The group says it has inked exclusive and non-exclusive licensing deals with more than 100 of the NCAA’s biggest athletic departments and more than 200 college athletes—the first comprehensive attempt to make trading cards, at scale, of active college stars. These agreements are now possible because of new NIL rights, and Fanatics is moving quickly to plant its flag.
The rights include more than half of the Power Five schools, including Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, Florida, Clemson, Kansas and Kentucky. The individual players named in the announcement include Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett and Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who played in this year’s national title game, and others across football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.
The cards will pair athlete marketing rights with the marks and logos of their schools; this setup is similar to pro sports, where card companies typically secure rights from both the leagues and the corresponding players union. Fanatics intends to unroll the products over the next few years, under the Topps banner, with yearly upkeep to secure rights from the newest crop of athletes.
“We view college as the next big league that is, frankly, largely undeveloped as it relates to trading cards,” Derek Eiler, executive vice president of Fanatics College, said in an interview.
Eiler declined to comment on financial terms of the deals, but did shed light on their structure. The schools with exclusive deals generally inked three- to five-year agreements, while the non-exclusive partnerships were shorter. The athlete contracts are generally year-by-year.
Fanatics Collectibles was launched last year, after Michael Rubin’s company quietly pried trading card licenses to the NBA, NBPA, MLB, MLBPA and NFLPA away from industry incumbents. The group raised money at a $10.4 billion valuation in September, then paid nearly $500 million to purchase Topps, whose business it had already upended.
The school deals, most of which were negotiated through Learfield-owned CLC, were led internally by Fanatics College, a division created in 2017 when Fanatics purchased boutique collegiate licensing company Fermata Partners from CAA. That group has spearheaded the Fanatics push into decade-long licensing deals at some of the NCAA’s biggest schools, and the group’s recent college jersey program.
Trading cards have seen resurgent growth in the past two years, part of a wider explosion of interest in sports collectibles. That happened alongside the introduction of NIL rights, which allow NCAA athletes to be paid to sign autographs, endorse products and lend their name and image to licensed products. It’s a highly fractured marketplace—nationwide programs, like this trading card endeavor, require many individual deals that vary by school, by athlete, by coach, and by state.
The trading cards will be both physical and digital, and will come in waves starting later this year, depending on when the Fanatics rights kick in. Products will be released first under the BowmanU brand, and then under the Topps brand starting next year.
Fanatics plans to bring its speed and supply chain control—the same hallmarks of its core apparel business—to the trading cards as well.
“Topps has Topps Now, which is the digital platform, so if Oklahoma softball star Jocelyn Alo hits a home run and [Oklahoma] wins the Women’s College World Series in the next couple of days, we technically could go produce a card for her digitally and make it immediately available to consumers,” Eiler said.
Fanatics owns a majority of the trading card business, with some equity divided between other investors, such as Silver Lake and Endeavor, and rights-holders such as the leagues and players unions. In growing the Fanatics business, allowing partners to share in the company’s growth and strengthening their relationship for subsequent deals has been a part of Rubin’s business strategy. Equity is not part of the agreement for any schools or athletes as part of the college program, Eiler said.
The agreements could have some downstream benefits for Fanatics as well. The company plans to continue releasing college product for some of these players after they move on to the NFL, NBA or WNBA. An early relationship might also help Fanatics sign these athletes to more comprehensive exclusive memorabilia deals, which is a growing priority for the company.