The man behind Upper Deck Exquisite Basketball speaks to Boardroom about his iconic sets and the future of the trading card hobby.
The sports trading card hobby has blown up over the past year-plus, and it continues to pull in new collectors and investors from around the globe. Those looking to get wise to one of the truly iconic sets in the hobby should take note of the Upper Deck Exquisite Basketball collection, which has garnered plenty of attention since launching in 2003 — partly due to it debuting during LeBron James’ rookie season, but mostly because of the cards’ distinctive style and quality.
The man behind Exquisite Basketball’s iconic look? Karvin Cheung, whose innovations in the hobby are so highly-regarded that he’s come to be known as “The Architect.”
The Upper Deck set is known for being one of the first high-end trading card sets in the hobby and has had a tremendous impact on not only collectors but future products as well. We spoke with Cheung about his thought process behind creating the set, the current state of the hobby, what the future holds, and more.
BRETT PICKERT: What brought out the inspiration for Upper Deck Exquisite?
KARVIN CHEUNG: Upper Deck Exquisite first came about because of the hype around LeBron James. This generational talent that had his high school games played on ESPN and called by Dick Vitale set the platform for a new kind of product. I wanted to wow the collectors with a high-end set.
BP: How did you come up with the name “Exquisite?”
KC: Originally, I wasn’t excited about the name Exquisite. I wanted the name to be “Upper Deck Black,” which was introduced as a separate product later down the road.
BP: What was your overall goal for Exquisite Basketball?
KC: I wanted to provide an unmatched experience. When I was developing the product, I wanted the packaging to be in a plexiglass box, with the pack supported so it looked like it was floating from the outside. The final packaging was like opening a Tiffany box with the pack packaged in the middle.
BP: Would you have imagined this set being as influential in the hobby?
KC: I knew it was going to be a game-changer at a $500-per-pack product. Never thought we would see million-dollar cards out of Exquisite. LeBron James RPAs [Rookie Patch Autographs] first released at $1,800.
BP: Do you still collect?
KC: I started collecting again. My three-year-old daughter is collecting, and we’re collecting for her to hold on to the legacy. I also picked up a Sidney Crosby RPA recently.
BP: What are your favorite cards in your collection?
KC: My guy was Chris Bosh. I own a lot of Chris Bosh RPAs. I also really liked Mickael Pietrus and have a ton of his cards.
BP: You’re now working with The Grid, where you plan to bridge the gap between NFTs and tangible memorabilia. Do you see a world where NFTs are just as valuable as their physical counterparts?
KC: I do. I [think] any new collectible can be the next big collectible. When I started collecting, my dad didn’t approve of collecting trading cards. “Only coins, dollars, and stamps are only worth collecting,” is what he said. When it comes to stuff like NFTs, I look at League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Roblox, and Fortnite. Everyone is collecting skins and cosmetic changes. I foresee the next young generation liking digital collectibles. We have to be open that anything disruptive or new can be “the next collectible.”
The one thing about The Grid: There’s a massive community with Discord. We gotta stay connected. Taking one-of-a-kind artifacts that will remind them of any sports moment and bring nostalgia into that NFT.
BP: What direction do you see the hobby going in the next five years?
KC: Big rise in the last year and a half. Expecting it to be five times. Probably won’t happen, but it will gradually rise.
No matter where you go, any social gathering, sports are always the topic of conversation. “Which team is better?” “Who’s the GOAT?” Sports are a constant in our lives. Always part of that memory. Good or bad, that something is happening.
There are still eight out of 10 people who don’t know what sports cards are worth. A lot of VC money comes in, celebrities and athletes collecting trading cards. We’re seeing institutional money coming into the hobby — something we haven’t previously seen before.
That’s only in the US; we haven’t gotten into the international market where more money can come into the hobby.
I’m excited for the future coming into the hobby. We need to have the opportunity to have alt sports such as the X Games to come in and engage with those collectors.
KC: One thing Fanatics has: They have access to all the fans through their merchandise sales. That must be exciting to engage new fans with trading cards with a very strong brand outside of trading cards. Fanatics also has a good working relationship with all the leagues they’ve announced a deal with.
As collectors, we have to stay positive and feel Fanatics will do a good job. If there’s a company that’s capable of reaching new collectors, it’s Fanatics.