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Boardroom Q&A: Upper Deck President Jason Masherah

Boardroom catches up with Jason Masherah to discuss the increased interest in sports collectibles and how Upper Deck has managed to remain one of the hobby’s premier brands.

Over the last couple of years, the trading card hobby has changed dramatically — and even bigger changes are still to come. Most of the talk among collectors and investors of late has been about the trajectories of Panini and Topps under the umbrella of Fanatics, but new hobbyists, collectors, and even investors have seemed to have forgotten one important player.

Despite the wide-ranging impact of the trading cards and collectibles boom, Upper Deck is still an iconic brand in the hobby today. Notably, the company owns exclusive autograph rights for many of the world’s biggest athletes, from Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods to LeBron James and Connor McDavid.

To get the best possible lay of the land in this brave new collectors’ world, Boardroom spoke with Upper Deck President Jason Masherah about the company’s ability to endure as one of the hobby’s premier brands as they continue to innovate and compete with the likes of Panini, Topps, and Fanatics Collectibles in the years to come.

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BRETT PICKERT: Can you provide some background on how you came to Upper Deck and the nature of your role there?

JASON MASHERAH: I started setting up at card shows when I was 12, worked at a card shop at 14, and started my own card shop at 16. Several years later, I started as the Basketball Brand Manager at Upper Deck, moved up through the company, became the Director of Marketing, VP of Marketing, and now President of the company.

BP: When it comes to the hobby boom of the last couple of years, collectors generally speak about basketball, football, and baseball. What can you tell us about hockey and the level of interest in NHL cards?

JM: The growth of the market for us happened well before the pandemic. It really started with hockey in 2015; we launched a program and distributed eight million packs in Canada. We had a kid named Connor McDavid that came out in the NHL.

2015 Upper Deck “The Cup” Connor McDavid Rookie Patch Autograph card

The market for the sport was in a rough space in 2008 to 2012. Hockey blew up in growth in 2015 and has experienced constant growth since then. The growth grew over to baseball, when Topps had great rookies in that same period like [Ronald] Acuña, [Aaron] Judge, and [Juan] Soto. Our growth has been a long-term steady growth. It’s surprising to see [that] hockey was the start of the growth of the market over the last eight years or so.

BP: How has Upper Deck responded?

JM: The difference between us and the rest of the other companies [is that] we haven’t created a bunch of extra sets in the market. We focus on long-term sustainability — set collector-driven and collector-friendly. We try to keep the offering narrow because we think it’s important for everyone to be collecting the same sets so you can trade, buy, sell, and collect the cards you need to complete the sets. 

In addition, the problem with too many sets [is that] the odds of finding another collector to buy or trade becomes less and less unless you collect one of the key sets. These extra sets kind of disappear into the ether. The value doesn’t retain over time and becomes a problem long-term.

BP: With a changing market due to entities like Fanatics and their recent acquisitions, how does Upper Deck continue to be a premier name in the trading card hobby?

JM: For us, the Upper Deck brand is made of three things: quality, innovation, and authenticity. The important one is innovation; major innovations have come from Upper Deck, including authentication and cut signatures. The latest and biggest piece of innovation has been integrating technology with trading cards.

In 2016, we created the e-Pack platform where collectors can buy and rip physical card packs wherever and whenever. We’ve expanded on that with the Collect Forever website, where collectors can collect and trade comics and coins virtually in addition to cards. It’s that innovation with cards and the way you collect and trade [that] is really the future of the company.

BP: Given that digital collectibles are a niche within the hobby, how has Upper Deck e-Pack performed?

JM: We’re doing over one million trades per year. Very important, because it means the community is interacting with each other and building sets. E-Pack has grown immensely in the seven years it’s been out. It’s been a big key to what we’ve been doing. It’s the one place where you can trade physical cards with a virtual offering. It’s a very unique system because it allows us to give that experience.

At the end of the day, most trading card collectors want physical cards. Digital cards are great and people want to collect, [but] it’s hard to replicate a Wayne Gretzky autograph compared to a jpeg of Gretzky.

