By Barry Janoff
April 10, 2014: In 1989, premium card company Upper Deck, a rookie in the industry, made then rookie Ken Griffey Jr. card No. 1 in its first set.
Industry analysts regard that card as being a game-changer. It not only helped to jump-start Griffey Jr.'s public personna in a career that eventually encompassed 22 seasons, 630 home runs, 13 All-Star Games and eligibility into the Hall of Fame in 2016, but was in the leadoff position in a 600-card MLB set that put Upper Deck on the map.
This year, Upper Deck is celebrating its 25th anniversary with activities, activations, marketing and product.
Although the trading card industry has been going through a series of ebbs and flows, Upper Deck has managed to keep producing popular products and sign significant deals.
The Carlsbad, Calif.-based company has exclusive contracts with Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and, most recently, Wayne Gretzky. In February, the NHL and NHL Players’ Assn. signed a multi-year pact that makes Upper Deck the exclusive licensed manufacturer of NHL Trading Cards, beginning with the 2014-15 season. That reprises a role that Upper Deck held from 2004-10.
This summer, Upper Deck will unveil a 250-card, 25th anniversary multi-sport set, "utilizing a design similar to its inaugural 1989 baseball card set." New memorabilia product also will come via Upper Deck Authenticated.
The 25th edition of Upper Deck Series One Hockey will be released in the fall.
In the entertainment category, Upper Deck said it would use its 25th anniversary platform to expand its gaming business via new versions of the Legendary Deck Building Game. That would include a new Marvel release and a 20th Century Fox licensed "Alien Encounters" release this August to coincide with the 35th anniversary of the release of the original Alien movie. In addition, Upper Deck is bringing back its Marvel Masterpieces trading card set, to be comprised solely of original art by renowned artist Joe Jusko.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Jason Masherah, who has been president for Upper Deck since January 2013 and has been with the company since 2006, about collecting, marketing, 25 years of history and changes to come.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What have the initial reactions and responses been to Upper Deck's 25th Anniversary activations?
Jason Masherah: It's been fantastic. What's been fun has been to hear from and talk to people about collecting cards, about opening up their first pack of Upper Deck cards, when they got their Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, their Sergei Fedorov rookie card. What their favorite card is, or what the coolest technology that Upper Deck has. It's been fun, and we're just getting started.
NYSJ: The industry has been changing and morphing. Where is Upper Deck regarding new innovations and how do you combine that with the elements that have made the company what it is to this point?
JM: What's fun for me is that, although people recognize us as a sports trading card company, we are fairly diversified. We have the Authenticated Memorabilia Division. We have long-standing exclusive contracts with Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky and Rory McIlroy. It's really cool to see all of the unique pieces that the product development team comes up with. That business is a lot of fun because in a lot of ways they are creating art work. On the entertainment side, we have a lot of fun with Hello Kitty and Marvel, and we dove back into the gaming side, which is really fun. The game in the box that we came out with about a year and a half ago, Legendary. I deem that family entertainment. People have gone crazy over it. There is a big, avid following. We are going to expand on that. We are not just making sports trading cards. We are doing a lot of things.
NYSJ: LeBron, Tiger, Gretzky and McIlroy are in a spot promoting Upper Deck's 25th anniversary. Beyond their images on product, how involved will they be with the celebratory marketing?
JM: The plan, as the year goes on, is to have them actively involved in some of the events. We have big plans for the sports collector conventions this year and other events that will be announced. One of the big programs we launched is Random Acts of Kindness, where people can submit different stories to us and it allows us to change or affect the lives of people who have unique stories. One of the cool things we can do because of the products that we have is to really surprise people. We have been and will continue to surprise people who we know to be loyal fans and supporters with trading card packs and boxes, Upper Deck Authenticated memorabilia, personalized collectables, Upper Deck apparel and even tickets to events.
NYSJ: Is this aligned with Upper Deck's Heroic Inspirations cards?
JM: Heroic Inspirations cards honor people who have been inspirations to others. We recently teamed up with the family of Mandi Schwartz, the former player with the Yale hockey team who died of cancer (in 2011) to help with their foundation. We had an Heroic Inspirations insert card for Jack Hoffman (the eight-year-old boy in Nebraska, who is fan of the University of Nebraska football team, battling brain cancer) to help the Team Jack Foundation raise money. So you will see more of that as we go along.
(Editor's note: Upper Deck this month released an Heroic Inspirations card featuring Jaclyn Murphy, a young lacrosse player who has fought cancer, to help support the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation.)
NYSJ: Traditionally, baseball has been the No. 1 sport in the card collecting universe. Has football taken over or is there a pecking order among sports?
JM: You can answer that question in multiple ways. In the U.S., the two sports than dominate in trading cards are football and baseball. Traditionally, when you think of trading cards the first sport that comes to mind is baseball. But football has definitely risen in popularity, which has come with the rising popularity of the [NFL]. For us, a key for a long time has been hockey. In Canada, there is only one sport, where in the U.S, there are four [major] sports. So between the business that we do in the U.S. and the business we do in Canada, hockey has been as strong as the other sports. And that surprises a lot of people.
NYSJ: Where else are you seeing big growth?
