NHL, NHLPA Extend Trading Card License Agreement With Upper Deck

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A fan poses at the Upper Deck custom hockey card booth during the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver on … [+] June 22, 2019. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)


NHLI via Getty Images

In a time of flux for the sports trading card industry, hockey is staying true to its roots.

On Monday, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association announced a long-term license extension with their exclusive trading card partner, Upper Deck.

“I always say, it starts at the top with the Commissioner,” said Brian Jennings, the NHL’s chief brand officer and senior executive vice president. “The relationships definitely do matter to us on the business front. We always take it into consideration when we’re either talking about renewals or companies that we partner with.”

Upper Deck has been working with the NHL and the NHLPA since the 1990-91 season. The new agreement continues the company’s exclusive rights in the trading card space, which they’ve held since the 2014-15 season.

Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers pulls one of his own from a pack of Upper Deck hockey cards … [+] during the 2015 NHLPA Rookie Showcase on August 31, 2015 in Toronto , Ontario , Canada . (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLPA)


NHLPA – The Players Collection via Getty Images

It comes after players in basketball, football and baseball opted to strike a deal with a new company controlled by Fanatics last August.

“When we started to go through this process, as the trading card industry had been going through some pretty seismic shifts and changes, (Upper Deck) came in and put together both a short-term and long-term vision for what they wanted to do with our business,” Jennings said.

That’s not to say that other options weren’t considered.

“We have a fiduciary responsibility to our board and to our clubs to make sure that we’re being, if you will, active listeners and ensuring that we’re there,” Jennings said. “We did have conversations, and Fanatics is a terrific partner of the NHL in a lot of different areas of our business, and will continue to be so.

“But just as related to trading cards, we felt that Upper Deck was doing a lot of things — in the business of going direct-to-consumer through their e-Pack, but they also bought a very interesting holistic approach to the business.

“What they have done a really good job on, is making sure that some of the hobbyists and the retailers have an opportunity to be a touchpoint for our fans and collectors and enthusiasts to get their hands on product too.

“We liked their distribution model and they’ve always been an innovative company with us. And some of the relationships they have with some of our star players, both past and present, also factored into it.”

Upper Deck has agreements with some of the biggest names in sports and hockey, including Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Connor McDavid as well as emerging stars like Alexis Lafreniere, Quinton Byfield and the top prospect for the 2022 draft, Shane Wright. Earlier this month, the company added Montreal Canadiens center Nick Suzuki to its roster, signing the 22-year-old to an exclusive autograph, memorabilia and collectibles agreement.

The new license agreement with the NHL and NHLPA includes physical trading cards and the e-Pack platform, which was launched in 2016. Upper Deck also plans to offer NFT trading cards through its Evolution platform, which is scheduled to launch this winter.

The company’s online ecosystem is expected to offer the opportunity for secondary-market trading of digital offerings, after valuations for physical collectibles spiked during the pandemic.

“Both short and long term, we love the vision that they laid out, as far as kind of a digital ecosystem where hockey enthusiasts and collectors can come around and collect and trade and do things with their collections,” Jennings said.

And while the speculative aspect of collecting draws the headlines, sports cards remain an important entry point for children who are just learning to love hockey.

“Young boys and girls, in their formative years where they’re learning, statistics may be a way in for them, or the fact that they’re just learning about their favorite player or their favorite team and collecting based on that aspect of it. What are those price points and making sure that it was still accessible to all?

“As wide of distribution as we possibly can have is important — whether that be online, whether that be at our arenas, hobbyist, general brick-and-mortar retail —was an important aspect of it. And certainly, Upper Deck has a broad distribution strategy for those products and will in the future as well.”

“Throughout our relationship, Upper Deck has demonstrated its strong commitment to NHL players and their fans,” said NHLPA executive director Don Fehr in a statement. “They have continued to deliver exceptional products over the last 19 months despite the difficulties brought about by the pandemic. We look forward to continuing to build on our partnership and offer the highest quality traditional cards, as well as innovative digital collecting opportunities.”

Even as the NHL’s 2021-22 season returns to normalcy with an 82-game schedule and arenas back at full capacity, the league’s vendors and partners continue to face pandemic-related challenges within their own industries.

“Everything has been disrupted, from supply chain to raw materials, labor — you name it,” Jennings said. “It’s been the perfect storm, not just for trading card industries. It cuts across every sector of the business.

“Upper Deck has done a good job. They’re being very proactive in their communication out to the broader marketplace. An announcement like today is really important for the industry, because it stabilizes the marketplace.

“We’re happy for our partner, in Upper Deck, that this announcement lets them have some certainty for the future and they can plan for that.”

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