, and boy is it a doozy, I’d like to answer a question that’s come up in the wake of the Panini antitrust suit. How is it that exclusive trading card licenses not in and of itself illegal? You’d think such arrangements, which, by definition, create monopolies, would be prohibited. They are not, and you can thank a Supreme Court case from around a dozen years ago for allowing such monopoly licenses.
Beginning with the 2002 season, the NFL entered a ten-year agreement with Reebok to outfit all 32 of its teams with uniforms and other game apparel. (Currently, this contract is with Nike.) Before this, each team contracted with their own outfitter, and if you watch an NFL game from the 90s and look closely, you’ll notice that each team is wearing uniforms from different suppliers (e.g. one team might be wearing jerseys from Adidas, while their opponent is wearing Russell Athletic. Puma, Starter, Nike, Champion, and others also supplied individual teams at this time). In addition, to supplying all 32 teams with game uniforms, the NFL-Reebok pact also included the exclusive license for all souvenir apparel, to include everything from T-shirts and replica jerseys to baseball hats.
American Needle produces novelty baseball hats and was one of many companies with a license to produce souvenir NFL hats. That is until the NFL-Reebok deal went into effect which cancelled American Needle’s NFL license. American Needle then sued the league under Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. The case reached the Supreme Court in 2010.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled in American Needle, Inc. v. National Football League, that while a professional sports league is composed of various teams that compete against each other on the playing field, and compete against other professional football leagues (The USFL actually won a 1986 antitrust suit against the NFL, but were only given $3.00 in damages), for other business purposes, such as licensing and marketing, the NFL is a single-entity that can choose to do business (or not do business) with whomever that want. Or, to put it another way, the NFL cannot be held in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, because, by definition, it cannot conspire against itself.
In the years following the NFL-Reebok pact, pro sports leagues figured out that potential licensees would be willing to pay a premium for the privilege of exclusivity. One of the first was the five-year $300 million exclusive license the NFL gave to EA Sports in 2004 for its Madden series of video games. Madden has been the only fully-licensed football video game ever since – much to the chagrin of football gamers. Shortly thereafter, the trading card industry got in on the act, with the NHL and NHLPA granting their exclusive licenses to Upper Deck. In 2009, despite not having a presence in the US, and having no experience making “American style” trading card sets, the NBA and its players gave their licenses to The Panini Group – which then led to their purchase of Donruss-Playoff and its renaming to Panini America. Finally in 2010, MLB (but not its players association) gave their trading card license to Topps. And here we are.
Earlier this week, Fanatics “countersued” Panini America. I use countersued in scare-quotes, because Fanatics’ suit is less an actual lawsuit, but a 101-page P.R. stunt disguised as a lawsuit. There aren’t any legal arguments for me to discuss because there aren’t any legal arguments being made. Expect it to be dismissed shortly.
I’m not going to list the contents of Fanatics’ complaint. It is a laundry list of everything bad Panini America, allegedly, has done over the past decade, and can been seen as a warning of what can happen when you give a company monopoly power. While some of the criticisms are on the nose, I find it ironic that this was coming from a company that seeks to monopolize every aspect in the trading card industry.
Let me let you in on some secrets on how monopolies operate, from someone who studies how businesses operate. Monopolies have no incentive to listen to you, the “consumer” or to give you what you want. (They’ll give you what you think you want, which is not the same thing.) Monopolies have no incentive to innovate or try anything new. Nor do they have any incentive to provide you decent customer service.
Just take a look at the monopolies that you probably deal with on a regular basis: The power company, the cable company, the DMV. Not exactly exemplars of customer service, huh? And when was the last truly groundbreaking thing any of these monopolies has done?
The annual Madden video game is, for all intents and purposes, the same game every year, with a few minor cosmetic changes and a roster update. All of Topps’ “core” baseball card products (e.g., Topps Baseball, Bowman Baseball, Heritage, Finest, Allen & Ginter’s, et al) have been unchanged for almost a decade. What was the last time The Hobby came up with anything new and original? Sapphire Chrome? Dutch Auctions? TacoFractors? Really?
