While the NFL Draft wasn’t originally planned to be a virtual event, the leagues’s trading card partner, Panini, already had plans for a digital pivot.
Each January, Panini signs 200 collegiate football players to contracts as they declare for the NFL Draft. Without knowing where the players will end up in their NFL career, the company follows their pre-draft experience from NFL Combine to the NFL Draft.
This year, Panini decided to bring that process to life with the Road to Rated Rookie series that follows five prospects: Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, Georgia running back D’Andre Swift, Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin, Liberty wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden and Utah State quarterback Jordan Love.
“We felt we could shape and tell these stories in a more organic way than other brands because we’re connected to the players from the beginning,” Jason Howarth, Panini vice president of marketing, said.
Howarth said the process started with the combine and was slated to include pro days and the other typical steps the prospects take on their way to the draft. Then, the coronavirus outbreak changed the entire dynamic of how prospective draft picks prepare.
“Eno [Benjamin] was three days away from his pro day, and all of a sudden, there’s no more pro day, no team visits; all they can do is interviews over video and phone,” Howarth said. “We’re in a unique time and didn’t anticipate any of this. But we feel we can help them tell the story and communicate who they are off the field.”
“You can see who they are on the field, but not who the player is, and that’s important,” he said.
The mixture of players includes big-name players from prestigious programs -like Alabama’s Jeudy- to emerging programs like Arizona State and smaller schools such as Utah State and Liberty.
Each player has three episodes of the Road to Rated Rookie series, which is produced by Panini and broadcast from the players’ Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter channels. The shows, less than five-minute videos, go beyond the highlights and showcase the rookies’ personal story and workouts.
Howarth said the series is a way to further develop the bond between player and brand, inaugurating a relationship to last through an entire career.
“We’ll work with them from the moment they declare through their career – whether they’re fortunate enough to put on a golden jacket or not, we’re their partners,” he said. “It’s amazing what a 2.5-inch by 3.5-inch card does for a guy sitting there.”
The series also is meant to hammer home the idea that rookies drive the trading card category, especially in the post-1990s era.
“The category has evolved from the 1990s – the 80s and 90s were the boom times, but those products were over manufactured so the values long term are not where they should have been,” Howarth said. “In this new world of cards, value is built into them with autographs, memorabilia cut up and embedded and maintained scarcity.”
Before the draft, Panini released the Prizm Draft Picks product, which includes the top prospects in their collegiate uniforms, like Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, and the prospects in the company’s social series.
This year, while the players won’t be crossing a real stage when their names are called, Panini will be creating physical and digital rookie cards the moment they’re drafted, Howarth said.
In the digital age, Panini has been focused on providing a peek behind the curtain, and the new Road to Rated Rookie series is just an extension.
“We’ve always been focused on integrating the player every step of the way just because they are our product,” Howarth said. “We’ve always focused on that, but it’s a unique story this year on this window of time, and it’s an opportunity to connect trading cards to players and tell that story in a compelling way that benefits the player and us.”