When Upper Deck introduced the first fully licensed game-worn jersey patch cards in 1996, the hobby entered a new era, allowing collectors to own a piece of memorabilia with their trading cards.
Unlike today, the first jersey cards were huge chases, similar to today’s search for one-of-ones and numbered rookie patch autographs. Upper Deck’s initial product included thin, mostly single-colored jersey pieces. Fans were lucky to pull a pinstripe or two-colored patches.
Even as card companies equipped their products with larger, more appealing patches, jersey cards have taken a tumble over the years. The material used to make the patches has come into question, and the guarantees on the backs of cards sometimes offer little clarity.
Speculation over the differences between ‘game-used,’ ‘game-worn,’ and ‘player-worn’ patches have caused collectors to openly wonder what they’re buying – with few answers available.
Paul Lesko, a lawyer and card collector, has a good grasp on the language used by card manufacturers. But even he has questions about the terms, vague as they are.
“As far as I’m aware, there is not a definition for what would distinguish ‘game-used’ from ‘game-worn,’ although a manufacturer’s contract with the leagues may provide a definition,” Lesko told us. “I suspect ‘game-used’ would need to be a jersey worn during the game while in play.”
“I would suspect that ‘game-worn’ gives a little more leeway. It could have been worn during game play, or perhaps someone sitting on the bench.”
1996-97 Upper Deck Hockey
Upper Deck first issued jersey cards in its 1996-97 hockey release, putting one jersey card inside every 2,500 packs. The Series 1 hockey release featured five players for its jersey card debut: Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Doug Gilmour, Jaromir Jagr, and Ray Bourque.
Series 2 featured eight more players, including Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, and Eric Lindros. By July 1997, the Lindros jersey card had a Beckett value of $600. All of the cards were valued at $200 or more.
Soon after the hockey release, UD debuted jersey cards for baseball in 1997 featuring just three players; Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn, and Rey Ordonez. The odds of getting a patch in the baseball release was 1 in 800.
Guarantees on the Backs of Cards
The first jersey cards were very specific about the product in the cards. The back of the 1997 UD Rey Ordonez card says, “On the front of this card is an authentic piece of a game-worn jersey from an official 1996 Major League Baseball game. This swatch is from a jersey worn by Rey Ordonez.”
Patch cards ushered in thicker jersey swatches, relics like pieces of equipment, and even strands of hair from George Washington and Secretariat. Some card companies pictured the uniforms used to make the patches to certify their guarantees further.
By 1999, “player-worn” cards were introduced, with jerseys coming from promotional photo shoots. These guarantees were also clear about who wore the uniforms and the specific event they came from.
Up to the 2008-09 season, Upper Deck continued to guarantee that its patches were game-used by the player featured on the card, even if the guarantees became increasingly vague.
The back of a 2008-09 UD Kevin Garnett patch card states, ‘On the front of this card is a piece of memorabilia that has been certified to us as having been used by Kevin Garnett as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves in an NBA game.’
In the language above, UD distanced itself from the patch certification. Instead of UD certifying the piece of memorabilia, the guarantee states that a third party certified the memorabilia for the card company. The language change may have come out of legal necessity.
In 2012, a dealer named Bradley Wells pleaded guilty to mail fraud and admitted to buying hundreds of replica jerseys, altering them, and selling them to trading card manufacturers as game-used from 2005-2009. Further, he told investigators the top card manufacturers knowingly purchased questionable memorabilia from him. However, his allegations were never investigated or substantiated.
In 2009, Panini won a contract to become the sole manufacturer of NBA trading cards. With Panini’s ascension came a change in NBA patch guarantees.
The first NBA release by Panini was 2009 Crown Royale. The jersey cards in Crown Royale included one-color patches featured in shield-like windows. But whereas UD explicitly guaranteed that a patch came from a player’s jersey in a game, Panini’s guarantee was vaguer. The backs of these jersey cards read, ‘The enclosed game-worn patch is guaranteed by Panini America, Inc.’
Panini’s guarantee still asserts that the patch is both game-worn and that it comes from the player on the card. But why would Panini choose a simpler language from its predecessors?
According to Lesko, Panini may have shortened its guarantees to create a “carve-out.”
“The more ‘carve-outs’ in a guarantee, the more flexibility a company has on which memorabilia it could use,” Lesko said. “Typically, when companies change language, it either means they need to broaden the materials they can use, or they’ve made mistakes in the past and want to insulate themselves from future liability.”
