Upper Deck can be compared to the Elton John song, “I’m Still Standing.”
MLB, the NFL and NBA and their players unions struck card and memorabilia deals with Fanatics in August, leaving Topps and Panini in the lurch. But Upper Deck maintained its hold on the NHL when it agreed to a long-term extension with the league and the NHLPA to keep its exclusive agreement.
That agreement will also include non-fungible tokens, or NFTs.
“It was massively important,” Mike Phillips, Upper Deck’s executive vice president for sales and marketing, said Tuesday afternoon.
“Obviously, there was great concern with the other sports going — and going early — with Fanatics,” said Phillips, 52, who has been with Upper Deck for 21½ years. “It was important for us as a company, for our employees, customers and especially for collectors.”
The length of the extension between Upper Deck, the NHL and NHLPA has not been announced, but Phillips said it was for “a long time.”
Upper Deck has held an NHL license since 1990, beginning with its flagship hockey product that has not missed a season in three decades. The Carlsbad, California, company first secured exclusive rights in 2004, and in 2010 Panini was also granted a license.
Upper Deck regained exclusive rights again for the 2014-2015 season and renewed its contract with the league and union in 2019. The company recently secured exclusive memorabilia and collectible deals with Montreal Canadiens forward Nick Suzuki and future NHL draft hopeful Shane Wright.
“I always say, it starts at the top with the Commissioner,” Brian Jennings, the NHL’s chief brand officer and senior executive vice president, told Forbes. “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.
“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 told the magazine. “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.”
Phillips said the aggressive moves by Fanatics were not a surprise, but still caused some anxious moments.
“Getting this done now gives us some clarity in an unclear arena,” Phillips said. “I don’t think it (Fanatics move) was a total surprise, but at the same time we were determined to not be going away without giving it our best shot.”
Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHLPA, said Upper Deck’s track record was a key factor in the renewal.
“Throughout our relationship, Upper Deck has demonstrated its strong commitment to NHL players and their fans,” Fehr said 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.”
In 2016, Upper Deck launched its e-Pack program, which allowed collectors to buy, trade and store collectibles at any time and from anyplace.
The newest digital collecting opportunity is with NFTs. An NFT is a digital asset that represents real-world objects like art, music, videos — and now, sports collectibles. They can be bought and sold online, sometimes with cryptocurrency.
For example, Willie Mays, baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer, who turned 90 in May, placed an NFT token for auction on the marketplace Nifty Gateway, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Mays’ high school diploma and a report card from Fairfield High School in Alabama were featured.
“I didn’t really understand how these computer tokens worked at first,” Mays told ESPN. “I had to get them explained to me. I’m used to tokens you can hold in your hand. But I guess people collect them the way they do trading cards. And those cards are worth a lot of money now.”
It’s a new arena, and Phillips, a longtime collector and ardent hockey fan, knows that NFTs represent a different breed of collector. NFTs reduce clutter, so a new generation of mothers do not have to threaten to toss out boxes of sports cards that are spread across a youth’s room. In this case, wives or significant others, since NFTs are not readily available to children.
It’s all confusing.
“I still struggle to wrap my head around it,” Phillips laughed. “Different generations collect in different ways. There are some tremendous benefits to NFTs, and having something digitally is groundbreaking.”
Upper Deck announced a patent-pending NFT platform, called Evolution, which is expected to launch this winter. The platform is basically an extension of Upper Deck’s e-Pack program.
Phillips said he is hoping that the license extension and the digital innovations will attract new collectors for Upper Deck.
“It’s still the wild, wild West out there,” Phillips said. “And everyone is asking (about the future) and rightfully so. You have to make yourself stand out and to be unique.
“Hockey has such tremendous upside, and it has that stability.”
The latest license extension has brought a sense of relief to Upper Deck’s executives.
“A million percent,” Phillips said. “We’re extremely proud and honored to be in a relationship with the NHL and the NHLPA.”
And relieved to still be standing.