'I turned my love for retro football stickers into a full-time job and earn six figures doing it'
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If you're anything like me and spend an unhealthy amount of time watching nostalgia-based, football-related content on TikTok and Instagram, then you may have stumbled across Ollie Jenks; the face behind popular card-breaking channel Paolo Panini.
A guaranteed dopamine hit for a select group of people who want to relive their youth, Jenks, or Paolo as he's commonly known within the online community, has accumulated a large following across several social media platforms over the last three years.
The 32-year-old, from Devon, will regularly rip open packets of classic football trading cards and stickers on a live stream, with thousands tuning in to watch the action unfold. Last month, for example, he almost collapsed with excitement after finding a David Beckham Rookie card from 1996 worth around £7,000.
Other big pulls include a Grade 10 signed Lionel Messi card that was sold for £3,000, and the highly sought-after Diego Maradona sticker from 1986.
"We're your portal to the past, where nostalgia meets the thrill of uncovering vintage gems," he tells SPORTbible. "Our collection of retro packs is unparalleled, and we guarantee that every break will take you on a time-travelling adventure, making you feel like a kid again."
With the help of his team – a small group of dedicated card collectors and enthusiasts based in Torquay – Jenks has created what he believes to be the world's leading retro pack opening company. So how did this journey begin? And how did he go from working in McDonald's to becoming a full-time Classic Football Card Specialist?
It's a story that begins on a cold morning in South West England.
"My earliest memory is going to a swap shop at Exeter's Westpoint Arena for the 1998 Premier League sticker album," Jenks says. "It was a bit of a weird experience as it was in a giant cowshed. The idea of the event was to swap your duplicates for ones you need, but it stank of cow crap, to be honest."
Even with the smell of fresh manure lingering in his nostrils, the anticipation to trade and interact with fellow collectors – even if it was inside a bleak metal cowshed off a motorway outside Exeter – was palpable.
Like millions of others in the late '90s, when collecting and trading was arguably at its peak, Ollie was borderline obsessed.
But his fascination with the finer, more intricate details separated him from those who were only interested in 'swapsies’ and ‘shinies'. From a young age, he would memorise every player, the team they played for, and other niche stats that featured in Panini's annual release.
"I also fell in love with the story arcs of a player's ups and downs throughout their career, especially in the '90s or '00s, when it felt like anything could happen," he says.
"I have a real passion for history, sports and in particular stories within football. Whether it be an underdog story or the political situations behind a tournament. A country’s whole mood can change, birth rates can go through the roof by their nation lifting the World Cup… I just find the minutiae fascinating."
As a result of being deeply captivated by this world, he was winning back-to-back Fantasy Leagues at school, beating all the teachers with his self-proclaimed "absurd" knowledge of ‘00s football.
Then, after leaving state education, he went on to study media at The University of Surrey, specialising in documentaries and filmmaking. "I was still very unsure about what I wanted to do," he admits, a decade on. "That being said, one thing that has always been a constant is storytelling."
That uncertainty continued throughout his twenties. Shortly after leaving university in 2014, Ollie became a Store Manager at a local McDonald's before leaving the UK to live in Vietnam, where he worked at an Australian travel company for two years.
In fact, Jenks visited close to 80 countries in a five-year period, including Slovenia, Iraq, Cambodia and the United States. He's experienced many different cultures throughout that time but whether he was in Marrakech or Mongolia, one thing remained constant.
"Even last month, I was in Malta and the common language of football always prevailed," he smiles. "I had a 25-minute conversation with my Turkish Uber driver about Tuncay Sanli playing for Fenerbache in 2003."
Ollie would eventually settle in Dublin before finding a full-time job working with foreign students at an Education First summer school, although the various knock-on effects of the COVID pandemic played havoc with everyday life. It was time to think outside the box.
"I wanted to combine my love of storytelling and what I knew about '00s football, so Team Of Our Lives was born – a niche 2000s-based football podcast," he recalls. "Me and my university friend, Harry, basically ripped off Josh Widdicombe's podcast Quickly Kevin but we wanted to reminisce about the '00s rather than the '90s.
"At the end of each episode, we would ask our guest to open a rare pack of vintage football stickers and put them on a Top Gear-style leaderboard depending on how good the players were."
At the time, Ollie was making short documentary-format videos about classic football teams and, to his credit, the clips received a decent viewership on YouTube. However, a life-changing moment would take place in late 2020, when he ventured over to another growing platform.
"I uploaded a few of those vintage pack-opening videos from the podcast to TikTok and It blew up. The account grew to 100,000 followers in six months. Seeing so many people interested in football nostalgia was huge, and with some of the modern rare cards going for big money, I attempted to make a living out of it."
The sports trading card industry was popular for decades before coronavirus lockdowns interrupted our daily lives but the industry hit new heights during the pandemic as people found great pleasure in reigniting their passion for collecting and nostalgia in general.
LeBron James' rookie card, for example, fetched $5.2 million [£4.1m] in April 2021 and around two months later, a new record was broken when a Stephen Curry card sold for $5.9 million [£4.7m]. The football, or soccer, trading scene also witnessed a seismic boom.
Last year, as prices continued to surge, Pele's first officially licensed prospect card became the first in football history to surpass the $1 million [£740,000] mark, when it sold for record-breaking $1.33 million [£980,000].
Jason Howarth, the vice president for Panini America, said sales have been “absolutely insane” in recent years. “We’ve heard stories of guys just sitting there waiting for them to put the product on the shelves, and literally it’s wiped out as soon as they finish putting it out."
