Young Gunning, a Hobby Heavyweight interview…

Back again with another insiders view of the hobby. This time we get to talk with Chris Carlin from Upper Deck. Chris provides some insight into UD and the hobby as a whole. I was particularly interested to hear his take on hard-signed autos and redemptions. Very insightful stuff.

Hope you enjoy.

K-Are you yourself a collector?

Chris-I collected a lot when I was younger. I inherited baseball card collections from my father and three older brothers and built on them from there. Most of the cards I collected were from the late ‘70’s and throughout the ‘80’s. My collecting habits subsided after I had a close family friend steal portions of my collection and then they went by the wayside when I became more cognizant of girls. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I sold most of my collection off in college for living expenses like beer and ski passes. Turns out it was the perfect time to sell them as the bubble had not yet burst on cards from the ‘80’s and it was before the steroid scandal so there was still value on Clemens, Canseco, McGwire, etc.

As I started working for Upper Deck I loved seeing everything here, but didn’t really collect. When I left the office, I wanted to leave the office, not wanting to see reminders of work at home. Now that I have a home of my own and a son I have felt the bug again. I have a man cave with a few items I’ve collected over the years. Some of my favorites are autographed and personalized memorabilia from Alex Ovechkin, Gordie Howe, Shaquille O’Neal, Philip Rivers, Joe Montana, Bill Walton, Matt Barkley and Lenny Dykstra (more on him later) to name a few. I’ve also started putting a small, but humble sports card collection together for my son. And my personal favorite card right now is the one I had created for his birth announcement.
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K-Tell us about when you first got into collecting?

Chris-I saw my brothers collecting and wanted to be like them. They were all sports fanatics and while I didn’t love sports initially as they interrupted Saturday morning cartoons, I learned to love them in time.

K-Did you favor one sport, team or player?

Chris-It was always baseball for me which kills me because had I been smart enough to collect football, hockey or basketball in the ‘80’s then I would have had quite a bit more discretionary income in college to say the least with Jordan, Montana and Gretzky rookies to sell to the local card shop…

K-What was your favorite set and card as a kid?

Chris-Oddly enough I have fond memories of going around a show with my Dad looking for the 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken “F*$! Face” card. My father is not a fan of profanity, but we both realized how unique the card was and I remember turning down $100 cash at the show after pulling one with my dad. Last year at Christmas, my father gave me a small box of my cards he put aside after I thought I sold them all off and that one was in there which was really special. Weird we would bond over an overproduced card with an explicative on it, but we did.

Κ−When/How did you decide to make it your career?

Chris-I was living with a friend in San Diego after college and went to the Chamber of Commerce to find out what companies were in the area. When I saw Upper Deck was down here, I went crazy. What a dream job?!?! Unfortunately I didn’t have an in. I ended up getting a job in Human Resources making about $35,000 a year in 1997, but left it after a month when a temporary position opened up at Upper Deck making $7.75 per hour. My parents were less than thrilled.
I worked my butt off and they brought me back a few times, then I was offered a position in Customer Care, and then finally brought on full-time. I moved on to sales, then managing the Customer Care team and other call centers for Upper Deck. Then I ultimately moved on to work in our Marketing group.

K-How long have you been with Upper Deck?

Chris-I started in November 1997, but wasn’t brought on full time until January 12, 1998. Today is my 14-year anniversary with the company.

K-What has been the highlight of your tenure?

Chris-I’ve met a lot of athletes and I’ve been to a lot of events which has been cool for sure, but it hasn’t been the highlight. I’ve helped develop a lot of people here and seen them move on to other opportunities here and elsewhere which has been incredibly special to me as well. But I think you are asking for what I am most proud of in terms of something I put my thumbprint on and can call my own. I would say that was probably the creation of the Diamond Club. I fondly remember an initial Diamond Club Meeting we had at the Chicago National back in like 2005.
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We got about 15 larger collectors in a room and realized there was a lot to gain by engaging customers like this. Back then the Diamond Club program was called “Save the Whales” as many shops called those larger collectors “whales,” but we didn’t like referring to people like that so we ultimately changed it up.

It was way before companies were doing advocacy programs so there wasn’t much precedent for it and showing ROI (Return On Investment) was very difficult so it was hard to sell. The program had a great ROA (Return On Awesome) however and being a fairly progressive company, Richard McWilliam and the executive team bought off on the program and it has been a lot of fun to have it going for so long.

After that it would probably be creating the Upper Deck Volunteer Alliance.
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That is like the Diamond Club for people who don’t have $25,000 a year to spend on trading cards. It is a really great advocacy program comprised of very loyal fans who want to help make the hobby a better place. I wish I had more time to spend on programs for that group, as it is amazing to see what these fans are capable of and how passionate they are about the hobby. They really energize me.

K-Upper Deck has been involved in several high profile issues in the last few years, what impact has this had on the operations of the company?

Chris-Well we are a much smaller company today. Our bread and butter is NHL and collegiate sports with MLS, memorabilia and entertainment properties having importance as well. As a smaller company many of us wear more hats, but most of us like that as we have all learned more and are more aware of what each other do. Additionally, we are in a smaller building meaning we are all much closer together. That has helped foster even more appreciation for each other and a lot more teamwork, which has been positive.

K-When Upper Deck took over on the NCAA license was there a shift in how and to whom you marketed your products?

Chris-Yes and no. There has always been an interest with collegiate sports with collectors. The trick was getting new distribution in those markets and in particular in the bookstores. Most schools have been great to work with and have really helped us out there, but there is still a lot more to be done. We have really explored so many different opportunities to help create interest and excitement in our first college specific products (UNC Basketball, Oklahoma Football & Texas Football), which has been both frustrating and rewarding.

