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The Sports Card Industry: 4 Sponsorship Strategies to Help Stay Relevant

The Sports Card Industry: 4 Sponsorship Strategies to Help Stay Relevant

5 minute read

  • Due to a shift to online and digital products, the sports card industry has seen a decline in interest and revenue
  • Sport card manufacturers look to secure exclusive deals with leagues, allowing them to focus their resources more efficiently
  • To remain relevant in today’s digital age, manufacturers have looked to incorporate digital elements in the production of their cards

For many years, it was common for young sports fans to also be avid card collectors. However, as we have entered the digital age, the demand for physical sports cards has declined. In 1991, sports card sales reached $1.2 billion, subsequently declining to $400 million in 2000, and $200 million in 2010. Despite this decline, sport card manufacturers have attempted to modernize and stay relevant through sponsorship marketing strategies.

Factors leading to the Decline of Sports Cards

The emergence of the digital age has directly correlated with the decline in the sports card industry. Up-to-date player statistics are now instantly available. Simply, fans no longer refer to sports cards as their almanac for information. Further, as athletes begun to directly engage with their fans through direct-to-consumer social media networks, fans gained the ability to follow their heroes in a way that transcended their original collections of sports cards. Rather than collect cards, fans could collect engagement and social interactions with their heroes.

Prominent sports card manufacturers such as Topps, Upper Deck, and Panini have all realized the increased competition and have had to evolve their brand strategy to stay competitive in the marketplace. MKTG outlines four sponsorship strategies commonly leveraged by top sports cards brands as a way to improve their competitive position:

1. An increased push towards exclusivity

With demand for sports cards decreasing, manufacturers determined that it would be more efficient to focus their resources on specific core leagues versus mass manufacturing cards from a variety of leagues and associations. Topps was the first brand to leverage this strategy when in 2009 they were named the exclusive trading card partner of the MLB. This strategy has since been leveraged across the Big Four North American sports leagues. The NHL named Upper Deck their exclusive manufacturer beginning in 2015 and Panini is the exclusive manufacturer for both the NBA and the NFL. These new exclusive deals allow both the league and manufacturer to focus their efforts on one property allowing them to create unique and compelling content for each league. For example, Upper Deck works closely with the NHL on vintage hockey memorabilia, sponsoring the Upper Deck exhibit at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Additionally, exclusivity can be leveraged to focus efforts on key strategies such as engaging with a younger demographic. 

2. Focus on Athlete Endorsements

Sport card manufacturers have looked to amplify their league deals by investing in high-profile athlete endorsements deals. Manufacturers look to secure notable endorsements with athletes in the respected leagues they have exclusivity with, doubling down on their investment in the sport. For example, last year Panini signed Golden State Warrior Kevin Durant to an endorsement deal which included a variety of benefits including an appearance in their latest ad campaign. They also use Durant to activate onsite at NBA events such as this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. Panini created a VIP Suite complete with a basketball pop-a-shot and an autograph session featuring Durant and other NBA endorsers. MLB partner Topps has a deal with LA Angel Mike Trout and is the exclusive partner of Trout’s autographed cards. These deals can provide manufacturers with valuable autograph appearances that appeal to the collector community and increase brand prestige or feature an endorser’s likeness in marketing campaigns as a way to generate interest in the overall collection.

3. Transition Product Offering to Include Digital Products

As the shift to digital and online content grew in the early 2000s, sport card manufacturers quickly looked to ways they can evolve their product to fit in this space. Topps was one of the first to add a digital component to their cards, with the creation of etopps in 2000. Etopps allowed consumers to collect and trade cards online with the physical versions of the cards kept in warehouses. Topps offered to deliver the physical version of the card to the customer when requested. In 2012, Topps discontinued etopps but have since re-entered the online sports cards with Topps Now. Topps Now instantly captures popular moments throughout the MLB season, creating a physical card printout of the moment. Topps will then offer the card online for 24 hours, allowing them to greater control their inventory. This past season, Topps Now saw their most popular card occur when 42-year-old pitcher Bartolo Colon hit his first career home run. The resulting card sold 8,826 editions in the 24 hours available, becoming their most popular Topps Now card to date. While Topps was an early entrant into the digital space, it took them a second attempt to fully find a way to incorporate a digital extension to their card. Topps has been able to tap into the scarcity sought after by collectors while still being timely and relevant.  

4. Collaborate on activations with like-minded brands

Sport card manufacturers have teamed up with sponsors whom have a shared area of investment. The most notable example of this is the annual Tim Hortons’ Collect to Win promotion in partnership with Upper Deck. Tim Hortons’ consumers are offered a chance to purchase a 3-pack of Upper Deck NHL cards in-store with the opportunity to register the cards online to trade with other fans. It also gives them an opportunity to win an NHL prize pack. Through their partnership with Tim Hortons, Upper Deck is able to offer their product in a high traffic area, allowing a greater amount of people to experience their brand. The contest aspect also plays off the rising interest in the “gamification” of activities through offering a chance for consumers to collect and win.


The sports card industry may never fully recover to its peak in the 1990’s. However, through innovative sponsorship strategies and an increased focus on digital activation, they continue to strive for relevance.

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