As soccer's popularity grows, so does a World Cup tradition with sticking power

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One reliable measure of the growth of soccer in the United States is World Cup viewership, and on that front, the 2022 event in Qatar has already been a smashing success. Last Saturday’s U.S.-Netherlands match on FOX was watched by almost 13 million people stateside, a 138% increase from the network’s round of 16 average four years earlier.

Another metric to judge the sport’s popularity in the U.S.? The sale of Panini stickers. In the decades since its launch in Europe in 1970, filling the quadrennial Panini World Cup sticker album has evolved from a regional curiosity into a global obsession for fútbol fans both young and old. 

"It’s become part of the tradition of the World Cup," Jason Howarth, Panini USA’s vice president of marketing, told FOX Sports.

Don’t take his word for it. In September, as Lionel Messi prepared to play in his final World Cup with Argentina, the country’s government had to intervene because its stores were running low on stickers. (A video of Marc Stanley, the U.S. ambassador to Argentina, pulling a Messi sticker went viral on Twitter.)

In 2014, criminals in Brazil hijacked a truck carrying more than 300,000 packets of the 2-by-2.5-inch collectibles, most of which feature the faces of the players on the 32 teams that compete in the tournament.

The collection has been sold in the U.S. only since the 2010 World Cup but didn’t really start to gain traction until 2018. This year, its popularity has exploded — thanks in part to major retailers like Target and Walgreens recognizing the steadily increasing demand.

In the digital era, collecting stickers might seem like a relic of the past. But the sales of all sorts of collectibles — sports cards, in particular — went through the roof after the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020 and people were stuck at home looking for new ways to pass the time.

That trend continued as life returned to normal. Add in soccer’s slow but steady push into the mainstream, combined with the U.S. men’s national team’s return to the World Cup after failing to qualify four years ago, and it’s no wonder that Panini had sold more stickers in America before Qatar 2022 kicked off than their total in 2018. Globally, the company has moved a cool billion stickers since launching in September and is on pace to set a new record.

It's all still somewhat amazing, though. If print in most of its traditional forms isn’t already on life support, it’s close. Panini stickers seem to be the most notable exception.

There are a few reasons. Tradition is one. With a history dating back more than a half-century, the collecting of World Cup sticker albums before every edition of the competition has been passed down through the generations.

"You have grandparents collecting with their grandkids for the first time, exposing them to this idea that this is just how soccer fans prepare whenever the World Cup comes along," Howarth said. "The Panini sticker collection is as tied to the World Cup as tailgating is to the NFL."

It doesn’t hurt that it’s a wholesome pursuit. Parents who struggle to get their kids away from screens and game consoles welcome the diversion. Kids and adults, the latter of which still make up the overwhelming majority of buyers, get to know players on teams around the world, creating lifelong fans. The tactile experience of peeling and applying the product is enormously satisfying, as is completing the 670-sticker book. 

Doing that isn’t easy, though. Inevitably, collectors end up with many duplicates when buying the five-sticker packets, which don’t come cheap because of FIFA licensing fees and production costs, most of it devoted to photography. A box of 50 packs normally goes for around $60. Most people are forced to find trading partners to finish their albums.

For the first time this year, Walgreens, CVS and other carriers organized 1,000 trading events coast to coast between the September launch and Nov. 20, the date the current World Cup kicked off. They were held in person, with people showing up with homemade lists to trade on the spot. But most trading is still done online.

There are several websites through which Panini devotees can connect and trade their surplus stickers, getting the ones they need in return. And while that does send youngsters (and often their parents) back to their phones or computers, they still must place their unneeded stickers in an envelope, write an address on it and send it out via old-school snail mail, then obsessively check their physical mailbox as they wait for their treasure to arrive from across the country or across the world. Fans can also order up to 50 specific stickers from the official "Missing Stickers Service."

Like soccer itself, this quirky World Cup tradition will only grow in the lead-up to the 2026 event hosted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The book will grow, too, what with the tournament expanding to 48 teams.

"To have to add another 30 pages is mind-blowing," Howarth said. 

It’s also good problem to have in the 2020s. Asked if one day the famous product will exist in digital form only, Howarth didn’t hesitate. 

"A lot of people say print is dead," he said. "But I don’t see our World Cup sticker collection ever going away."

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Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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