SBJ/August 20-26, 2012/Marketing and Sponsorship

Upper Deck’s premium hockey series rolls

Troubled economy? Labor uncertainty in the NHL?

So what?

Upper Deck on Sept. 11 will release its latest installment of The Cup, a high-end series of hockey cards. Each pack costs $400. There are only five cards in a pack, occasionally a bonus sixth, but the trading card company promises gold — or, think silver — for collectors.

“Like the Stanley Cup is for players and fans, we believe this is the ultimate prize for collectors,” said Upper Deck hockey brand manager Josh Zusman.

The Cup product was created in 2005 by Upper Deck as the hockey version of its Exquisite brand for the NBA and NFL. Exquisite was coming off a big success with LeBron James’ arrival in the NBA. In 2005, Sidney Crosby was drafted first overall by Pittsburgh after the 2004-05 NHL season was lost to a lockout.

Crosby’s rookie card from that first edition of The Cup, featuring the star’s autograph and a swatch of his jersey, is considered the holy grail among cards of this generation’s stars. It is valued at more than $10,000. Only 99 were produced and printed with serial numbers.

Upper Deck says every edition of The Cup has sold out but declined to release financial data or details about the volume of cards produced annually. Grant Sandground, product development manager for the company, said, “We can tell you … that demand always far outstrips supply.”

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ rookie card will be a series star.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The possibility of an NHL lockout this fall — the current collective-bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15 — did not affect Upper Deck’s decision to release The Cup series for 2012. “This is one of our products that is virtually immune to on-ice factors — even the possibility of a delayed start to the season,” Sandground said. “For hockey card collectors, this release is arguably a bigger thrill than the start of the season. Seriously.”

Expected to be one of the most sought-after cards from this year’s release will be a rookie card of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the emerging star of the Edmonton Oilers who was drafted first overall in 2011. Nugent-Hopkins is getting the Crosby treatment, with 99 serial-numbered cards featuring his autograph and a piece of his jersey from last season.

Upper Deck does not have an exclusive licensing deal with the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, which also have contracts with Panini. Currents stars such as Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos have autographed cards in The Cup, but the company cannot claim them as exclusives. However, Upper Deck does have exclusive arrangements with legends such as Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr, who are featured in The Cup.

According to Dave McCarthy, NHL vice president of consumer products licensing, the league’s partnership with Upper Deck is in the third year of a four-year contract.

“It’s a unique product,” McCarthy said of The Cup. “It highlights our brightest stars, combined with rare memorabilia. It appeals to high-end collectors.”

It also appears to be a solid investment. Each pack of The Cup is presented in a tin. Uncracked cases from previous seasons — each case has six packs of cards — go for $4,000 and more on websites.

Upper Deck uses four distributors to place The Cup in about 800 U.S. hobby stores and two distributors to cover an estimated 350 stores in Canada. Mark Rubin, owner of the American Legends store in Scarsdale, N.Y., said he usually orders three cases of The Cup and they sell out quickly.

“A lot of times, they open the packs right in front of me,” Rubin said. “I find myself rooting for them. It’s expensive. You hope they get one of the most valuable cards.”

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