Along with the rising sales of trading cards and stickers, video sharing platform TikTok experienced an unprecedented increase in popularity. The United Kingdom experienced a growth of 44 percent among 15-25 year-old users after the pandemic started.
Ollie quickly jumped on the bandwagon and the views started to pour in. Soon, he was posting regular content to thousands. In fact, over the last 18 months, Paolo Panini has posted almost daily, including a four-hour live stream every Friday that averages around 35,000 viewers per session.
Football, of course, is their flagship specialty but the company continues to dip its toes in other sports, including F1, NFL, NBA and NHL.
"As mentioned earlier, we grew quite rapidly over the first six months," he says. "I haven't got the exact figures but in the first year, our sales were around the £300,000 mark."
As TikTok broadened its business range, Ollie and his team opened a Paolo Panini shop on the platform. They also live stream on WhatNot, a live auction marketplace, and Twitch.
"We have our very own website as well, which has a store," he says. "It’s taken more than two years, a hell of a lot of research and contacts to source stock but above all else, it’s been learning about thousands of former players and their potential value."
More recently, Ollie has given himself the slightly more glamorous title of 'Football Treasure Hunter’, which basically translates to spending an ungodly amount of time trying to find hidden gems.
"Some of the greatest players such as Pele have football cards that could be worth as much as $1.3 million," he says. "So there is real value to be had in finding rare packs that have been sealed for 50 years and potentially finding some footballing history – that's why I love it so much."
As you can imagine, pulling these extremely rare cards doesn’t come cheap. Ollie says their total spend since creating the channel is close to £30,000.
"I try not to look, to be honest," he laughs when asked about expenditures. "But once again it's that treasure hunt. A rare Pele card has sold for over a million but the only way it would sell for that much would be for it to be in perfect condition. And there's only one way to get it perfect, which is to pack it fresh."
According to Jenks, the most expensive packs on the market right now are from the 1970 World Cup, a tournament that featured a host of household names, including Sir Bobby Charlton, Franz Beckenbauer, Eusebio and, of course, Pele.
Earlier this month, a complete album from the tournament in Mexico sold for more than £2,000 at auction after Andrew Knott, a 65-year-old man from Northamptonshire, cashed in.
Andrew was gifted the book as a 12th birthday present from his auntie and, despite years of gathering dust in the garage, Auctioneer Will Gilding said the item had "survived in remarkable condition" and was a "rare piece of World Cup memorabilia".
"I was lucky to get a pack for £600, but they regularly sell for over £1,000 each," Ollie says. "I haven't opened mine yet."
As well as trying to find an in-demand Pele, the 32-year-old is on a one-man mission to find Diego Maradona's rookie card from a 1979 Panini Calciatori pack – an item that sold for $550,000 in 2021. He also managed to source some sealed packs at £400 each.
So how do you go about finding such a rare pack? "It's not easy," he admits. "Occasionally, but very rarely, they will come up online but even then, you have to be cautious as there's a chance that something big has already been pulled from that box, hence why that pack is for sale.
"In regards to all of my purchases, I've spent almost three years building up a network of contacts and a lot of those have come through social media with people I trust."
Here are just a handful of "absolute gems" he has found in more recent times:
[-] 2006 Lionel Messi Messi Rookie in a Grade 10 - £2.5k
[-] Lionel Messi Signed Card Grade 10 - £3k
[-] 2006 Cristiano Ronaldo Grade 10 - £1.5k
[-] David Beckham 1996 Rookie Grade 10 - £7k
[-] 1986 Diego Maradona - UNSOLD
[-] 1992 Dennis Bergkamp Netherlands Rookie - UNSOLD
[-] Paolo Maldini 1988 Rookie Grade 10 - £1k
[-] Zinedine Zidane - 1996 France Rookie - UNSOLD
[-] 1987 Paul Gascoigne Rookie - UNSOLD
[-] Cristiano Ronaldo 2004 Rookie - UNSOLD
[-] 1979 Trevor Francis - UNSOLD
[-] 1979 Martin Peters - UNSOLD
The highly sought-after 2004 Premier League Rookie Ronaldo card. Image credit: Instagram/paolopaniniofficial
For the time being, Ollie Jenks and the rest of the Paolo Panini team will continue to bring nostalgic, feel-good content to their dedicated audience. There is, after all, a huge appetite to not only buy and sell football trading cards but to watch live card breaks.
"There is a massive community, especially with the modern cards at the minute," he says. "I'm predicting a '00s nostalgia boom in the future though – much like with Britpop and '90s football. We want to get ahead of the curb."
A recent study from Business Research Insight suggests the global sports trading card market is on a “remarkable trajectory”, even amidst changing dynamics.
Ollie goes on: "Everything today is mass-printed and Panini, Topps or other manufacturers have factories worldwide. Therefore the more broad and common an item is, the less value it will have. We also know – with a pair of 2023 glasses on – about how valuable these vintage collectables could be in the future.
"Back in 1958, no one would have suspected a Pele card in Sweden would fetch millions in the future. So people nowadays are taking greater care of stickers and cards but the rare cards today will not be as scarce in the future. I doubt they will ever be as valuable as Messi, Pele, Ronaldo and Maradona.
"Having said that, some of the modern cards and newer sports cards such as Formula One have a dedicated fan base who spend a lot of money. This hobby started in the ‘50's with baseball cards in America, so it will always have a home."
Some may scoff at those who spend such large amounts on trading cards or stickers from 50 years ago but for many, these collectables have become more than just a piece of paper. They represent sentimental memories and a genuine connection to the sport they love.
We live in a society where technology has almost eliminated the ‘old school’ hobby but against all odds, the trading card industry lives on thanks, in part, to enthusiasts like Ollie.