Panini Event-Worn Materials
While the guarantees became harder to decipher, Panini moved away from game-worn memorabilia and introduced more event-worn and player-worn material.
The 2009-10 Panini National Treasures (NT) basketball release included attractive, large patches. It was Panini’s biggest release after winning the NBA contract, and it would contain one of the most iconic modern cards.
All variations of Steph Curry’s 2009-10 NT Century RPA feature a large patch with jersey letters. The back of Curry’s RPA reads, “The Autograph and enclosed event-worn swatch are guaranteed by Panini America, Inc.”
None of the patches in Curry’s National Treasures Century RPA are game-worn. However, other National Treasures releases from the same year contain game-worn swatches. It is assumed that the patch comes from the card’s photo shoot, even if the wording does not carry that guarantee.
Event- and player-worn patches may have come from jerseys donned by a player but not in competition. Events from which companies source event-worn jerseys can include in person rookie events or photo shoots. In the eyes of some collectors, the switch from guaranteed game-used patches to “player-worn” patches significantly devalued the novelty of owning such cards.
The fact that Curry’s RPA is “player-worn” hasn’t taken away from the card’s value. According to Card Ladder, a Platinum version of 5 recently sold for $276,000 in February. The value in high end cards is more tied to the player’s popularity and success, the scarcity of that particular card, demand and overall card quality.
But the “player-worn” language has also been criticized. A photograph of Mark Ingram wearing Jeremy Shockey jerseys drew outrage from card collectors. Ingram, appearing to wear dozens of jerseys at a time, best personified the absurdity of the player-worn category.
Most Recent Language
The most recent wording from Panini releases has morphed once again. Now there’s uncertainty about where the uniforms for the patches are sourced from, and the guarantees reflect that.
“The most offensive and recent language I’ve seen is, ‘The enclosed officially licensed material is not associated with any specific player, game or event,’” Lesko says. “These materials could then just be swatches from anything ‘licensed.’
“Since we cannot see that license between the manufacturer and league, we don’t even know what that is. And there’s no guarantee that patch lines up with the player’s name on the card.”
There’s a chance that some patch cards now contain little more than jerseys bought at a sporting goods store, with the nicest parts taken from the jerseys, never touched or worn by the player on the card.
Upper Deck still has one of the strongest guarantees among card manufacturers for its patch cards. In its 2022-23 Artifacts release, jersey cards clearly state that the material is game-used and by the athlete featured on the card.
Legal implications of wording on cards
For Lesko, the card companies have clarified what they are selling, even if the language used in its guarantees is ambiguous.
“Legally speaking, I do not believe the guarantees themselves are misleading as the more modern ones really explain that the patch you’ve received might not be desirable,” Lesko said. “It’s fine print and on the back of the card, somewhat hidden. But it tells you exactly what you’re getting: potentially junk.”
On the bright side, Lesko sees the newest language on cards as a confirmation that all prior cards from the manufacturer did contain relics used or worn by the player on the card.
“The beauty of the new language is that it tells me all prior language would guarantee that the patch was part of a jersey worn by the player on the card,” Lesko said. “Otherwise, why would a manufacturer add a ‘player’ carve-out to the new language?
“If it was found that patches from other players were in the cards that only carved out ‘games or events’ and not ‘players,’ those better be worn by the player on the card, or the manufacturer could be open to liability.”
As Fanatics takes over the trading card licenses for the NBA, MLB, and the NFL, it’ll be interesting to see how jersey cards evolve. Will Fanatics source more game-used material even as the demand and price for game-used memorabilia continue to rise? Or will jersey cards return to when UD created a buzz with the first patch cards more than 25 years ago?
Perhaps Fanatics can take a pointer from the 2015 Topps Strata Baseball set that first used MLB’s Authentication Program to register every patch card with the specific date, game, and player that a relic came from. Topps has leveraged its partnership with the MLB Authentication Program to certify its patches with holograms that can be looked up on the online.
In a recent Luka Nation Network podcast, Fanatics Senior VP of Marketing Ben Taylor acknowledged the difficulty of creating quality trading cards. Taylor also admitted that Fanatics knows about the hobby’s disdain for amorphous patch cards from “officially licensed material.”
In the podcast, Taylor mentioned “some really cool innovations coming to the product” concerning memorabilia cards. Collectors will be anxious to see if Fanatics deliver the goods after years of less than satisfying swatches.