As we tip-off on the start of the 23-24, Jordan-Kobe, NBA season, we also begin the penultimate season (at least for now) of Panini America’s exclusive license to produce NBA cards. The final buzzer will sound in September 2025 (barring any early buy-out) on the agreement which began with the 09-10 season.
The NBA has drafted Fanatics via the Topps brand to take the court as the exclusive license holder thereafter. Completing a trade to acquire the Topps brand provided Fanatics - the well-known sports retailer - the alleyoop it needed to hit the huge slam dunk on its quest to enter the trading cards and collectibles business. Topps’ brand awareness and existing position in the collecting community will help give Fanatics the assist it needs.
Panini called travel, however, alleging it was not “given an opportunity to bid or otherwise compete for the licenses” in a suit against Fanatics. Fanatics then called a hand-check on Panini alleging it tried to “block Fanatics’ hard-earned success through a series of tortious, unfair, and unlawful actions”. (Via Forbes)
Both cases are pending the ref’s decision.
Ok, enough basketball puns. Sorry.
TL;DR - just show me the Jordan Panini stickers!
Checklist of Michael Jordan Panini stickers and cameo cards.
From flowers to soccer to basketball
Modern basketball card collectors will be well familiar with Panini America who have been the sole producer of NBA cards for well over a decade.
Jordan collectors, however, may be less familiar. Upper Deck’s exclusive agreement with MJ has meant Panini could not produce cards bearing his likeness - though a couple did slip through (more on that below).
Panini began life in Modena, Italy after WWII when Giuseppe Panini - son of newsstand operator Olga Panini - endeavoured to produce and sell stickers… of flowers. It didn’t work out, as Giuseppe’s son Antonio told CBS News ”… the formula was okay, not the subject”.
In 1961 Giuseppe’s turned his attention to Italian soccer, then World Cup soccer in 1970 and the Panini behemoth took off.
The soccer stickers produced by Panini feature some of the greatest athletes to ever enter a soccer pitch. Collectability of these stickers for millions of fans of the ‘world game’ was immense - particularly once the World Cup sticker albums began.
For each World Cup set a dedicated album was released. These were no small sets - a sticker for every player in a soccer World Cup would reach 670 individual stickers recently and included legends of the game spanning the likes of Pele, Maradona and Messe. Millions of collectors would meticulously put together these mammoth sets in the album - the holy grail for many being the debut 1970 World Cup set.
Eventually other sports entered the Panini releases - including basketball.
Michael Jordan Panini stickers
Panini’s World Cup sticker album releases use posed photos - these photo shoots are the World Cup equivalent of school picture day. (CBS News)
This same style was used in the early basketball sticker releases.
Early Jordan Panini stickers
1987 saw two releases form Panini which included a Jordan - the Italian #141 and Spanish Supersport #4 stickers.
1987-88 #141 and #4
These are Jordan’s first appearance on a Panini sticker and both utilise the same ‘school picture day’ photo.
1989-90 #76, #261 and #285
In 1988 Panini released the Spanish Jordan sticker #76 and action photo emblazoned #261 and #285. The final Jordan card in the set for 1988 features an excellent action shot of MJ aggressively taking on Detroit.
1989-90 #67 and #254
To round out this era’s Jordan stickers, Panini released two more featuring action photography. Like a lot of Panini stickers of this era they can be fairly easily found for sale and often times in excellent condition.
1990’s Panini Jordan stickers
Panini continued their use of action photography for their 1990’s releases for MJ. We also see the first use of gold and prism-like foil from the manufacturer.
Spanish sticker number 61 from Panini in its 90-91 set features simply an excellent action photo of Jordan. The same photo is used on card number 91.
The 90-91 #91 Jordan Panini sticker - which utilises the same photo as the Spanish #61 - can be found alone or as part of a panel with Scottie Pippen. These are hand cut stickers so some collectors have chosen to keep Jordan and Pippen together.
Just like the #91, the 1990 Jordan Panini All-Star sticker #G can be found as part of a panel. This time Jordan shares the panel with Larry Bird.
1990-91 #K, #205 and #206
Rounding our the 90-91 release we have 3 stickers from Panini utilising the same phots. Sticker #K is a standalone sticker while the same photo is used across both Spanish stickers #205 and #206 which are intended to be displayed together.
Panini released 3 MJ stickers for the 91-92 season including a gold foil, uniquely cut sticker. All three are available in English, Spanish hand Greek.
First up is #96 which is Panini’s first use depicting MJ playing in an All-Star game.
Sticker #116 includes some vital stats alongside the photo. As stickers have no intended permanent backing this was the only way Panini could include this information.
Lastly we have the excellent gold foil Jordan Panini sticker #190. Not only does this sticker include use of gold foil and softened border but MJ is cut out so the sticker can be displayed as a die-cut type piece.
This was Panini’s final Jordan release - well at least until the cameo cards below that is. We see 6 MJ’s this season including 2 fantastic prism-like foil releases as the follow up to 91-92’s gold foil sticker.
There’s another option utilising no design elements - just a bordered action shot of MJ. This pairs nicely with the similar sticker from 90-91 #61.
1992-93 #14 and #17
The NBA playoffs and finals feature in stickers #14 and #17 - these are panel stickers featuring wide-angle photographs.
1992-93 #20, #102 and #190
Panini enters the realm of reflective, prism-like foil with Jordan stickers number 20 and 102. Sticker #20 shows Jordan receiving the MVP award and #102 perfectly follows up the gold foil #190 from 91-92 with a similarly designed and executed sticker. All 3 display very well together.
Finally, we say goodbye to Panini’s Jordan stickers with #128.
Panini Jordan shadow sticker
There’s one occasion that a 90’s era Panini sticker captured Jordan in the background of another player’s sticker. It didn’t stop there for Panini, however, as this happened again a couple of times in the modern era.
Modern era Panini Jordan cards
In quick succession in 2009 Panini made 2 huge announcements. First, it had acquired an exclusive license to produce NBA cards until 2025 and secondly, it had acquired Donruss - USA’s second oldest trading card company behind Topps.
This meant there would be no more NBA Jordan cards produced while Panini held the NBA license.
No longer an active player in the league meant Panini could not include Jordan’s likeness in any way as part of any release - that privilege belongs to Upper Deck alone.
Upper Deck sued Panini over this alleging that the image of Jordan was deliberately included and not an accidental oversight. It would be interesting to track down the original image or footage for both of these to see if Jordan was or was not in the background.
As correctly stated by the suit, these cards do fetch a premium due to Jordan’s presence.
The future for modern Jordans
Fanatics running basketball card production will mean a continuation of the absence of NBA Jordan cards. While it will be excellent to see Refractors and X-Fractors come back to NBA cards we won’t be seeing any for MJ - you’ll have to stick to collecting the existing Jordan Refractors available.
Happy collecting Panini Jordans!