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The trading card industry has been resurrected from a doomed fate over the last two years.

As COVID-19 began to rage around the planet, in a wave right behind came the rebirth of the once massive trading card industry. In short order, retail outlets like Target and Walmart began rolling out expanded sections to cater to the crowd.

Traffic picked up in various small hobby shops around the nation, as well as on eBay. With an increase in interest came the normal increase in value of new and existing cards.

At that same time, a new avenue for collectibles was growing in popularity: Non-Fungible Tokens. As companies, sports leagues and entrepreneurs began to jump on the train, trading card companies did as well.

Panini America, a branch of the Italian card company dating back to 1961, jumped into the land of NFTs with both feet. Recently, Jason Howarth, VP of marketing for Panini America, joined Innovation Tech Talks for an in-depth chat about the moves Panini has made.

Following are excerpts from that interview. Follow the QR code to listen to the full interview as well. youtu.be/JJB8l-NMN6Q

Innovation & Tech Today: What would you say the state of collecting cards is right now?

Jason Howarth: I’d be lying, but the absolute truth is, I mean, you’d expect me to say this, but the absolute truth is that the trading card category has never been healthier than it is right now, both at the hobby shop level, at the mass retail level with retailers like Target and Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods and so on. And then in the online space. And so across all sports. So great strength in the NBA and the NFL, great strength with UFC and the growth that we’ve seen there in the last year, NASCAR, you name it. And the power of our brands, whether that be our Prizm brand, which is just an absolute monster in the trading card space globally, we do that product across all sports.

I&T Today: So Jason, we know NFTs are here. They’re everywhere. You guys were way early. You saw an opportunity with the blockchain. You knew that there was something here. It’s perfect for collectibles because you have the unique serial number and you have this… Were you guys the first and did you know it would be as big as… I mean, I don’t even think it’s gotten there yet. I think it’s still getting there. What were your internal discussions like?

JH: So as I mentioned earlier, we started thinking about blockchain in 2018. And when we started thinking about it and then fast forward to 2020 when we launched our private blockchain platform on our website at paniniamerica.net in January of 2020, we started thinking about, “Okay, how do we engage the consumer? How do we help them understand blockchain? And what are the steps that we need to do to get them to understand that?” All of the steps were not things we really liked. It was like, “Okay, we have to go tell them to get a crypto wallet. Then we have to go tell them to buy a cryptocurrency. But we can’t tell them which one to buy.” Then they’ve got to figure out all that stuff. And now they’re finally ready to buy one of our products. I’m like, “No, no, no, we need to get paths to buy the product.”

So we decided that we would, on our blockchain platform, introduce that to consumers where they could buy in U.S. currency. So even today, you can still buy our NFTs on our blockchain platform at paniniamerica.net in US currency. In the next six weeks, we will be starting to accept forms of cryptocurrency as another form of payment.

But when we launched it in January of 2020, no one was talking about the non-fungible token part of the blockchain, NFTs. We were like, “Okay, that’s just the engine that makes the train run down the track of blockchain. That’s just what you need to have to live on the blockchain and be able to carry that and form additional chains and create this history around that asset.” … And to introduce it, we launched 100 card set of the best athletes across all sports. And yes, we were the first to do it, in January of 2020, but we launched it with the best athletes in 100 across all sports and we tied it to a physical card.

So consumers and collectors understood the value of the physical card. When you have an autographed Kobe Bryant or Ja Morant or you name it in the product as a physical card, you know what the value of that card is from a physical point of view. You might not fully understand what the value is of the digital asset that’s tied to it. But at least you understand that there’s a value and now there’s a premium to it. So that’s how we went through and started to explain and educate the consumer. And as we started to progress in the platform, we started selling just purely NFT assets or purely blockchain assets, no physical card tied to it. It was just a digital asset that looked like the physical card.

I&T Today: Yeah. It almost squeezes out the average collection.

JH: Exactly. And so we’ve always been a believer that we wanted to replicate the physical experience that we talked about earlier of sharing that joy of opening up a pack and that experience of what’s inside and the reveal of the card and all those other things. And so we weren’t able to do that on the individual card side of it. And then in July of 2021, we launched the pack format, starting with the NBA. And it really replicated the physical experience where you open up the pack of cards on the site, and you’ve got three to five cards that are there and you touch it and it flips over. But we launched in July of 2021 with the NBA packs. And we followed that up with Major League Baseball Players Association, and then followed that up with UFC, then launched the NFL packs during the season and we just launched the French soccer league on our site as well. And then we’ll be rolling into FIFA World Cup NFTs here in the next few months as well. And that cadence continues to build because they’re replicating the experiences and the physical card side. So we have so many different dynamic products that we can launch into the NFT space as a result.

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