The beginnings of Kobe Bryant‘s relationship with Panini started when he was just a kid. Growing up in Italy, he wanted to be featured on their trading cards one day. He remembers going into card shops, finding rookie cards of Michael Jordan, and just being blown away. Bryant says he never truly expected to have his own trading card collection, but now thanks to a partnership with Panini, his dream is coming true.
Earlier today in a conference call, the NBA and the Panini Group announced a multi-year extension to their partnership, which will allow Panini to continue to be the exclusive worldwide trading card provider of the NBA. It was also announced they’ll be releasing what’s dubbed as the “Kobe Anthology,” a fantastic look at Bryant’s basketball career – from high school to his present status with the Lakers – this year. The 200-card set will replay his biggest moments, and work as a timeline through his playing days.
“The kids particularly enjoy it because they get to make fun of daddy’s afro and all that other good stuff,” says Bryant of his own children.
Within every box released from Panini this season, a free packet of the “Kobe Anthology” will be inside. The idea behind this is if you’re able to get your hands on each release throughout the life of the NBA season, you’ll also complete the entire set of the “Kobe Anthology.”
Bryant says he was attracted to Panini because they were expanding their brand in the U.S. He wanted to help bring this brand to the States. He’s admittedly always enjoyed being on the cutting edge, and getting involved in products on the verge of something new and outside of the box. He has that now with Panini and the “Kobe Anthology.”
And while he knows the current generation grows up with more technology and differing interests than he did as a youngster, he still wants to bring back the “cool” factor that trading cards used to have. He expects Panini will be ahead of the trends and will find ways to, in his words, “reinvent the game.”
“It’s just flat-out cool,” says Bryant. “As a kid, you always wanted to be featured on trading cards, and things of that nature, and here we are.”
Panini may be a European-based company, but they have multiple distribution and opportunities worldwide. In just the last few years, they became involved in all four major American sports, despite not having much of an American influence before 2009. Sal LaRocca, the Executive Vice President of the Global Merchandising Group for the NBA, said earlier today in the conference call that this worldwide strategy directly correlates to what the NBA wants to do with their merchandising.
“Trading cards have historically played a significant role for us, and I would imagine the same for all of the other sports leagues,” LaRocca says. “It certainly gives kids and adult collectors as well, but primarily kids, an opportunity to interact with the sport in a way that they’re able to get information about players, and now that the trading card business has evolved, other things have become a part of a trading card pack. It’s been a core part of our merchandising business for the greater part of the last 20 years.”
As Mark Warsop, the CEO of Panini America, says, playing cards are often young fans’ first venture into a sport, and while the industry changed as technology changed, the impact is still there. The sides plan on incorporating Twitter into cards, perhaps by having players sign with their Twitter handles. There have also been cards released with HD screens. And Bryant himself doesn’t believe the doomsday view some have of the industry. He believes having a physical card, something you can hold, look at, read, and pass among your friends is still attractive to young kids.
Bryant’s amazing global popularity was what originally attracted Panini to him, and Warsop says they plan on the future Hall of Famer being a major part of their brand for many years to come.
As for fans of Kobe Bryant, they won’t be disappointed by the new set releasing this year. Bryant’s kids certainly aren’t. They laughed about his afro, and also about the big goatee he’s sported at times throughout his career.
“I tell them the goatee is the one thing I can grow back,” Bryant says. “The afro I can’t grow back.”