Panini America, the company that currently has league and players union licenses to produce NBA and NFL trading cards, has filed an antitrust lawsuit against Fanatics, alleging it has "created an entirely new monopoly spanning multiple leagues and multiple players associations" in the industry.
Panini alleges that Fanatics engaged in "calculated, intentional, anticompetitive conduct" by securing long-term, exclusive licensing deals with leagues and players associations, according to the lawsuit. Panini also claims Fanatics signed rookie NFL and NBA players to exclusive deals, disseminated "false, derogatory statements" about Panini and poached its employees in an effort to create "insurmountable barriers to entry" in the trading card business.
"Panini's lawsuit is a baseless last-gasp, flailing effort by a company that has lost touch with its consumers, is failing in the marketplace and has tried unsuccessfully for years to sell itself," Fanatics said as part of a statement to ESPN. "Panini is trying to blame Fanatics for its own inability to keep pace with what players, fans, and even its own employees want."
Fanatics is preparing to countersue.
To make fully licensed trading cards -- featuring the name, image and likenesses of players, as well as team and league logos -- a manufacturer needs to procure licenses with both the players union and the league itself.
Panini America has been the exclusive licensee of the NBA since the 2009-10 season, and of the NFL since 2016. Panini's union deals with the NBA and NFL expire in 2025 and '26, respectively.
Fanatics has a 20-year deal in place with the NFL Players Association starting in 2026. That year, it also will become the exclusive licensee of NBA cards, via deals in place with its league and union. Fanatics also signed deals with MLB and its players association in August 2021 to become the exclusive licensee of its cards at the end of 2022, then acquired Topps in January of that year.
"Panini was not given an opportunity to bid or otherwise compete for the licenses Fanatics acquired," the company said in the lawsuit. "Panini only learned about Fanatics' exclusive agreements after they were consummated, through reading about them in the media.
"By combining long-term exclusive licenses for every major U.S. Professional Sports League and their respective player associations, Fanatics positioned itself to drive Panini and other potential competitors out of the market, and erected barriers to entry blocking their return."
Panini also alleges that Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin -- the former part-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils -- "approached Panini in May 2023 to threaten that Fanatics would no longer supply Panini with any jerseys for Panini to offer to consumers as elements of its trading cards" and "would not stop its pressure campaign against Panini and continue to sign exclusive deals with players."
A Fanatics source disputed that characterization to ESPN, saying it's been engaged in conversations with Panini over the last year to transfer the rights it had won earlier than the expiration of the NBA and NFL deals.
Also in the lawsuit, Panini alleged that Fanatics has been "raiding" its employees and "induced some employees to come to Fanatics by threatening them with not working in the industry ever again once Panini's licenses expired unless those employees committed immediately to join Fanatics." Panini also claimed Fanatics told players, agents, players associations and employees that Panini would be "incapable of performing for them, will be out of business soon and lacks the money to pay them."
"Fanatics' media releases try to ignore its industry-wide, decades-long exclusive dealing arrangements that lock-out competitors for a generation of collectors," David Boies, lead counsel of Boies Schiller Flexner, the law firm representing Panini, said in a statement to ESPN. "It won't be so easy for Fanatics to avoid the merits of the case against it before a judge and jury."
A Fanatics source said the company believes it won its deals "fair and square, one at a time" while focusing with leagues and players associations on the need to evolve to a more direct-to-consumer model.
"Our perspective is all the claims are baseless; we do what's in the best interest of the collector, the hobby, the industry long term," the source said.