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WWE (NYSE: WWE) and The Panini Group announced a multi-year deal yesterday that will make the officially licensed collectibles company the exclusive trading card and collectible sticker partner of the sports entertainment company come Q1 2022. A source familiar with the deal tells JohnWallStreet the low eight-figure pact is worth more than three times the average annual value of WWE’s expiring agreement with Topps. The price increase is indicative of a red-hot trading card market and the leverage WWE held in negotiations. But its decision to leave Topps, a longtime partner, for what is believed to be a short-term deal with Panini is reflective of the rapidly evolving business. Dibbs CEO and co-founder Evan Vandenberg said, “The American sports trading card market will essentially be in Fanatics’ hands in five years.” That leaves Panini (which maintains a presence in more than 120 markets) and Topps (decidedly more U.S.-focused) to adapt and battle it out for “global sports and entertainment IP like F1, soccer, esports and other rapidly growing trading card categories.”
JWS’ Take: Topps and Panini have long been atop the trading card food chain, but that has changed over the last few months with the emergence of Fanatics Trading Cards. The company, which recently raised $350 million at a $10.4 billion valuation, quickly made a splash, signing long-term, exclusive deals with the NFLPA (as of 2026), NBA (as of 2026), NBPA (as of 2025), MLB (as of 2026) and MLBPA (as of 2023). The company’s willingness to allow these entities to participate in a more significant way (see: equity stakes) was undoubtedly a factor in their leaving legacy partners for the upstart company. On Monday, the NHL and NHLPA announced a long-term renewal with Upper Deck.
Fanatics’ grand entrance into the marketplace was a contributing factor in the rights increase WWE received. The company has not been shy about spending on official licenses and resetting rights holder expectations in the process. The rise of NFTs, which has provided a lift to the entire collectibles business, also contributed to WWE’s ability to cash in.
WWE had leverage in the most recent round of negotiations, too. Topps did not want to lose another property after MLB and the MLBPA announced they would be ending long-standing relationships with the company. And Panini was seemingly in need of adding a proven product after the NFLPA, NBA and NBPA announced their intention to join Fanatics. For the record, Panini says it never had an opportunity to make an offer to retain any those licenses.
It is reasonable to wonder how the increased cost of the WWE license will affect business economics. But Panini America CEO Mark Warsop said: “Panini was never aware of any previous license costs; we pitched for the WWE rights based on what we know we are capable of doing within the market, with our go-to-market strategy and our best-in-class brands. We viewed the value of the WWE rights on their own merit and what we can deliver from a global perspective.”
Fanatics does not have card manufacturing or distribution capabilities currently in place. And WWE did not want their fans to be without a card product for the next year or two while the upstart company installs necessary infrastructure. So, a deal between the two was never going to be a reality this time around (even though WWE holds the company in high regard). But the short-term nature of the newly signed partnership with Panini gives WWE the ability to reassess the marketplace once Fanatics has its card business up and running.
Panini was an aggressive bidder. But that is not the only reason WWE left Topps. The sports entertainment promotion believes Panini is the better-positioned of the two moving forward. The company maintains a stranglehold on international soccer rights and has the rights to a comparable global property in the UFC, one it has proven capable of cultivating. “We’re fortunate that the value of the WWE brand and our fan base allowed us to find the global partner that will help us grow in the category,” said Scott Zanghellini, SVP of revenue strategy and development at WWE.
There’s evidence of plenty of recent growth in the trading card market abroad. Vandenberg pointed out sales on eBay “grew by 162% in the past year in non-U.S. countries like Australia, China, Canada and the EU, with soccer sales alone growing 1,586%.”
After losing the MLB, MLBPA and WWE licenses, and the prospect of a SPAC merger with Mudrick II sunk, Topps sees its future in the card business in doubt (they still have a robust candy business and have talked about NFTs and blockchain being a growth accelerator for the company). Come 2026, the company will no longer hold the rights to any of the major U.S. sports leagues.
Topps declined to comment on how it plans to pivot the business.
It remains to be seen if Fanatics will acquire a company with manufacturing and distribution capabilities or if it will look to build the functionality from within. But with a sale seemingly among the possible paths forward for Topps, there may be an opportunity for Fanatics to acquire the company’s infrastructure on the cheap. Fanatics declined to comment on that possibility.