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Behind the Deal: Why Dallas-based Panini America Partnered With LIV Golf  

Panini, which has contracts with the NFL, NBA, and Premier League, chose to partner with LIV Golf over the PGA Tour for its first foray into golf memorabilia.
| |Cover Photo Courtesy Panini America
Image
Courtesy Panini America

Dallas-based Panini America recently agreed to a multi-year partnership with LIV Golf, cementing Panini as the exclusive trading card partner with the disruptive pro golf league backed by the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund, PIF. Despite controversy engulfing the league over the last couple of years, Panini America exec Jason Howarth asserts that the trading card manufacturer never allowed public opinion to cloud the deal-making process.

“We’re a global entity, and our products are sold everywhere around the world, including the Middle East, where our products are really popular,” said Howarth, the SVP of marketing and athlete relations. “Every other sport has accepted that element into its category. Whether that’s the NBA, soccer, you name it – they’ve all accepted [the PIF] into the sport. For us, we looked at it as if it worked for them, there should not be hesitation on our side.” 

The deal marks Panini’s first foray into professional golf trading cards. Currently, the Dallas-based manufacturer has contracts with the NFL, NBA, WNBA, WWE, NASCAR, Premier League, and more professional sports entities. After considering jumping into the golf space over the last several years, the team-based format that LIV offers—the formatting structure that distinguishes LIV from the PGA Tour—helped eliminate some of the logistical hurdles that Panini had previously faced in golf trading card production. 

“The challenge with the space is we’re beholden to building the product around the individual players,” Howarth said. “LIV changes the dynamic with that because there is a team format, so we can build fan affinity to [the 13] specific teams.”  

Talks between LIV and Panini sparked in early 2023 during Super Week LVII week in Arizona and eventually began to pick up steam later in the year around October. However, Howarth admitted he was internally pessimistic when the deal was broached, given Panini’s previous attempts to produce golf collectibles.  

“Someone asked me, ‘Hey, would you ever get into the golf space? There could be an opportunity there,’” Howarth recalled. “And I thought in my head, ‘No. We’ve tried it. It doesn’t work.’ Your success is based on ensuring you have the right golfers to build the product. That’s always been a staple of it. The first conversation was, ‘Yes, but not really because we just don’t see how it works.’”

Fast-forward to October, Howarth said, “We started to get deeper into the conversations and started to really dig in and understand LIV’s approach, the team format, and team affiliations. Competing in 14 tournaments around the globe in a team setting but still declaring an individual winner was unique. We felt like there was a spot where we could make this work.”  

In June of 2023, despite the rivalry between LIV Golf and the PGA Tour boiling for over a year, the PGA Tour announced a partnership with LIV Golf’s financial backers, PIF—the Public Investment Fund—as well as other investors like Fenway Sports Group and RedBird Capital. The media presented the deal as a merger between the two leagues. However, in reality, the PGA Tour was negotiating a capital infusion from PIF—which could still potentially pave the way for a merger between the two leagues.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Dallas lawyer who talks with LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman every day told D CEO, “The team aspect of LIV is huge, and it’s severely underestimated. The only way you make money in sports anymore is through team appreciation. Look at what Jerry Jones did by buying the Cowboys for $140 million, and now they’re worth $9 billion. LIV Golf was never some sort of reverse takeover Trojan horse into the PGA Tour. It was intended solely to be a competitive league with the PGA Tour.  

“If you’re looking at what’s happened in golf, it really has declined greatly over the last 20 or 30 years in popularity. The average golf fan is like 64 or 65 years old, and the sport wasn’t capturing younger audiences. The whole LIV Golf business model is very, very different than the PGA Tour. And the PGA Tour, frankly, had it not been for Tiger Woods the last 20 years, goodness knows where it would be.” 

Similarly, Howarth pointed to LIV’s brand identity as a disrupter, and the alignment between the tour and Panini was evident throughout the deal process. Howarth believes the brand’s synergy will open an untapped market of golf fans and card collectors. 

“How LIV goes about their business and presentation of the tour is something that aligns very well with our brands,” he said. “Some of the most compelling products we produce are very metallic-looking and vibe-y and have become super popular. Our Prizm brand is the biggest brand in the world from a trading card point of view across all sports, and we know it aligns with the feel and the vibe of the LIV Golf Tour. 

“In addition to expanding the marketplace, I think the products will target this younger audience that’s stepping into the trading card space as the 18- to 35-year-olds that are in the space and wanting to collect the best athletes across all sports, and certainly some of the best golfers are in LIV.” 

Despite not being a plethora of previous examples to point to in the golf trading card space, Panini will soon start production on trading cards for golfers on the tour, such as Phil Mickelson, Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka, Cam Smith, Dustin Johnson, Bryson Dechambeau, and others that haven’t had cards produced in years—or ever. 

“I think that is a unique element that will create a lot of excitement in the space for golf fans and collectors that typically collected other sports,” Howarth said. “I have no doubt they’ll want to step in and collect the LIV Golf product.” 

Ben Swanger contributed to this story.  

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