By Barry Janoff
April 18, 2017: In 1989, Upper Deck made sports history when it released its first MLB card series, with then rookie Key Griffey Jr. as the No. 1 card.
Earlier this month, Upper Deck again made history when it released its Grandeur Hockey Coin Collection, limited-edition precious metal coins featuring 20 NHL icons and stars, including Wayne Gretzky, Patrick Roy, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin and rising phenom Connor McDavid.
The collection includes 1 oz. 99.99% pure silver coins available in three finishes and rarities: colored, numbered to 5,000: high-relief silver, numbered to 1,000; and silver frosted, numbered to 500, per player.
There is also a more rare ¼ oz. 99.99% 24 karat gold minted coin, numbered to just 100, per player.
Grandeur Hockey Coins, developed in cooperation with the NHL Players' Assn., are available individually in a sealed blind pack for $100 or as a collector box with four randomly inserted coins for $499. The collector box includes one of three rarer coins and comes with a display that holds up to 20 coins.
According to Jason Masherah, president of Upper Deck, "No one has presented anything like this for the coin business, adding a layer of anticipation that appeals to varying levels of collectors."
Upper Deck, headquartered in Carlsbad, Calif., is a worldwide sports, gaming and entertainment company. It is the exclusive provider of professionally licensed hockey trading cards, and has deals with such athletes as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Patrick Roy and Connor McDavid.
More than sports cards and collectibles, Upper Deck also has entertainment alliances that include Disney, 20th Century Fox and such Marvel platforms as Legendary, Deadpool, Doctor Strange, Captain America and Avengers.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Masherah, who has been with the company since 2006 and its president since 2013, about the story behind the Grandeur Hockey Coin Collection, Upper Deck’s place in sports and entertainment collecting and the state of the trading card industry.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What is the story behind how the coins came to be part of Upper Deck’s landscape?
Jason Masherah: We look at the coin industry as something that we feel we can add to as a company. Precious metal coins are very popular. Much more so over the past ten years or so. There are coins out there, but we didn’t see anything that spoke to Upper Deck’s quality commitment and value. What was intriguing to us was the category didn’t have this 'blind bag' model that we employ with our trading cards. In fact, most of the coins in that industry are straight sales. So if you want a silver Walrus coin (part of Canada’s Polar Animals collection), you go buy it for $100. If you want the gold version, you spend $1,000. We looked at the procedure and said, We can do it better.
NYSJ: Aside from their value, what makes this collection desirable for consumers, sports fans and coin collectors?
JM: We think we can have fun with it. We can apply all of our brand tenants to it. These coins are absolutely stunning in person. We used the highest technologies we could apply. What most people find fascinating is that we applied to the coins our anti-counterfeit hologram. And each coin has a serial number. There are four levels of coin rarity, four different types of finishes. And they are randomly distributed in our blind packaging model that a lot of companies are trending toward. Loot Crate, for example, where you get a package every month but don’t know what’s in it.
NYSJ: The initial series has 20 NHL legends and stars. How did you compile that list?
JM: Wayne Gretzky and Patrick Roy are exclusive spokesmen with Upper Deck. Then we wanted to make certain that we provided strong value to consumers so we wanted the best of the best. But we also wanted to make sure that we hit key hockey markets. To make sure that these different markets were represented. I believe we have most of the covered in the first release. Each comes with the profile of a player and a landmark from the city of the player’s team. And all of the designs were done in-house.
NYSJ: Was there a process of hit-and-miss until you got to the product you wanted?
JM: This was the first time we’ve done these types of coins, so we did go through a couple of different versions. Sometimes a design will look great on paper but not so great when you stamp them.
NYSJ: Did you solicit during the creative process feedback from consumers or anyone out-of-house?
JM: Where we received the most feedback was from our distribution partner, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. They are the market leader in precious metal coins. So we looked at some of their most-popular coins and the trends they were seeing. We wanted feedback from them because they are experts in the field. We looked at what was trending and then took it to another level. Now that they are available, the feedback we anticipate from coin collectors is that this is something they have never seen.
