2014 marked a massive shift in the hockey trading card industry. The most significant impact came with Upper Deck’s successful agreement with the NHL and NHLPA to secure exclusive licensing rights to produce NHL trading cards. Secondly, In The Game Trading Cards (ITG) was acquired by Dallas based company, Leaf. These two events have drastically changed the landscape.
Prior to 2014 the decade had belonged to three key players: Upper Deck (the most dominant), Panini (new to hockey, but gaining quickly in popularity and expanded lines of cards), and ITG (the smallest of the 3, but with a unique and well received product offering).
ITG had been producing hockey cards without licensing from the NHL for years and this meant that they could not show any league logos, team logos and in some cases images of certain players. ITG compensated by offering high quality cards with a heavy focus on including game worn material on the cards. Without the licensing they were by far the most minor of the big 3, but still held a small piece of the pie.
When Upper Deck landed their exclusive deal with the NHL, they effectively knocked Panini out of the industry. Without a deal, the 2013-14 season marked Panini’s last in the world of hockey. That same year Leaf acquired ITG and instantly quality diminished. The card design wasn’t as nice and the overall product felt inferior to the standard ITG had held.
Upper Deck has always been the dominant player in the market but this created a real monopoly. What has happened is interesting and probably not in a good way. Competition is necessary in any industry for a number of reasons. It helps keep quality high, prices reasonable and allows consumers the ability to make choices.
A single company can’t bully or take advantage of consumers if there is another option to turn to. Without much competition Upper Deck can charge what they want and produce what they want. For every product or line of cards they put out, Panini used to have a similar offering. Without Panini, Upper Deck is really the only choice. That’s a lot of power and what they’ve done with this leverage has been mixed. Some of the staples of their brand like Series 1 and The Cup have remained consistent, while other overpriced train wrecks like Contours or Synergy have been huge duds.
Upper Deck produces many lines of cards within a huge price range of inexpensive ($30 for a box) to ultra premium (up to $1,200 for a box). With so many offerings not everything is going to be a winner but at least Panini kept Upper Deck on their toes and gave customers another option.
While competition may not be what it once was Leaf is pushing back. The company that got off to bit of a rocky start is doing big things. Quality has done a 180 and is back to where it was in the ITG days. Not only is quality back up, but Leaf took a page from their own book and has started signing young up and coming players to exclusive autograph deals. This was originally done by Leaf founder, Brian Gray in 2008 when he signed MLB 1st overall pick, Tim Beckham to an exclusive autograph deal.
Leaf has signed 2015 2nd overall pick and young star, Jack Eichel to an exclusive autograph deal and has now done the same with the 1st and 2nd overall picks of the 2017 draft, Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick. This means none of these marquee players can autograph Upper Deck cards.
Anyone who knows anything about sports cards know that rookie cards are bar none the most sought after and important cards by a mile. If you want autographed rookie cards of these players it means you’re now going to Leaf, not Upper Deck.
Remember when I called Contours a train wreck? Well, one notable complaint from the public was that the Jack Eichel rookie cards were not autographed, significantly decreasing their value and desirability. The product was overpriced and customers were not fans of the value. The line died after a single failed year. Why? Well partly because customers were annoyed to pay such a high price for a product that didn’t include autographs of one the year’s brightest young players.
Yes, Upper Deck is still the titan of the industry, but if you think this isn’t causing problems for them you’re crazy. It’s unprecedented that this year you can’t get autographs of either of the top two picks in any of their products because of the exclusive deals Nico and Nolan have signed with Leaf. That’s a huge blow to Upper Deck’s product lines and has driven prices down. Prices of products are largely based on the potential to get autographed rookie cards. Without being able to offer two of the marquee rookies (everyone is always excited to get rookie cards of the year’s top draft picks) Leaf has introduced competition into the market and has impacted Upper Deck prices. Look at SP Authentic. The product costs significantly less than it has in previous year and online sentiment shows a lot of frustration towards the absence of the top 2 draft picks. What has usually been one of the all-stars of Upper Deck’s roster is failing to meet consumer expectations.
Upper Deck may still rule the world of hockey cards, but for the first time in years they have some actual competition and competitive pressure. Leaf will probably never steal enough of the market share to surpass them, but they’ve done enough to hopefully bring positive change to the industry. And who knows, maybe when Upper Deck’s agreement with the NHL expires Panini can get back into the market and pick up where they left off four years ago.