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Lightning Round: The future of trading cards and the NHL

Will they be the latest sport to join the move to Fanatics?

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2019 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7

The NHL and Upper Deck. It’s a relationship that goes back more than 30 years. Which, as you may know, is longer than the Tampa Bay Lightning have been in the league. Born in the heyday of the junk wax era when manufacturers churned out enough cardboard to build a million houses of cards, the partnership has weathered the storm of rivals (Score, Topps, Panini have all gone by the wayside in regards of hockey cards) and the ups and downs of the market. Now their relationship is likely to be challenged once again. A seismic change is tearing through the trading card world as Fanatics has been gobbling up exclusive licenses with the leagues and player associations of major league sports.

First it was MLB reportedly agreeing to an exclusive deal with Fanatics starting in 2026, ending a 70-year run for Topps as the go-to manufacturer of baseball cards. The MLBPA agreement with Fanatics will supposedly start in 2023. Then it was the NBA, NBAPA, NFL, NFLPA following suit a few days later, giving Fanatics exclusive rights to three of the big four sports in North America.

This has been received by folks in the hobby about as well as ads on sweaters has been by hockey fans. There has been a lot of angry Tweets and bold declaration thrown around over the last few days. If people are to be taken at their word, there should be a lot of card collections for sale soon as a vast swath of folks have declared they are leaving the hobby for good this time.

I’ll be honest with y’all. When I first heard about Topps getting shut out of the baseball card market I was a little upset. Some of my earliest memories revolve around baseball cards, notably buying a pack of 1982 Topps at an army PX in Germany and later trading cards with neighborhood friends in my backyard when we had moved back to the States (which probably would have been me swapping 1985 John Shelby’s for Roger Clemens’ rookie cards - I was not a smart child).

Also, as a middle aged guy, my immediate reaction to all things involving change is, and always must be, “Why? Why would you ruin my childhood by doing something different? Change is bad!” I’ve settled down and stopped being an obstinate ass over the last few days and have developed a wait-and-see attitude about it. After all, it’s five years away, who knows what can happen over that time.

That brings us to hockey. As of press time there have been no rumors about the NHL jumping ship and joining their sports siblings under the Fanatics umbrella. The league and players association renewed their agreement with Upper Deck in 2019, agreeing to a “multi-year, exclusive deal”. One of the more annoying things about this industry is that the length of these agreements is always a mystery. Kind of like the length of contracts for general managers and coaches.

Upper Deck has been exclusive with the NHL since the 2014-15 season, ending a nice underdog run by Panini who had been their main competitor this century. Of course, when leagues started to sign exclusive deals with the manufacturers back in the early 2000’s, that was supposed to signal the end of the sports card world as we knew it, but things seem to be humming along just fine since then.

Why would the NHL or the NHLPA want to jump on the Fanatics bandwagon? Money, of course. If Fanatics is throwing the cash around to corner the sports card market, could the players and owners be tempted into a grabbing the loot after the financial struggles of the past few years?

While the exact details of the financial arrangements with the others sports hasn’t been unveiled (in fact Fanatics has yet to officially comment on the acquisitions) it had to be a heck of a chunk of change because they reportedly didn’t even give Topps a chance to make a counteroffer.

On the other side of the table, Fanatics would gain a foothold in a sport that has a tremendous potential for growth. One thing about the sports card market is that basketball and football cards(baseball to a lesser degree) have experienced an explosion in popularity and value over the last two years. Hockey, not so much. Sure, Wayne Gretzky rookie cards are selling for all time highs, but that hasn’t really carried over to the current superstars like it has in other sports. If you go to Target or Wal-Mart you are likely to find hockey cards on the shelves, the same goes for the local card store (LCS).

With the new television deal with ESPN and Turner, and a crop of pretty good young players like Brayden Point and some guy in Canada named Conner McDavid, hockey should be increasing in popularity over the next few years. Fanatics, who is buying the rights to basketball and football cards at a high price, could find growth value in hockey cards by buying low.

The NHL could also use this as leverage in their next round of negotiating with Upper Deck. Having lost out on baseball, Topps could be interested in jumping back into the hockey market (and make some more sweet, sweet Stadium Club cards). The same goes for Panini.

Losing the rights to the NHL would not be great for Upper Deck. Unlike Topps (candy, F1 and soccer cards, as well as gift cards) and Panini (soccer stickers and European leagues), they really don’t have much to fall back on financially if they can’t sell hockey cards. They started as a trading card company and have remained true to that pretty much since day one.

There is a better than average chance that Fanatics ends up buying a company like Upper Deck or Topps. After all, as excellent as they are at distributing sports merchandise, they don’t currently have the facilities to actually produce trading cards. So making an offer for Upper Deck would solve a couple of problems for them.

Is there a drawback to Fanatics owning exclusive card rights to all four major North American sports? Sure, more than one. A lack of competition can lead to a lack of creativity. As a company that specializes in distribution, they could cut out the middle men like LCS’s and retail markets and sell product directly to fans. Card sets that we come to rely on like Young Guns rookie cards could disappear and replaced by...well, who knows what?

It’s still way to early to mourn the demise of Upper Deck Hockey Cards. Still, it’s something to keep an eye on if you’re interested in the hobby.

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