Alright, I’ve got a confession to make: I’m a huge nerd.
I’ll be a bit more direct than that. See, Upper Deck makes a number of products in different genres, and you may not know we have a very large, award winning section of the company that makes games. Some of these include the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, World of Warcraft Miniatures, Huntik and Dinosaur King. We regularly print new cards (or Minis) in sets (just like sports cards), and players put together decks from those collections to compete against each other. We also run tournaments (with prizes!) for our players at different levels, from local Battlegrounds and Seeker League to World Championships.
It’s a really fun part of the company, and I actually spent my first four years or so here focused almost entirely on it. But, as you can tell by the posts I’ve made on this blog, despite my gaming background I happen to be a pretty big sports fan too. So UpperDeckBlog.com became a new responsibility this year, and I’m very happy to also be involved on the sports side of things now.
That being said, I have to admit that I fall into the same category as many mainstream sports fans where the trading card/sports memorabilia industry is concerned. Sure, I collected my share of baseball cards as a kid, but in recent years it fell off my radar a bit (especially as my interest, and subsequent career in gaming took off). Not to say that I haven’t picked up things through osmosis by simply being here, but my level of knowledge is not where I’d like it to be.
I recognized I needed to fix this, and figured, “Why not bring the readers along with me?” So, this is the first of many Catching Up With Collecting posts, where I’ll go around the building to ask people in different departments what they do, and what a collector needs to know. By the time I’m done, I think I’ll have a much better idea of where our industry, and Upper Deck are in 2009. Hopefully, you will too. Whether you’re an experienced veteran or need to catch up like me, it should make for an interesting read.
My first step on this journey had to be Chris Carlin. Chris is our sports Marketing Manager, and knows this stuff better than anyone. He was able to give me a good introduction to where the industry is today, in addition to giving me a list of people and departments to interview next.
UpperDeckBlog: So if I haven’t been following collecting for say, the last fifteen years, what’s the most important thing I need to know?
Carlin: I would say that if you used to collect, and you’re collecting again, probably the biggest change is the hobby shop. There used to be three or four hobby shops in most cities you’d go to, and these days there may only be one, if that. It is a lot like the trading card industry itself, where there used to be six or seven baseball card manufacturers, and now it’s just Upper Deck and Topps.
So if you do have a local hobby shop in your community and you go there, odds are they’re running events, they’re helpful, they’ll help you list your items on eBay or give you an idea of what your collection is worth. They’ll provide you with all sorts of insight on what new products are coming out, and it’s just a much different, and more interesting experience than it was say, ten or fifteen years ago where there was the perception that the hobby dealer was trying to take advantage of their customers. The hobby shops remaining are very good.
UpperDeckBlog: And that’s most of what you do, staying in touch with these stores? What does that involve?
Carlin: Yeah. It’s critical for Upper Deck to support the hobby shop, because if you buy trading cards at WalMart or Toys ‘R Us, there’s no one who can explain to you why one pack is five dollars, and another is 99 cents. There’s no one who can tell you why a certain product is exciting, most of their staff probably haven’t even opened a pack.
What makes the hobby stores important to us is there’s a real community aspect to them, where someone can go, get educated on what’s in each product, and why they want to collect them. So it’s important for us to support those mom-and-pop hobby shops, and ensure collectors have a safe, fun place to go instead of just a retail outlet where that type of community doesn’t really exist.
UpperDeckBlog: Since we’ve started this blog and gotten visitors who have lost touch with the industry over the years, I’ve received emails or gotten comments because they’re surprised we have cards with hair in them, autographs, jerseys, and so on. It’s not quite you know, that cliché of “stale bubble gum in the pack” anymore. So if I’m one of these readers who is new to all of this and is thinking about getting back into collecting, what do I need to know about these new features?
Carlin: For sure, the next biggest thing about the industry today would be the products, because they are definitely night and day compared to even say, five years ago. There is a lot of autographed content in products these days. It used to be, even some of the first autographs we had, there would be maybe 1,000 to 2,000 for an entire product run. Now, there’s a couple hundred thousand potentially for a product run.
But beyond that, there are things that are pretty amazing to take in. Like a patch card that has a piece of a player’s actual jersey, or one of these more unique pieces like autographed cut cards of a deceased athlete. We’ll get it from a check or something along those lines, have it authenticated by a third party, then actually embed the signature in a trading card. So, obviously Joe DiMaggio isn’t signing anymore, but you can still get a DiMaggio autograph out of a new pack of trading cards, which is really exciting.