NYSJ: Were Gretzky or Roy involved at all during the process?
JM: Our spokesmen always approve anything we do that involves the use of their image or name. So we were in constant communication with them to make sure they saw what we were doing and that they liked what we were doing.
NYSJ: With trading cards there are inserts that can include autographs or game-used pieces. Anything like that with this coin series?
JM: Where this differs from the trading card world is that there aren’t autographs or game-used jersey pieces. The exciting element here is that we are including gold coins that are limited to 100 pieces each.
NYSJ: The NHL this season has been celebrating its 100th anniversary. Are you seeing more interest in the league from fans, consumers and collectors?
JM: We have seen an increase in interest in the NHL market for years. At the heart of what we do, we are a hockey company. We haven’t seen an increase in interest in particular because of the 100th anniversary. What we have seen is an increased interest in hockey collectibles over the past few years. That’s what we are focused on. A promotional program we started about two years ago with Tim Hortons up in Canada was very successful. It got more people into collecting hockey cards again. We’ve had a couple of great rookie classes the last two years.
"There are only so many iconic cards in the industry. The ’52 Topps Mantle. The ’86-87 Fleer Michael Jordan. The ’89 Upper Deck Griffey."
NYSJ: Have you seen an impact from Connor McDavid because of the season he has had?
JM: We signed Conor McDavid as a spokesman (during his rookie year), and it has been a powerful alliance. Connor just turned 20 and his career will be amazing. This year, with the power of having so many rookies, it gets people out there looking for the rookie cards. The 100th anniversary helps. But there are so many reasons why people are drawn to hockey.
NYSJ: Baseball season has just started, and Upper Deck is forever associated with the Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, which was No. 1 in the first Upper Deck baseball set in 1989. Looking back, even though you weren’t with the company at the time, how smart a move was that.?
JM: There are only so many iconic cards in the industry. The ’52 Topps Mantle. The ’86-87 Fleer Michael Jordan. The ’89 Upper Deck Griffey. In hockey, we’ve been lucky over the last couple of decades in that we’ve had a couple of those types of cards. The 2005-06 Sidney Crosby The Cup rookie card (which has been called the 'Holy Grail' of Crosby cards as it comes with both an on-card autograph and a patch swatch). And last year the Connor McDavid card, which both are well-respected and sought after. It’s nice to have those iconic cards stand out in the history of the company. With Griffey and those (NHL) cards, it’s something that will be part of our DNA forever.
NYSJ: What’s your view on the state of the trading card industry in 2017?
JM: It’s interesting with trading cards. Sports has been very stable for about the past decade. When I talk about trading cards, it’s not just sports. I think about Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh Magic, gaming cards, entertainment cards, including our Marvel and Star Wars cards. The category overall has been growing for several years. There are more options. More variety than ever. So you can’t talk about the category and just limit it to sports cards. These didn’t exist when I was growing up. We have very strong properties in the game area: An award-winning brand in Legendary, which has done extremely well for us.
NYSJ: Are trading cards still inter-generational, in that dads will collect with their kids and grandads with grandkids?
JM: Certainly. What’s exciting right now is that Gen-X is getting to the point where their kids are at the age where they want to share the hobby with them. It’s a healthy hobby. You spend your money in healthy ways. You can connect with your kids. It’s great when I meet guys who tell me they collected Michael Jordan and Ken Griffey Jr. cards when they were growing up and now they collect with their kids.
What’s growing as well is the Upper Deck digital e-pack platform, which we use as away to bridge the gap between digital and physical. It allows you to buy physical cards and open the packs and then have the cards sent to you if you want. We’re seeing it as a preference for the younger generation. They expect to be able to buy things on their phone or their iPad. They expect to have access 24/7. As opposed to older generations who are used to going into a store and opening packs.
NYSJ: What do you see moving forward in 2017 and beyond?
JM: The opportunity for Upper Deck is to always be the market leader. The innovator. Last year we launched the e-pack platform. This year we launched the coins. We’re always working on something.
Coins Of The Realm: Upper Deck Collection Stars Gretzky, Roy, Crosby, McDavid
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