JM: We've seen a huge growth in collegiate trading cards, and that includes football over the last four years since we signed a deal with CLC (the Collegiate Licensing Co., a division of IMG College and the exclusive trademark licensing firm for the NCAA). Nobody had really paid attention to that market. As crazy and avid as people are about their professional teams, people are even more passionate about their college teams. The way I look at it is, Tim Tebow was traded from the Denver Broncos to the New York Jets, but he's a Florida Gator forever.
NYSJ: Is there a misconception about trading cards in that they are only for people who buy them as collectables and for their monetary value as opposed to kids and adults buying cards for fun and because they like certain sports, teams or players?
JM: There are people who look at it as an investment and a way to make money. But kids have always been here. And there is a large population who view it as a hobby and something fun to do. All of the companies have done a good job of marketing to kids. We have always tried to keep kids involved. Where the opportunity is now, and we're seeing it in response to our 25th anniversary, is with the GenX crowd. The group of us who grew up with Upper Deck and recognized Upper Deck as the premium trading card. We have always had a passion for trading cards, but now we are at the point where we have good, solid careers and we are having kids. So there is the opportunity to share the hobby they had as kids with their kids. Honestly, that has been very rewarding for my staff and me.
NYSJ: Do moms take too much of the blame from people whose card collections from when they were kids were thrown out?
JM: [Laughs.] Probably. The funny part is that I never had that issue when I was a kid. My mom and my dad really encouraged my collecting. I think they figured that if I was spending my time collecting cards I wasn't spending my time getting into trouble. And they were right.
NYSJ: Upper Deck recently signed a multi-year deal with the NHL and the NHL Players Assn. to be the exclusive licensed manufacturer of NHL Trading Cards, beginning with the 2014-15 season. How key is that to Upper Deck moving forward?
JM: We had a very strong run with them the last time we were exclusive (2004-10). Being exclusive gives us the ability to explore a lot of areas, try new things, build the business and re-engage collectors. So we are really looking forward to the opportunity. In the U.S., collectors think about Upper Deck and the original Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card. In Canada, consumers known what hockey has always meant to Upper Deck. So it is a big responsibility that we take it very seriously.
"When you think of trading cards the first sport that comes to mind is baseball. But football has risen in popularity. [And] in Canada there is only one sport — hockey."
NYSJ: How integral is having Gretzky signed to an exclusive deal, joining Jordan, LeBron, etc.?
JM: When you look at the hobby, the most valuable athletes are Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. They are the most valuable, the most collectible. the most sought after. The products we have created with him have been received with tremendous enthusiasm, and there will be more as we continue to grow the relationship with him.
NYSJ: How big is the golf category, where you have Tiger and Rory signed to deals?
JM: Typically it's an older crowd that goes for the golf category. Although kids do know Tiger. We will have some product coming out. We touch the golf market every couple of years. We had some sets in 2012 and we will have new sets this year. When you have Tiger an Rory, two of the best golfers in the world, it makes it fun to put out golf product, knowing that they will autograph cards and give us shirts for us to cu up and include as part of the sets.
NYSJ: Where do you see growth on the entertainment side?
JM: We have contracts with Marvel, Sanrio [the company that owns] Hello Kitty and Fox for the Alien Predator franchise. With Hello Kitty, typically most people don't think that girls collect trading cards, which is a myth. Their collecting behavior may be different, but they are just as engaged as anyone. We have had tremendous success there. On the Marvel side, we make trading cards for all of the movies, and the movies have been enormously popular. We also do trading card sets based on the comic book artwork. And the Legendary game have been very successful and continues to grow. With Fox, we will have an Alien game coming out in August that will tie in with the 35th anniversary of the original movie. People are very excited for the game to come out.
NYSJ: How long will the Upper Deck 25th anniversary celebration and marketing continue?
JM: There will be two pieces to the celebration. There is the 25th anniversary of the company, which started in February and will go into the Fall. In the Fall, we will launch a celebration for the 25th anniversary of Upper Deck hockey. We will double-dip and have two celebrations.
NYSJ: Any forecast on where Upper Deck and the industry would be at the 50th anniversary?
JM: At this point, for the most part, we are doing a lot of the right things. We have a strong legacy of creating the best quality cards, the most innovative cards and a reputation for making sure that everything is authentic with our memorabilia. That will remain the focus going forward. If we stick to those three brand tenant, that will continue to lead to success for the company. We will continue to diversify. We will continue to do new things. We will continue to be the innovation leader.
NYSJ: Any way to predict where the biggest changes might be?
JM: Today, if you haven't opened a box of cards in 20 years, the experience now would blow your mind. With the autographs, the certified products, game-used jersey pieces. My expectation is that 20 or 25 years from now, the experience will be completely different. There was no social media 25 years ago. Now, as part of our 25th anniversary, we're doing outreach, giveaways, contests through our Facebook page, our Twitter page and our blog. It also allows us to engage and do some things directly with the fans. And it enables the consumers to engage us directly regarding our product offering and content. I would like to see the hobby continue to be passed along to the next generation. We take pride in the fact that this is a healthy hobby, a healthy pastime. It is a way for parents to spend time with their kids. We see that as a big opportunity for growth and I hope that we can still say that in 25 years.
LeBron, Tiger, Gretzky, Jordan, Activations Support Upper Deck's 25th Anniversary
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