Panini Bets on Digital Football Cards

By Sports FOXBusiness

Dallas Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott (21) evades pressure from Cincinnati Bengals' Dre Kirkpatrick (27) and Vontaze Burfict (55) in as Elliott carries the ball in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Consumers are increasingly shifting their spending to the digital world, and sports cards aren’t immune. So trading-card companies like Panini America are looking to capitalize on digital sales with new apps that let fans buy and trade virtual cards.

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Panini America, the only brand licensed to print NFL cards, is accelerating its efforts to reach both casual and devout collectors on their smartphones. The company launched its football app, Gridiron, at Super Bowl 50. The latest version of the app, which completed its rollout for Android and Apple’s (AAPL) iOS this week, allows fans to message other users and access exclusive content, among other new features. Panini America hasn’t released the total number of downloads for Gridiron, but the mobile app rose to No. 1 on the iTunes sports chart earlier in the season.

The digital business is growing rather quickly, according to Panini American CEO Mark Warsop. Half of Gridiron’s users have never opened a physical trading-card pack. For card enthusiasts, the app offers a shot at rare finds, such as limited-edition autographed cards.

“We built the app to attract a variety of fans. We target casual fans, whether it be young or adult, but we also offer content for the more traditional trading-card collector looking for rarer cards,” Warsop told FOXBusiness.com. “We’re trying to make the experience so that you can get as deep into the collection as you want.”

Panini America, which competes with apps from Topps and others, developed unique technology called SwapBot that enables trading and bidding within Gridiron. The app can automatically seek the best deal on the Trade Pool, where fans list the cards they want to hawk. Gridiron also allows fans to manual select an offer or complete one-on-one trades with friends. More than 4,000 cards are offered up every day.

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With the decline in physical sports cards, industry events like card shows are going by the wayside, too. Chris Barr, Panini America’s head of digital and a former programmer in the U.S. Air Force, wants to replicate the experience on the digital side.

“It’s like going to your local card shop,” said Barr, an avid card collector himself. “We try to bring that into the app to create interest in the trading-card aspect of it. We have the high-end chases. What excited me, we can bring that inside the app.”

Panini America, a subsidiary of Italy’s Panini Group, is betting on digital cards as an area of growth for the industry. Warsop acknowledged that although physical cards remain popular, the business has “changed dramatically.” Panini sees its football and basketball apps as a way to reach young sports fans who haven’t jumped into the hobby yet.

“You can participate in that trading community, and it’s right in your pocket,” Warsop said, adding that customers can instantly swap cards with other fans across the globe. “In the physical space, it tends to be an actual transaction. In the digital space, people are trading and collecting as a passion rather than a financial gain.”

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