Upper Deck’s hockey hobby insight

19 12 2008

Every now and then, I buy a copy of Beckett’s magazine. And while at the local hobby shop purchasing supplies to send out more packages, I saw the December hockey issue on top of their sale stack, so I grabbed it, paid for it, and left wondering where I’d seen the cover before.

Inside is an article about whether Upper Deck’s exclusivity is good for the hobby.  For those that aren’t hockey hobby followers, UD has an exclusive contract with the NHLPA and that makes them the only game in town when it comes to current player releases.  Opinions on this vary, and you can quickly discover this by posting a question on any number of message boards that exist out there.

I was hoping for analysis like, “Before Upper Deck became the sole provider for the industry, sales of cards were at x levels, y was the average price for a box of cards, and z amount of collectors were involved. Now it’s a, b, and c.” But it took only a few paragraphs to realize it was the same article savaged here by Chemgod at Bad Wax, and that instead of data and insider thoughts I’d be getting quotes from the Beckett message boards and Upper Deck justifying it’s golden goose.

Here’s the part that stuck out for me, though.  It’s a quote from Chris Carlin, Upper Deck’s hobby marketing manager:

…Upper Deck realizes the key driver for NHL card sales each year is the rookie class.  Given rules on when a rookie can skate, Upper Deck has successfully managed the rookies for NHL by cutting off the use of rookies so there are enough carry-over rookies each year to make early season releases interesting to collectors.  If there were other licensees in the market, it is likely this would be disrupted and would ultimately lead to less rookie value in most releases.

First off, when I was still collecting cards back in 1989 I could have told you that rookie cards are one of the key drivers for hockey card sales. I’m glad Upper Deck has taken this twenty year old idea and done little to try and change that. But it’s why the rookie cards are the main drivers in the hockey hobby that made me pause upon reading this: Upper Deck short prints them.

Rookie cards are the drivers of the hobby now because they are rarer then the rest of the cards released. Be they short printed in the base set, numbered to 1999 with an autograph on them, or numbered to 99 and encased with a vial of the player’s sweat, the reason these cards are sought after is because there aren’t enough to go around. Five years later, cards of guys who skated a lap around the rink during a shift and never saw NHL ice again are still selling for more than the base cards because us set collectors need them to fill a hole. That’s why they drive the hobby.

Secondly, there’s the idea that other companies would dilute the value by releasing rookies before Upper Deck was ready to try and capitalize on them. The nerve of a company in competition to try and get there first. And what would the outcome be? More choices, less demand for Upper Deck’s version, and yes, a slightly softer rookie market. But the other end result? Creativity. Upper Deck would have to find something else to keep people interested in their cards other than a quick and easy “mark it /199 and call it a day” attitude they seem to have now.

I’m not going to argue that we should return in the late ’90s era which saw a new set released for almost every day of the season. But Upper Deck’s hockey sales are good because they are the only game in town. Yes rookie cards drive the hobby and their cost is inflated, but popping that bubble and forcing new and exciting innovations to the hobby wouldn’t be a bad thing as Carlin seems to imply. Anyone can short print a rookie. Upper Deck would have to find a new lure for customers other than a contract that collectors had no say in.

So what’s my crazy idea? How about contracts to Upper Deck, Topps, and In the Game. Limit them each to seven releases a year, and see where a competitive market would go. That would be the same number of hockey releases for the 07/08 season produced by Upper Deck.

If Topps wants to put out seven low end sets, good for them. Seven Cup clones from In the Game? That’s fine, too. But force the companies to actually work in the market to find what collectors want rather then leaning on the crutch of the serial numbered rookie.

And for those worried that this would bring a tragic end to all things hockey card, limit the contract to a year or two. Reevaluate at the end of it. Use actual data that Beckett’s article skips out on. And if there is a crash, then we all know one company in charge is actually a good thing, and order can be restored.

If Upper Deck is so confident that they are the industry leader, they shouldn’t be worried about a few competitors with them on the ice. If anything, it will give them a chance to prove their true worth.

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3 responses

19 12 2008
chemgod

I agree with your insight. I think the Rookie SP is killing the base collectors. I’m already $220 invested in OPC this year and I a only have half the short prints. Thats 2 hobby boxes and a 6 blasters. The sad truth is that hockey is bleeding and needs the cash infusion, the 25 million exclusivity is very enticing to the NHLPA and the NHL, I doubt ITG or Topps can outdo them for the 4th best collectibles.

Thanks for the reference to my site.

19 12 2008
handcollated

As I went to bed I had almost the same thought – the real problem with the hockey hobby is the unpopularity and inability of hockey to appeal to a larger fan base. If hockey had more of a following, the need for the Upper Deck deal wouldn’t be there, and hockey could have as many manufacturers as it wanted.

Unless the NHL figures out how to market itself better, we may be stuck with this system for a long time coming.

21 12 2008
The Hockey Quandry - The Short Print Rookie Card « Bad Wax

[…] – The Short Print Rookie Card Handcollated first started talking about this in his blog (link).  The major problem with the Upper Deck Exclusive deal with the NHLPA and the NHL is the release […]

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