Interview: Tracy Hackler of Panini America

Tracy Hackler has been around the block in sports collectibles for years. Currently he is the face of Panini America online through The Knight’s Lance (the official Panini blog), the @PaniniAmerica twitter and Facebook accounts, and is often seen breaking boxes of new Panini products on YouTube.

I recently took some time to send some rapid fire questions over to Tracy for him to answer in our newest interview here on Sports Card Blog. This is your chance to learn a little bit about the man behind The Knight’s Lance.

Sports Card Blog: How did you initially get into the sports card industry and then to your current position at Panini America?

Tracy Hackler: It’s actually a pretty circuitous, boomerang kind of story. I started at Beckett Publications in the summer of 1995 as an editorial intern. After my internship ended, I went to work for a Dallas-area newspaper covering high school and college sports. Three months later, I jumped at the opportunity to rejoin Beckett full time. I spent five years there editing various magazines and generally having the time of my life. In the fall of 2000, I was presented with another great opportunity to work for Donruss handling PR, marketing and advertising initiatives.

In addition to presenting a whole new set of refreshing and enjoyable challenges, working at Donruss really opened my eyes to the sheer amount of work involved with producing even one product, let alone a full calendar of products. It was a truly rewarding four-year stint that I look back on fondly and that set the stage for my next stop, a return to Beckett Media for six more great years.

I wasn’t looking to make a move when Panini America CEO Mark Warsop called me in the fall of 2010 to discuss a new opportunity that I thought was too tremendous to pass up. Out of my respect for Mark and the great strides he’d made with Panini America in a really short time, I owed it to both of us to hear what he had to say. Obviously, I liked what I heard.
I can honestly say that the last 15 months  under Mark and Jason Howarth, our VP of Marketing, has been the most rewarding and exciting of my career. When I think about how much we’ve accomplished and how much we’ve done, I realize how lucky I am to be here. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Sports Card Blog: Which side of the coin do you enjoy being a part of more – media or manufacturing?

Tracy Hackler: That’s a really tough question. I was a collector long before I was generating content, but the fact that a big part of my job at Panini America is combining the best of both of those worlds truly makes this a dream job that reinvigorates me on a daily basis.

Sports Card Blog: To you, why is The Knight’s Lance (Panini’s blog) so successful? It has recently been seen as one of the top 100 blogs hosted on WordPress.

Tracy Hackler: I think it’s a combination of many factors. First and foremost, we launched The Knight’s Lance to bring collectors and fans closer than they’ve ever been to the trading card manufacturing process and closer to us – and I think we’ve done that in a big way. There are a ton of behind-the-scenes aspects that go into creating a trading card product and we’ve brought many of those to the forefront. That kind of access gives collectors a deeper appreciation for a hobby they love and, hopefully, a deeper appreciation for Panini America.

Obviously, another reason for the success of the blog – and all of our social media initiatives — is an absolutely unparalleled level of engagement with our collectors. Whether it’s redemption card updates, answering questions or one of our myriad contests, we’re constantly in touch with our consumers to make sure we’re doing all we can to meet – and hopefully exceed – their needs and expectations. That’s something we take very seriously and The Knight’s Lance is a big part of how we communicate and share the never-ending excitement we produce at Panini America.

In a relatively short amount of time, The Knight’s Lance has enjoyed a huge amount of growth and has frequently been cited by mainstream sites such as SI.com, Deadspin.com, ESPN.com, Yahoo.com’s Puck Daddy blog and many more. We’re coming off the two best months in the blog’s history in terms of views and we look forward to continued growth there.

Sports Card Blog: What is your favorite part about working for a worldwide collectible giant in Panini?

Tracy Hackler: You might need a completely new blog to list my favorite aspects of working for Panini America. There are that many. The Panini Unwrapped 2011 Highlight Reel we put together last week provides a pretty succinct – and enjoyable — summation of the incredibly productive year we enjoyed in 2011, and every last one of those scenes could stand as a personal favorite. From watching products develop to interacting with the greatest players in all of sports to spending quality time with our customers and coworkers, there’s never a dull moment.

But the one thing that never gets old and that keeps me on the edge of my seat is that I truly never know what might happen once I walk in that front door every day. And that is a real thrill for me.

Sports Card Blog: Who is your favorite person that you have interviewed?

Tracy Hackler: Any and all Broncos are personal favorites, obviously, including John Elway, Terrell Davis, Tim Tebow, Eric Decker and Rod Smith. But I think my favorite interview to date is the one I was lucky enough to do with Michael Irvin last year. It was my first interaction with him and he was spectacular. It’s certainly worth watching, not because of anything I say, but because of everything he says. That guy is off the charts.

Sports Card Blog: Moving into cards a little bit..hypothetically there are autographed Panini cards of John Elway, Tim Tebow, and Terrell Davis – Buy one, sell one, and trade one. For the one you are trading, what would you try and trade it for?

Tracy Hackler: Man, that’s another toughie. If I had only one of each, I’d probably have to pass on this question. After all, my Broncos cards are almost like my children. I wouldn’t part with any of them. But hypothetically, I’d sell one of my scarcer Elways because he’d bring the most value, then I’d take the money from it to buy a Tebow and a TD. I’d still have an Elway in inventory and I wouldn’t have to trade any of them away.

Sports Card Blog: You must have collected cards as a kid, what did you collect then and do you collect now? If so, what teams or players do you collect now?

Tracy Hackler: I started collecting in the late 1970s with my brother, Tim. We grew up in Arlington, Texas, and spent good chunks of our summers and our allowance buying football and baseball cards at the 7 Eleven on the corner. I have wonderful memories of those years and I largely credit card collecting with the tremendous bond I have with my brother to this day. I was a huge fan of the local teams back then in the Rangers and Dallas Cowboys. But something changed in me during a party my family held during Super Bowl XII between the Cowboys and Denver Broncos. Perhaps I was being a contrarian, but in a house full of folks hating on the Broncos for reasons I didn’t completely understand at the time, I developed an affinity for them. I’ve been a diehard Broncos fan – and collector — every day since.

Sports Card Blog: Tim Tebow – best college quarterback ever or greatest college quarterback ever? Do you still think he can make it in the NFL?

Tracy Hackler: I think you could make a convincing argument for Tebow as the greatest college quarterback ever. Winning the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore and winning two national championships – to say nothing of his statistical excellence – makes for a pretty good resume. As for whether he can make it in the NFL, absolutely. He’s made great strides this season with his first extended playing time and he’s only going to get better as a passer, at reading defenses and at making decisions. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for him.

Sports Card Blog: Finally, anything new and exciting coming from Panini that you could drop a hint about?

Tracy Hackler: Collectors are going to love what we have in store for basketball this season. Also, we’re about to embark on an absolutely insane three-month window in terms of events and marketing activation that few – if any – other sports brand in America can match. These events – including the NHL All-Star Game, Super Bowl XLVI and the NBA All-Star Game – will enrich the rest of our year in terms of our products and our content. So be sure to keep up with us on The Knight’s Lance, on Twitter and on Facebook to stay up to date with everything we have going on.

I’d like to extend my gratitude to Tracy for taking the time to answer these questions. I also would like to thank him and Panini America for taking the chance with this blog when it was newly created and offering a sponsorship of products for review purposes. Without the support from Panini and Tracy, I don’t think this blog would have grown to where it is at this point…and it can only get better.