Even before the first ball is kicked, Russia 2018 is shaping up to be more popular in the United States than any previous World Cup according to at least one metric: the sale of Panini stickers.
For the uninitiated, the Panini’s World Cup sticker collection, which was introduced in Europe and marketed to children prior to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, has become a quadrennial worldwide obsession of fans of all ages. In fact, Panini stickers have become so ubiquitous that some now consider the Panini albums a gauge for measuring the growth and cultural relevance of the planet’s favorite sport. (It’s little surprise, for instance, that more stickers are purchased in soccer-crazy Brazil than any other nation.)
For the last eight years, that’s also included in the U.S. The privately owned company, which was founded by two brothers in Italy in the early 1960s, opened its American subsidiary just before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
But it wasn’t until the 2014 event in Brazil that the country’s futbol lovers really began to embrace the pastime on a major scale; sales of the stickers in the 50 states increased a whopping 300 percent between those tournaments. U.S. sales outpaced those in the United Kingdom and Germany.
Another huge increase was expected for this summer’s event. Panini America, which already had an endorsement deal in place with NBA legend and noted soccer fan Kobe Bryant, inked rising national team star Christian Pulisic last summer.
But then the U.S. men’s national team failed to qualify for Russia, dealing a significant blow to just about every sector connected to the business of soccer.
Still, “We are going to sell more than in 2014 despite the U.S. not qualifying for the tournament,” Panini America CEO Mark Warsop confirmed in an interview with Yahoo Sports.
“Soccer in general is so much more popular today in the U.S. than it was four years ago. We know that the sport’s popularity here is growing incredibly fast. So we’re going to see another increase and we’re really very happy with that because obviously we were bitterly disappointed when the U.S. team didn’t qualify.”
It’s hard to quantify what sort of impact the USA’s on-field failure has had on Panini’s bottom line. The company doesn’t release numbers, but it estimates that growth in the U.S. this time will be a respectable 15 percent.
“It’s such a diverse population in the U.S. with so many fans of so many different national teams,” Warsop added. “So [the U.S. not being involved] didn’t have the kind of impact as, say, England not qualifying would have in the U.K.”
Well into the digital age, it might be hard for some people to understand the lure of what could seem like an antiquated pursuit. Indeed, Panini has had an online presence for almost two decades. This year, it introduced an app that offers a virtual experience and includes various games and challenges that, for the first time, are not specifically tied to the physical product. Fans can even create their own stickers online. As of last month the app had been downloaded more than 1.5 million times, with 50,000-60,000 new downloads a day.
Yet many parents — many of whom collected Panini stickers while growing up in their home countries — encourage their children to give the old-school sticker books a try precisely because it gets them away from television screens, game consoles, tablets or mobile devices. It’s a wholesome diversion. Plus, there’s still something incredibly satisfying about peeling and applying a sticker.
“There’s not that many things that mom and dad can do and actually enjoy alongside their 6-to-10-year-old,” Warsop says.
It can be educational, too. Kids get to know the names of the players and the clubs and countries they represent. They learn geography and, with a section devoted to past Cups, the history of the sport. They also learn negotiation skills; the ultimate goal for everyone is to complete the album, which in 2018 has 681 stickers. Finding partners to trade duplicate stickers with is a must.
“Kids pick up real quick that they’re not going to trade a Lionel Messi for less than four or five players,” says Warsop. “Parents have said to me many times, ‘If only my child could have this much focus and attention that they’ve got on the sticker collection on school, they’d been geniuses, because they remember every striker they’ve got or don’t have.’”
Snagging a Messi is no more difficult than finding, say, Tunisia’s Anice Badri. Unlike baseball cards, a traditional American activity, each Panini sticker is printed in equal quantity.
It’s a not an inexpensive a hobby, though. FIFA’s licensing fees and the army of photographers Panini employs around the world to create those uniform images don’t come cheap.
While the soft cover album retails for just two dollars and a pack of five stickers goes for half of that, it adds up quickly. A box of 250 stickers sells for $50 on Panini’s website. With almost 700 stickers to collect, that means a minimum investment of $136 to complete a book — and that’s only if you never get the same sticker twice. (Fans can order up to 40 individual stickers via the official “Missing Stickers Service” at PaniniAmerica.net.)
Then again, can you really put a price on the sense of community that comes with joining global phenomenon — one that’s still in its infancy in the U.S.? Warsop hopes and expects that the practice of collecting stickers will only continue to grow stateside, even as print in all its forms continues to go the way of the phone booth or compact disc. Given that trend one has to wonder: Will Panini’s iconic World Cup sticker album exist only digitally one day?
“I just don’t believe that day will over ever come,” says Warsop, who grew up collecting Panini stickers in his native England. “You just can’t take away the touch and feel of a packet of stickers. It will never be able to be truly replicated in the digital world.”
World Cup coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• 2018 World Cup preview hub
• How Mexico is wooing another type of dual national: fans
• From Messi to Henderson, the top 100 players at the World Cup
• Group previews: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H