BP: Upper Deck has a list of exclusive athletes in sports whose team licensing deals are with other brands. How does Upper Deck promote those athletes and try to build excitement given the hobby stigma regarding “pro uniforms or bust”?

JM: There’s a variety of ways to do things. The timing is we finally released the Space Jam 2 hobby product this week. It’s interesting, we touched on a lot of these players’ careers — we had the opportunity to have Michael Jordan in a UNC uniform and insert him into our golf sets. As a collector, it gives a different look.

The reality is when it comes to specific athletes, you get tired of seeing them in the same photos over and over again, especially with sets with the same 50 players every time. Put these athletes in a different light and it makes us think different instead of coming out with the same types of cards over and over again.

BP: Are there any athletes Upper Deck would like to add to their exclusive roster?

JM: We’re always looking at who will be the next great athlete, who projects to be on the Mount Rushmore of our athletes with Tiger, Jordan, Gretzky, and those guys. They come over and play young in all sports. It’s hard to project; we’re always looking and talking to the players. We’re always trying to figure out who that is. Debating internally. Always on the prowl.

Upper Deck owns Michael Jordan’s exclusive autograph rights. (Photo via Andy Hayt/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

BP: For those who are looking to get into Hockey Cards, what are the Upper Deck sets that tend to be the most popular?

JM: The main staple brands are Upper Deck Base, comparable to the Topps set. SP Authentic is the middle-tier set which contains the future watch rookie autos collectors are constantly after. The Cup is the Exquisite-equivalent in hockey, with super-high-end rookie patch autos up to /99. The Connor McDavid that sells for $250,000 came from that set.

BP: What’s something that separates Hockey trading cards from other sports?

JM: We can’t make rookie cards until they play in an NHL game. That Upper Deck Series 1 is the first card for a lot of players. That’s their true rookie card.

We see a lot of people moving into hockey from other sports because of the value proposition. [Alex] Ovechkin, McDavid, and [Sidney] Crosby are inexpensive compared to rookie cards of players in the other sports.

BP: For those uninitiated to hockey, is Connor McDavid really that guy?

JM: Connor McDavid is something on a completely different level. He is a generational player. When you watch him, you realize he is something completely different. Different than other players in the league.

There’s an opportunity to appreciate McDavid for what he is while he is in the prime of his career. Anyone that doesn’t follow or collect hockey, they need to watch McDavid. He’s special and we may never see a player like him again.

BP: What are some of the new products Upper Deck is excited to roll out?

JM: Next really interesting product is AEW Spectrum, our high-end AEW product. I’m amazed how amazing they’ve been to work with. Great collectors and fan base. Looking forward to be doing a higher-end set for those fans. It’ll feature game-used autographs and materials.

On the entertainment front, we have Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse cards coming out. It’ll come out the first part of November and will feature a lot of content from the movie.

Also in November, Upper Deck Hockey Series 1 2022-23 is set to release around the Fall Expo, Canada’s version of the National which is also the quintessential hockey card show in Toronto the same weekend as the Hockey Hall of Fame [inductions]. The first batch of rookie cards for the new season is featured in that set.

Another release is Metal Champions on e-Pack. The hottest thing in the industry is Precious Metal Gems cards; Metal Champions is a multi-sport product that features all of our spokespersons. We worked with the original designers, Arena Design, of Precious Metal Gems and Metal Universe on this product. That is dropping on e-Pack in a couple of weeks.

BP: Where do you see Upper Deck in the next five to 10 years?

JM: Our focus is on the purity of collecting and people really enjoying the experience of opening packs and boxes. One of the things we’ve seen with e-Packs, the stores and breakers have great communities. Continuing pushing the biggest brands with AEW, Marvel, hockey, and beyond.

If you haven’t been on e-Pack, I can open physical card packs 24/7 across the world [and] ship them home. Collect Forever allows [you] to do that with comic books and other collectibles., including trading comic books for cards. We look to continue to push the envelope. That’s where we’re focused for the next five to 10 years.

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