Upper Deck signs exclusive trading card license with NHL, NHLPA. What now?

Upper Deck LogoA joint press release — issued by Upper Deck, the NHL and the NHLPA — hit the hockey card industry like a ton of pucks yesterday when it was announced that Upper Deck has signed an exclusive, multi-year deal with the NHL and the NHLPA.  The agreement, which starts in the 2014-15 season, makes Upper Deck the sole manufacturer of licensed NHL trading cards. This is a huge win for Upper Deck, a huge loss for Panini America and In The Game — and a bit of both for hockey card collectors.

In short, it will be nothing but Upper Deck, more Upper Deck and only Upper Deck when it comes to NHL trading cards over the next several years.

Panini America, whose agreement with the NHL and NHLPA expires on June 30, was quick to respond. CEO Mark Warsop, issued a press release of his own yesterday, stating his discord:

“We are disappointed to learn of the NHL and NHLPA’s decision to go in another direction in the trading card category…During the term of our agreement we faced many challenges, including a late start to the agreement and an NHL work stoppage. Through all of the challenges we established trading card hockey brands that collectors came to love and look forward to…” (link)

I think what the Panini CEO really wanted to say was:

“Thanks for nothing, jerks! Our licensed started later than we wanted — in October 2010 — so Upper Deck still got to be first to market with the 2010-11 cards. We also had to put up with last year’s lockout, and then the absolute dearth of rookie cards due to the NHLPA’s mercurial decision. But we’re not bitter…”

In The Game — who has not had an NHL or NHLPA license since the 2003-04 season — is also shut out once again.The company applied for a trading card license with the NHLPA in October 2013. Getting one seemed possible, since it was the NHLPA who first offered In The Game a trading card license in 2012 — one they wisely turned down — for the 2012-13 season. We all know how that year played out for hockey card collectors and card companies.

So, why would the Players Association first want to expand their licensees, then go to just one two years later? In an interview with Beckett Hockey Editor Susan Lulgjuraj, NHLPA director of licensing Adam Larry stated that the exclusive deal was to cut down on products in the marketplace.

“Of the benefits, one of the big ones is being able to control number of products a little better,” Larry told Beckett Media. “One of the things we were hearing is there was probably a little too much product out there right now.” (link)

What does this all mean to hockey card collectors? If you like Upper Deck cards, then you have nothing to worry about. We will get plenty of those, like Artifacts, the return of MVP as a standard set, and Upper Deck Series One and Two. Personally, I am glad that UD Series One and Two will continue for its 25th year. It is consistently my favorite set, and is currently the longest-running active set.

But if you like competition, then this is very bad. Don’t get me wrong — I like some Upper Deck Sets and dislike others. What I really like, though, is the innovation that happens when you have competition. Why skate hard for the puck if there is no one to beat you to it? Why try to make better hockey cards when no one else can make them?

Granted, I did not like too many of Panini’s hockey card sets over the years, but at least having Panini in the picture made Upper Deck work harder. Their flagship set (Series One and Two) is always a cut above anything else, while sets like Fleer Retro and Parkhurst Champions have been among my favorites during the “two-company race” we’ve enjoyed the past four years. Would Upper Deck have even attempted a set like Parkhurst Champions if they didn’t have to compete with Panini for our hobby dollars?

Then again, maybe without pressure from direct competition, Upper Deck will double down, innovate, and transform hockey card collecting — much like T.J. Oshie got to work his magic during the shootout in the Olympics, with unlimited time and room and no defender trying to knock him down.

So, just how long is this deal anyway? The press release does not say, and Upper Deck Sports and Social Media Manager Chris Carlin was not at liberty to tell me. The NHLPA did not answer my email inquiry, either.

The previous exclusive that Upper Deck held was for six years (2004-05 to 2009-10). Perhaps the length of the deal is being kept a secret because it is variable, based on Upper Deck’s performance. Do well, and keep your exclusivity. Do poorly, and everyone from Topps to Press Pass will get a license. Of course, this is pure speculation on my part.

In the interest of full disclosure, Upper Deck does provide products to this blog for review purposes. However, all opinions on this blog are my own.

Author: Sal Barry

Sal Barry is the editor and webmaster of Puck Junk. He is a freelance hockey writer, college professor and terrible hockey player. Follow him on Twitter @puckjunk

8 thoughts on “Upper Deck signs exclusive trading card license with NHL, NHLPA. What now?”

  1. Also in the interest of full disclosure, if Upper Deck loses it’s exclusive license again, I would like to see one given to two of my favorite former hockey card producers…Classic and Ultimate Sportscards.

    But seriously, my gut says this is going to be a good thing (as I sort of alluded to on my blog post about this yesterday) but my brain can’t help but think this is going to be cool for a year or two and quickly kamikaze itself into the hull of the hockey card collecting ship.

  2. Sal – I’m disappointed to hear about the direction that the NHL and NHLPA have taken on this. I agree with you – competition is good. Just look at how much better the card products that have been released since Panini obtained their licence a few years ago. UD has stepped it up with Panini in the picture. A sports card collector wants choice in what they collect and something new and exciting. If the NHLPA wants to control the number of products (and I assume the volume of each product produced) then put that into the licencing agreements. I seem to recall that sometime in the 90’s that one of the major sports restricted the card companies on the number of sets that they could issue.

    1. Jeff, during the 1993-94 season, the NHL did control the amount of products a company could produce. It was two products per company. But a season later, that decision was appealed, as the Players’ Association liked having the increased revenue from higher-end lines of cards like Flair and Be A Player.

  3. I’m really going to miss Score Hockey from Panini, but other than that let ’em focus on Football. And unlicensed Baseball. Their high end products have been disappointing to me to say the least.

    Let’s just hope UD can continue to put out good products as they have been. Also maybe they can re-license the Parkhurst name?

    1. I liked Score, but I always wanted more from it.

      Bringing back Parkhurst would be cool — maybe as a reto “old timers” set?

  4. In my opinion, Upper Deck’s 2013-14 output was mostly inferior to that of Panini’s, ESPECIALLY the Playbook set…..in picking up the Titanium from Pacific, the latter did a fantastic job in maintaining the quality and, like that company, it was a mixed bag overall in terms of design attractiveness – in contrast, UD’s designs have been mostly underwhelming for a LONG time now; poor angles of players in photos and, JUST like Panini, recycling of the same images so, THAT argument can’t be used by the Players Association as a rationale for exclusivity…..with VERY few exceptions, have always the Fleer/Ultra lines as being superior to UD so, hopefully they’ll CONCUR and ALL their product will be comparable in quality…..

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