Interview with Chris Carlin of Upper Deck
By Michael Silvia
Chris Carlin is the Sports Marketing Manager at Upper Deck and in many ways the face of the company for most collectors. I had a chance to ask Chris some questions about his interest in the sports card hobby and some questions related to the processes and procedures at Upper Deck.
Do you collect cards? Any favorite sets? Players/teams?
I was really immersed in collecting as a kid. I had three older brothers and my father who all collected. I kind of inherited their collection which was really awesome. Their cards were all from the late 70’s primarily with a few cards from the 50’s and 60’s (in terrible condition) that were passed down from my Dad. Like most, his mother threw away the vast majority of his cards. Most of my cards were from the mid-late 80’s and we all know what happened to those.
What got you into sports cards?
Again, my brothers and father primarily. I didn’t have a lot of friends who collected and down the line I had a friend steal and sell off some of my best cards at a show. That spoiled things for me on collecting and as girls became more important, I put collecting on the back-burner. Eventually I sold off the vast majority of our collection in college, but I’ve still got a few of the cards I loved.
Why did you choose the sports card industry as a profession?
I moved back to southern California after college and was looking at what businesses were in the area I was living in to track down a job. I couldn’t believe Upper Deck was in Carlsbad where I actually ended up living. I got a job in Human Resources making about $30,000 out of college, but left it for a temporary job with Upper Deck making $8 an hour doing QA on cards that had smeared signatures. Crazy I know, but I’m just passionate about the hobby and I was doing something I loved. Something I still love.
It seems like all manufacturers continue to have a high number of redemption cards. Can you explain the redemption process? Why are there so many unfulfilled redemptions?
There are three major reasons for the continued use of autograph redemption cards.
1. There is MUCH more autograph content in products today than there was 5-10 years ago in particular. We saw the game-used jersey craze peak and plummet and the major thing collectors seem to continue to find value in is the autograph card. There are niche cards that come along that create a stir, but the main driver for the majority of our products is autograph cards, and collectors want more and more of them because they traditionally hold their value and often appreciate based on player performance.
2. There are many more products with multi-signed cards and inscriptions today than there were 5-10 years ago. These types of cards make opening a pack a more exciting experience, but ultimately are harder to deliver to our customers. Upper Deck likes to chase down those opportunities to deliver a really special item that will be the cornerstone of someone’s collection so that’s why we continue to create these cards.
3. The biggest problem in terms of autograph acquisition is that collectors did not embrace label autograph cards as many manufacturers hoped. Getting sessions with athletes is very difficult. Shipping the cards back and forth while staying on top of them to get them back by certain dates is difficult. So using label autographs where you can get all the signatures at one time and then warehouse them, using them as you need is very beneficial. But it’s not what YOU have told us you want when you are making an investment in our products. One of the most important things for Upper Deck is to deliver a quality collectible that has value to collectors. As we heard collectors preferred hard-signed cards to label autographs a couple years ago, we changed our strategy on label usage. We take the time to acquire the hard-signed cards collectors are looking for, especially on our premium brands because we know it’s important to them. Unfortunately, this also translates to situations where you have to put redemption cards into products.
Is Upper Deck working on improving the redemption process?
All the time. It’s one of the biggest issues we believe the industry faces and a source of tremendous frustration for passionate collectors. Our CEO hates them as he knows how much collectors have a disdain for them and he knows how much it costs to fulfill these programs, but he also understands the advantages of what we are doing in terms of providing collectors with more hard-signed releases than other manufacturers.
How long does it take to get a product from design to market? For instance, how much in advance do cards have to be printed for on card autos? Game-Used products?
It’s about a 6-9 month span. There are a lot of moving parts. There are sets that get developed, retooled, tweaked and ultimately end up on the cutting room floor (so to speak) if we don’t get the response we hoped to them. Some can get shelved for awhile as well or have elements incorporated into other sets. There are others that are just consistent performers that require very few tweaks and we can work through them relatively quickly. Each product is different and they all have their different challenges to it’s a little tricky to answer this one.
Where do the photos on the cards come from?
We have a variety of photographers we work with to shoot different games and events for us. We also source for photos through a variety of different partners.
What new products will Upper Deck produce in 2010?
The calendar is a little in flux right now, but the one that seems to be generating the most buzz right now is the 2010 Sweet Spot Football. The CLC based property that has a variety of very cool aspects. Look for more on that soon.
Is there any chance after the 2010 that Upper Deck will regain a NFL properties License?
We have every hope that we can. I attended the 2010 Las Vegas Industry Summit last week where 200+ hobby retailers, distributors, online dealers and leagues were in attendance. Everyone shared how difficult their business will be without our NFL releases in the market as we had such great success with premium brands like SP Authentic, Ultimate, SPx and Exquisite in particular, but also with the collector that put together the Upper Deck NFL set each year. There seemed to be a great fear the absence of these brands in 2010 would cause those aficionados of those brands to just leave the category all together.
Will Upper Deck seek licensed opportunities is other sports? Racing? MMA?
Absolutely. We would love to be able to talk more about what we go after, but when you are negotiating, it’s important to keep those discussions confidential.
How does the autograph process work? Do Upper Deck representatives see all cards signed?
Signing sessions are arranged through our reps, agents or the leagues. As some sessions are conducted by our partners, an Upper Deck representative is not always there. When you have partners like the NFL Players Inc handling a signing and then signing affidavits confirming the signing took place, that’s something we can put our stamp of approval on.
Is there a different process for on card versus sticker autographs? What is the determining factor in getting an on card autograph versus a sticker autograph?
Timing plays a big role in it and the type of release it is also plays a big role. Early season Football products have traditionally been heavily reliant on label autographs, but we again will try to at least have some hard-signed aspects to most sets. For our premium releases, we always try to go for hard-signed cards.
How does Upper Deck select card designs? Would Upper Deck ever run a contest to select a design from collectors?
It’s interesting as collectors are getting more and more tech savvy and we’ve seen some great designs from collectors out there. I think using a collector’s submission would be something very cool in the future and something we’ve actually had discussions about recently. We have a very solid design team however who realize the importance of giving each release its own look based on the attributes of the product. It’s important to change things up a bit, while still paying tribute to the lineage of the set that made it successful in the past.
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