Commerce / Commercialisation / Marketing / Merchandise

World Cup Watching

The business of football stickers - where does all the money go?

Professor Simon Chadwick

Posted: June 5, 2018

For many football fans, the World Cup is already being played out in shopping malls and stores across the globe. The mysteries and uncertainties of football’s greatest mega-event always start ahead of time, with the release of player card sets that normally mark impending tournaments.

For those unfamiliar with such sets, they are part and parcel of football’s fabric – a socio-cultural phenomenon that has prevailed for decades in many countries..

The sets can typically be bought from supermarkets and news kiosks, and come in a sealed packet. Once opened, the packs reveal a small collection of player cards that can either be inserted into an album or else traded with another collector. In most cases, a complete set consists of hundreds of cards. Assembling a full set can therefore be a costly business.

For the purposes of researching this piece, I (honestly) thought it best that I should buy several packs. This was a smart move; out of my first pack came Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, one of the world’s most potent strikers. However, I was somewhat perturbed to discover that there are two different types of card set.

The second pack, adorned with the moniker ‘Adrenalyn XL’, carried bigger cards (a little like those in a Pokemon deck), of a better quality, and more expensive. Peru’s Pedro Gallese was hardly the top-draw player I had in mind when I perused, in distinctly underwhelming fashion, this pack. Yet for many people, the uncertain prospects of such mysterious, unopened packs of cards remain something of an obsession.

Freud predictably theorised that collecting such items is correlated with sexual deficiency although as a boy, when I was an avid collector, player cards were a rite of passage – a sign of one’s growing appreciation for the beautiful game. Nowadays, football marketers see the cards as a cognitive and behavioural exercise in fan engagement – draw them in and keep them coming.

Yet such engagement is not simply for the love of the game; indeed as I flicked through my recently acquired cards, it struck me how sophisticated the economic and financial infrastructure of collecting cards has now become. And this is where the mystery of player card collecting begins to deepen.

In one of the current World Cup sets there are 682 cards, which an academic in Great Britain has calculated will actually require one to buy 967 packs (or 4,832 cards) at a total cost of more than £770. Some contend this cost can be reduced by trading with other collectors, something that online exchanges have breathed life into. However, notwithstanding the secondary trading markets that have emerged over the last decade, collecting player card sets is now a considerable financial undertaking.

True, the World Cup sets (which are produced by Italy’s Panini Group) are officially licensed products that carry the tournament logo, which adds authenticity to them. However, with matters of austerity and economic inequality pressing in many countries across the world, the cost of football fans indulging in their card collecting passion clearly implies that there are likely to be significant winners and losers in the game.

And this is when the mystery really begins to bite. Trying to understand who the winners and losers are is very difficult, although it seems safe to assume that FIFA and Panini are among the former rather than the latter. However, such an assumption is difficult to prove, as FIFA appears to stringently guard the privacy of its partners; while Panini is a private company, which means its accounts are not readily accessible.

This has led to conjecture about the precise nature of relations between the two organisations, especially the money involved. In an age when most of us leave significant digital trails, there is little on either of their websites to provide any meaningful detail about their relationship. As for social media, it is perhaps telling that Panini’s Group Licensing Director has tweeted a mere sixty-four times in eight years, although he does celebrate the company finalising licensing agreements for this year’s World Cup finals.

There are some figures in the public domain that provide a sense of the commerce behind the cards. In 2009, Panini is reported to have agreed a US$1 million with FIFA for the subsequent six-years. Following the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Italian media carried stories that the tournament had resulted in a bumper year for Panini. With card licensing deals in place across 125 countries, it was noted that  the company increased turnover from €209 million in 2013 to €328.6 million following the tournament (though it is unclear how much of this was due to card sales).

Observers have therefore been left to speculate on and extrapolate about the mysterious world of player cards. One of the most authoritative analyses appeared earlier this year via the Cardzreview web site, ‘the ultimate sticker and cards resource’. Cardzreview tries to piece together the evidence on how FIFA and Panini set-up their deal and what it is worth. However, trying to provide definitive insights apparently proved difficult as these details are carefully hidden inside FIFA’s official accounts.

Still, one of the headline findings is that Panini normally produces around 1.5 billion packs of cards for the World Cup. Using the British experience as a guide, this suggests a large revenue windfall of more than £1billion could be heading to Italy as the year progresses. It is surely no mystery therefore that FIFA is unlikely to have sold licensing rights to Panini for bargain basement prices.

Some of Panini’s rivals complain that FIFA and Panini have created a monopoly, indeed Topps (another card producer) has even taken the matter to court in Italy. However, whilst the likes of Topps cast worried eyes across their accounts, it is the fans and collectors of the world who are at the sharp end of football’s great card collecting mystery. Seduced by the glamour and excitement of the world’s biggest sporting event, yet with little choice in the cards they can buy nor in how they buy them. The ultimate effects of which are as economically indiscriminate as the contents of the card packets they indulge in buying.




About Professor Simon Chadwick

Simon is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University in Manchester (UK), where he is also a Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Founding Co-Director of the China Soccer Observatory and a Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham (UK). He has worked in football across the world, for various organisations including companies, federations, and governments. He tweets via @Prof_Chadwick