Contenders is the closest thing to an ageless brand that exists in the hobby.
If you read much of my work on Cardlines, you probably have heard me complain about “all these new brands Panini is introducing” as if I’m seventy, not twenty-four.
But the truth of the matter is this: since the sports card market has heated up, Panini has suddenly begun creating a lot of new brands and dumping them into circulation in what feels like a cash-grab move.
That’s why Contenders is different. It’s been around for longer than any other active football or basketball brand, and that alone makes it special.
Here’s our guide to parallels you’ll find in Contenders.
“NFL Contenders” debuted in 1992 and was initially launched by the Playoff Corp. While there were several acquisitions along the way before the brand landed in the hands of Panini in 2010, the product itself never missed a beat. As consistent as LeBron in the 2010s, it was released year after year and began building its legacy.
After Panini acquired the product, they doubled down on their focus on rookie autographs. In 2010, the Contenders’ first year under Panini ownership contained 171 rookies, up from just 100 the year before. They’ve continued to include between 150-180 rookies each year for the past decade.
In many ways, this makes the brand unique because it has a lot of rookie autographs of players that don’t typically sign much, yet it’s still a big-name brand. For example, the Tom Brady Contenders rookie is perhaps the most expensive non-1/1 modern football card, but Brady was not drafted high enough to be invited to sign for a huge number of products, or included on rookie sets, for that matter.
Ironically, despite the heavy focus on rookie autographs, Contenders is not a brand for pulling rookie cards – that’s the biggest Achilles heal in the product. There are no base rookies, only inserts.
If you buy a box of Prizm or Optic and don’t hit with a nice auto, you still have a chance for a nice rookie card pull. With Contenders, it’s very much boom or bust based on the autos.
For example, the highest non-auto Contenders rookie I could find for Justin Herbert was this /149 ROY contenders PSA 9 rookie, which sold for $125. Most of the Herbert inserts sell for between $20-$30.
Considering these pulls are coming out of an $800 box, it makes it very hard to get your money back if you don’t hit a monster autograph.
As we’ve written before, “parallels are versions of base cards that have some distinguishing feature (such as a color change) but in every other way have the same numbering and subjects as the regular cards in the set. These cards are produced in smaller quantities than base cards.”
In short, they are colored base card variations. In opti-chrome, parallels look like the standard base version of the card, except they have colored borders. There are various colors of parallels, and some are rarer than others. Often they are numbered as well.
Parallel cards are not hard to tell from base cards. While the image on the cards is the exact same, the border color will be different.
Here’s a bit of trivia for you: while parallels change the border of the card and are easy to distinguish, variations change the image on the card and can be much more difficult to identify. You have to know what you’re looking for. We looked at the differences between different types of cards in this article.
Panini Contenders football and basketball releases doesn’t have a huge plethora of parallels to choose from. If you’re into building rainbows, this isn’t the product for you (but Contenders Optic, the updated opti-chrome twin, might be).
That said, despite the lack of parallels, it might have one of the most iconic. The “Panini Contenders Cracked Ice” was introduced into Contenders and has trickled into a number of other brands. These cards look amazing and are usually numbered to 22 or 23.
A cracked ice rookie ticket autograph is one of the best possible long-term investments for autograph collectors who believe in their favorite young star.
Here’s a breakdown of parallels you can pull in 2021 Panini Contenders Football, the most recent release:
Compared to many of the other products, the lineup of parallels looks disappointingly short, but simplicity has always been a selling point of this product.
The Panini Contenders basketball and football products has such a limited selection of parallels that any collector who is drawn to the idea of chasing the rainbow should stay away.
If there’s something nice to say about the parallels, it’s that they’re all numbered. That makes them all pretty valuable, but also very hard to get ahold of.
On top of that, the parallels are all pretty unusual in name and nothing easy to identify on sight apart from the Cracked Ice.
For example, while a collector might struggle to tell a Ticket Stub parallel from a Championship Ticket or Playoff Ticket while scrolling through eBay, it’s not hard to pick out a green and red Prizm compared to the base Prizm cards.
With that in mind, adding actual “colored” parallels to the product could really help expand what it represents to the hobby.
Contenders is a great, iconic brand and awesome investment opportunity if you have the right cards, but it also needs an update if it wants to keep the momentum going. It’s the kind of product you should never rip – just buy the singles you want from other victims who test their fate.
What do you think of Contenders parallels? We’d love to hear your experience, thoughts, and points. Just share with us on Twitter @card_lines.