The game is far from over, but Panini America picked up a big first down in its battle with the National Football League Players Inc. over the weekend.
Arbitrator J. Brian Casey denied attempts by the marketing arm of the NFL Players Association to force Panini to immediately stop producing cards of its players. That keeps the door open for Panini to–at least for now– continue producing cards under the terms of its current contract that runs through February 2026.
A similar request by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) was shut down by an arbitrator last week. Like the NFLPA, WWE is also seeking to terminate it deal with Panini and move its business to Fanatics over claims that Panini didn’t live up to all of the terms in the contract. Panini says it’s not only done so, but grown both businesses during its time as an exclusive manufacturer.
Panini recently sued WWE over the issue.
The arbitrator’s decision in the NFLPI case should be a relief to a hobby ecosystem used to seeing a flow of in-season football card products that suddenly seemed in jeopardy just as the season kicked off.
Among other claims, NFLPI said the departure of numerous Panini employees is part of the reason why it felt the case met the standards of “immediate and irreparable damage.”. Panini stated that only two of the employees involved with the NFL card license left the company.
Casey wrote that there is “no evidence that the loss of the Panini employees has caused any degradation in quality or interruption in the proper production and marketing of trading cards as of today.”
In a statement provided to SC Daily, Stuart Singer of Boies Schiller Flexner, the law firm representing Panini told us, “Panini is pleased that the NFLPI’s request for emergency relief has been denied. Panini will move forward with the production and sale of fully licensed NFL player trading cards pursuant to the license agreement it holds, which it has and will continue to outperform in all aspects. The decision to deny the NFLPI’s emergency relief, just like the WWE’s denial last week, is an important win for Panini’s mass retail partners, hobby stores, case breakers and most importantly, trading card fans.”
Late in the summer, the NFLPA sent a letter to agents indicating it was “terminating” its deal with Panini and had a deal in place with Fanatics, a move that Panini says came as a surprise.
Panini’s football license was scheduled to run into 2026. “This means that even if Fanatics is the official Licensee of the NFLPI, it will only be able to produce so called ‘pajama cards’, without showing a player’s team uniform or NFL logo,” Casey wrote.
“On the facts presently before me, I find there is no risk of immediate and irreparable loss or damage,” he continued. “It should be made clear however that should any of these factors change, NFLPI may file a new request for interim relief.
Casey said it wasn’t his role to decide whether the NFLPI/Panini license had been violated. “My job is to ascertain whether ‘immediate and irreparable loss or damage’ will result, in fact, in the absence of emergency relief.”
The answer for now, was no. Collectors and dealers can expect to see new Panini football releases continue to arrive on the market as the NFL season pushes onward.
The decision doesn’t mean the NFLPA has lost just yet. The case will continue to move forward in commercial arbitration, with Panini contesting the NFLPA’s move to void its agreement while continuing to make and distribute 2023 cards featuring NFL players.
According to filings at the U.S. Labor Department, Panini paid over $27 million to the NFLPA for the players’ portion of its football card license in 2021.
The NFLPA hasn’t commented publicly on why it wanted to ditch Panini more than two years before the license is scheduled to expire. Some reports indicated it was because of certain management changes inside Panini that may have offered a loophole for the players union’s marketing group to claim it could escape the deal and push the fast forward button on its planned move to Fanatics in 2026. There has been no public indication that the NFL itself has made an effort to end its exclusive trading card deal with Panini, a pact that allows Panini to utilize league and team logos and names.
Panini has been battling Fanatics on multiple legal fronts over the past few months, including an antitrust suit filed in August that accused Fanatics of “anticompetitive conduct.” Fanatics countersued and then filed to have the antitrust case dismissed. Last April, Panini also sued Fanatics in Texas state court over the departure of over three dozen employees, who suddenly bolted for Fanatics earlier this year. A temporary restraining order was agreed to in that case with a trial currently set for April of next year.