The biggest thing though, with all these inserts is that instead of having to wait ten or fifteen years for a card to appreciate in value, you can open up a brand new pack today and pull out a card that’s worth $500, $1,000, even $10,000, which is really amazing. It used to be about opening product, and waiting ten, twenty, thirty years to see if a card becomes valuable. But now, you can get that instant gratification of owning a valuable collectible right off the bat from a new pack of cards.
UpperDeckBlog: And I’m sure that these days, that’s looking a bit better than say, investing in the stock market for some people (laughs).
Carlin: We always say that collectors are investing in their passion. Obviously, you want to do your homework, and know what you’re getting into with each product. But yeah, some people do make a living off buying, selling, speculating on players and rookies. And if you do your research, you can do ok with it.
But at the same time, most people appreciate and enjoy collecting because it’s fun. It’s something they did when they were young, and so much more exciting today than it was ten or twenty years ago. Because each pack you open, not only are the cards nicer and higher quality, but the content, some of the different chase elements such as autographs, game-used or deceased player autographs, it’s night and day from what it used to be.
UpperDeckBlog: So you sent me this list of employees and groups in the building to talk to next. Why did you pick these folks specifically, and what should the readers and I expect as we go through them?
Carlin: One of the reasons why Upper Deck has been able to stick around for so long is great photography, and that’s why I want you to visit Gary Tolle. He’s been with us for fifteen years or so now, and he’s seen it all. He can give you insight into what we look for: each brand has its own elements that make it unique, and he can explain how he picks photos that define them.
Martin Welling is our Vice President of Creative Services. Just an amazing guy. He can talk a lot about the different designs, what attributes we have for each brand. For collectors, one thing they may find is yeah, there may not be a lot of companies in the industry today, but we do produce a lot of different types of products. It’s kind of different strokes for different folks: if you’re looking to collect with your son, we’ve got a product for you. If you want to spend a lot of money and you’re really passionate about the hobby, we’ve got a product for you. If you’re on a budget but love sports, we’ve got a product for you. So he can share what their strategy is from a design and creative standpoint on each of those products.
Tim Doull has one of the most unique jobs in our company, and that’s chasing down all the different athletes’ autographs. His job has gotten exponentially more difficult as we put more autographs into packs, as obviously now he needs to chase down even more athletes. But I know he’s got a lot of different stories about tracking down athletes, and our spokesmen. We have some of the best spokesmen in the industry, and they’re all really great guys. He’s got a lot of stories about Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, etc.
Mark Shaunessy has the second coolest job here, I think, in working with the game used room. If you’ve ever been, you can practically spend the whole day there looking through all the game used memorabilia we have, checks, signatures and such. Even dinosaur bones! I’ve been there and seen it in his office. A lot of it is kept under lock and key, but hopefully we can open up the vault, so to speak, for readers of the blog.
Karvin Cheung works with the product development team, and he works very closely with hobby shops and distributors to find out what they like and don’t like, so they can make improvements to the products. He’s one of the creative geniuses behind what those next cool cards are, whether it’s hair from a deceased President or inserting cards from 1888 into new products, he drives the content for the products.
Bubby Johanson works with the checklists. It’s really important that we find the right players for each product. Especially hockey, I find collectors are really passionate about who does or doesn’t make checklists.
UpperDeckBlog.com: For those not familiar with the industry, what does that mean exactly?
Carlin: Well, we might only have 100 cards in a regular set, but some sports fans would like to see ten Leafs players in there. So it’ll be interesting for readers to see how he goes about choosing players. His group makes the decision on who will or will not be in the sets.
Jason Masherah is in charge of all our brands, and he’s got overview of the landscape of the hobby. Where Upper Deck stands, and where we’re going.
Kerri Kauffman can talk a lot about our initiatives to bring kids into the hobby, especially a program called UpperDeckU.
Jodi Wasserman does our events throughout the year, and there are a lot we do. So I think readers will be interested to find out where Upper Deck will be next and what we have planned.
William Estela manages our Upper Deck Retail Store in Huntington Beach. We feel that hobby stores are so important that we started our own, so we could learn what works and doesn’t firsthand.
Dave Sanders at Upper Deck Authenticated, where we cornered the market on providing authentic collectibles of the top tier athletes. We do some of the most amazing pieces, so it’s always interesting to see what they’re coming up with next.
UpperDeckBlog.com: Being that I’m still learning this side of the company, what do you think is the most critical thing for me to keep in mind as I go through this process and talk to these people?
Carlin: There’s a lot. There’s so much different information, especially if you haven’t been involved in collecting for a while. Keep an open mind, and obviously every product is not designed to appeal to every collector. We know that every collector is extremely different, and that’s why we provide a diverse portfolio to our customers. Find the things you like and collect!