If and when Fanatics achieves their ultimate goal of acquiring the exclusive MLB/MLBPA (which through their purchase of Topps, they now have), NFL/NFLPA (which starts in 2025), and NBA/NBPA (2026) licenses, I guarantee you, that many of the complaints Fanatics calls out Panini America for in their press release disguised as a lawsuit, will come right back at Fanatics. Fanatics WILL issue redemption cards, and those redemptions may take years before they get around to fulfilling them (if they get around to fulfilling them at all). Got a complaint or a question on your redemption? Call 1-800-FANATICS and prepare to hold for hours on end. Do you like Topps Baseball the way it is now (and has been for the last decade)? Well, I hope you like a 660-card base set, with the same slew of parallels, the same manufactured relics, and a bloated 100-card+ 1980s reprint insert every year, because that’s what you’ll be getting whether you like it or not!
One last thing, I promise, on the Fanatics “countersuit.” In reading the entire 101-page complaint, especially the tone of the complaint and the wording used, the less confidence I have that Fanatics is the company that should be trusted with these exclusive licenses. Read the complaint and ask yourself, “Is this the company we want as the exclusive trading card licensee?” I wonder if the leagues and player’s associations are starting to get cold feet?
And now onto the original subject of this month’s column, the recently concluded National Sports Collectors Convention – which smashed the gate record set in 1991. Much ink has already been spilled by others, so I’ll be brief. I will say that when the NSCC returns to the Stephens Center in 2025, I hope they have the air conditioning situation worked out. Thursday and Friday were both very hot and very humid inside and outside, and the record crowds didn’t exactly help much. Management did add a few fans and air blowers as the week went on, which made the convention floor somewhat tolerable.
Also, there needs to be a limit on the number of VIP/early admission passes. Every year, I get a Super VIP pass, which, to be fair, is limited to 1000 passes. But the number of regular VIP and non-VIP five-day passes (which also come with 30 minutes of early admission) is getting out of hand. I arrived at the Stephens Center at 2:00 pm on Wednesday and had to wait in line for over an hour just to get my Super VIP package. This is unacceptable. If everyone can be a “VIP,” than no one is.
I mentioned the NSCC returning to the Stephens Center in 2025 because, although the final balloting for the 2025-27 NSCCs was not announced, Rosemont was the only city that placed a bid for the 2025 and 2027 NSCCs. For 2026; however, there were multiple bids. The first was Atlanta, a city and region the NSCC hasn’t been to in a while. And while the ’92 and ’99 NSCCs were two of the worst attended, both the city and The Hobby have changed, and I think The ATL is more than worthy of hosting.
The second bid came from … Rosemont, Illinois. You read correctly, the Stephens Center is bidding for three straight NSCCs. I could be wrong, but I’ve always been led to believe that the NSCC couldn’t be in the same region, much less the same city, in back-to-back years. Anyway, as much as the NSCC loves Rosemont, and as much as Rosemont loves the NSCC, I hope it doesn’t go back there in 2026.
The third and final bid came from your favorite NSCC host and mine, Atlantic City. To say Atlantic City is a polarizing choice would be an understatement. And look, I get it. I’m originally from South Jersey, and even I don’t like going there. It’s hard to get to if you’re flying, and yes, it’s dangerous at night. But it is, realistically, the only city in the Northeastern United States that can feasibly host the NSCC. And besides, as Donald Shaw posted on … whatever Elon Musk is calling the website formerly known as Twitter this week, there are almost 50 million people living within 250 miles of Atlantic City, almost double than of any other potential NSCC city.
Perhaps anticipating the bad vibes, the Atlantic City bid is offering dealers up to $1000 towards their table fee if they choose Atlantic City in 2026. I never thought the NSCC would be big enough to offer the kind of subsides and corporate welfare that cities use to lure other big time events (e.g. Super Bowls, All-Star Games, Final Fours, et al), but I guess that’s how big the NSCC has become.
As I mentioned before, I was on Hobby Hotline last week where the prime topic was the Panini America antitrust lawsuit. Also, we had our annual live edition of Hotline from the NSCC stage. Both episodes should be up on your podcast app of choice.
Keep on rockin’ in the free world.