NHL, Union Extend With Upper Deck Amid Trading Card Upheaval

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The National Hockey League and its players’ union are extending their trading card relationships with Upper Deck, a long-term renewal that will make the legacy collectibles company the exclusive maker of official NHL trading cards, with NFT rights as well.

The news is particularly noteworthy given the recent upheaval in the trading card world. In the last few months ecommerce giant Fanatics, an NHL partner on the merchandise side, has lured NBA, NBPA, MLB, MLBPA and NFLPA licenses away from other legacy card companies. Fanatics Trading Cards later raised money at a $10.4 billion valuation.

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The NHL and NHLPA have been working with Upper Deck since the 1990-91 season. And while the league did talk to other potential partners, it was happy with the Carlsbad, Calif.-based company and their 40-plus-year relationship, said Brian Jennings, the NHL’s chief branding officer.

“We have a fiduciary responsibility to our 32 member clubs to always be active listeners in the marketplace,” Jennings said in an interview. “We always hope that we can renew partnerships. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but we always start at the heart of the matter, which is: How is the relationship? Is it healthy? Is it vibrant? Are they being innovative? Are they being creative? Do they understand the evolving market? And we felt good about it.”

Upper Deck has individual deals with current and retired NHLers like Connor McDavid, Wayne Gretzky and Nick Suzuki. Jennings said the league’s deal extends “beyond five years” but declined to comment on the financial specifics.

Trading cards, like almost all sports memorabilia, are experiencing a boom during the pandemic. That’s come alongside the emergence of digital collectibles, like NFTs, with leagues and teams quickly signing deals with a handful of relatively new platforms. This extension will grant non-exclusive NFT rights to Upper Deck, Jennings said, meaning the NHL could also partner in the future with another company or companies.

The NHL/NHLPA announcement comes less than a week after Upper Deck announced that it was canceling the release of two of its NHL products and delaying a third due to “production and supply chain management” challenges that it didn’t expect to improve until at least the middle of next year.

Upper Deck has “continued to deliver exceptional products over the last 19 months despite the difficulties brought about by the pandemic,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to build on our partnership.”