K-Do you think there will be more sets like the team specific Texas and Oklahoma sets?

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Chris-We are working on them for sure. There are some storied programs that have decades of stars that played for them. We are looking to bring more of these school specific sets to fans soon.

K-What about other sports? I would buy a UMD Bulldogs set if you ever made one.

Chris-It would be an awfully small set… ☺ We are focusing on football and basketball currently while also continuing to look at collegiate sets that feature a variety of players from a variety of schools.

K-Upper Deck has a reputation for a good deal of innovation in the hobby, from the first set in 1989 to more recent ultra high end sets such as Exquisite and the Cup. As an UD insider what do you think is the next big thing?

Chris-It’s a question we always ask ourselves. Upper Deck has experienced a lot of success with coming up with the next big thing, even if it is just totally different like the Landmarks cards,
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Entomology cards, Thoroughbred Hair Cuts cards, Fossil & Artifacts cards, SPx Shadowbox cards, Animal Kingdom patch cards, Evolution cards and now hand-painted Masterpiece cards.
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K-Is there a dream set or card you would like to see Upper Deck produce?

Chris-I have always loved the concept of pulling a card good for a piece of memorabilia, but unfortunately not a lot of collectors like that concept as we saw with the UD Authentics product in the early 2000’s. Let me rephrase that, there were plenty of people that liked those products, especially when the box prices came down, but there were not enough people that purchased them to make it something successful that we could bring back.

I personally have become more of a fan of memorabilia than trading cards over the last few years, as they are just such great conversation pieces in homes or offices. Some of the things we have done with Breaking Through, Curve Displays and now the Tegata pieces on the UDA side are so unique and different that they blow people away. They are special items you don’t purchase everyday, but when you own one, they instantly become a favorite in your collection.

K-How involved are you in the production of the videos on the UD blog such as the recent Young Guns piece?

Chris-Extremely. Those are my babies. What we are trying to do with those videos are to reach mainstream fans in a fun way that makes people interested primarily in the players and then in their collectibles. Although I can certainly understand die-hard collectors would think the Young Guns piece we did with the talking cards is “cheesy,” for a mainstream fan they get a kick out of it and we have found they will share it with others. And that is what it is all about.

K-Of the various athletes you have worked with who sticks out as one of your favorites and why?

Chris- Lenny Dykstra because he was just such a character. One of my first trips with Upper Deck was to the 1998 National in Philadelphia where we took all our distributors to a Phillies game in a suite and had Lenny there to sign autographs. My job for the evening was to keep an eye on Lenny. Well, he went missing and all eyes were suddenly on me. I found him relatively quickly in the bathroom smoking a cigarette and signing autographs for some fans. It’s sad to see what has happened to him as of late, but I’ll always remember that experience.

Most of the rest of athletes I have crossed paths with are just amazing. Upper Deck really does an amazing job of picking the right athletes to work with in terms of how they treat you in person and how much they appreciate their fans. I have definitely met my fair share of athletes who were not very nice, but luckily we don’t work with players like that very often.

K-As a marketing professional how much of an impact would you say social media has had on your field?

Chris-To me embracing that medium is of huge importance. I have been banging the drum of how important social media is for our future success for a long time. What an amazing opportunity to engage your fan base! And it is also basically free advertising, which the bean counters in our Finance group seem to appreciate. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, etc. are all great tools for Marketing professionals can use to reach your customers where they live and share your message with them.

K-Do you read many blogs?

Chris-I do read blogs, message boards, Facebook posts and Twitter posts while also watching YouTube videos from dealers and customers. It is hard to find time to keep up with them all though. I usually get pointed to blog postings that point out our faults, which can be a little depressing, but sometimes you’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror and be held accountable for things. They do help us get better. My favorite stories however are ones that talk about the good in the hobby. There are so many positive and fun stories that go untold. I like to shine a light on those if I can.

K-Do you have any favorites?

Chris-There’s one I like called “Mojo” something. I forget.

K-Does the UD design staff pay attention to reviews and critiques on the various blogs and message boards?

Chris-They absolutely do. It can be hard on them sometimes because they are an EXTREMELLY passionate group of talented people and I don’t think initially they were ready to hear some of the negativity that can be brutal sometimes. But their skin has gotten tougher and more callused over the years and it has helped make their work better. I firmly believe Upper Deck has the best designers in the industry.

Κ−Do you bust wax for yourself?

Chris- I do, but it is just for reviews for our blog, etc. For me if I am looking to pick up a card, I’ll just make a purchase at a show or on e-Bay of a single card. I don’t do much in collecting cards these days so when I want something, it is usually a specific card for my son and busting packs won’t get me there.

Κ−What do you think is the best product of the last 5-10 years?

Chris-I really loved 2009 Goodwin Champions.
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It was just so different and had so many groundbreaking inserts; it felt like a breath of fresh air in a very cluttered market. I know purists are not fans of that product, but I think it really provides the market with a much different and fun pack opening experience. Those are packs I really like to bust personally.

Κ−What trends in the hobby do you like?

Chris-I love the community aspect of things. It is really great to see so many online communities have emerged that were started by collectors for collectors. I love seeing collectors helping other collectors and making the hobby better, that’s awesome.

Κ−What trends do you wish would go away?

Chris-Personally I wish there would be less reliance on hard-signed autograph cards. I know people love them. Heck, I love them, but to have so many of these cards in almost every release create a real problem with redemptions. If manufacturers can work to come up with innovative new inserts like Shadowbox cards, painted Masterpiece cards or other technology based inserts that have value, then there will be less reliance on autographs and ultimately less redemptions.

Redemptions to me are the single greatest problem in our industry, but because collectors love the hard-signed autograph card, they will always be a necessary evil. We have done a lot over the last few years in particular to reduce our use of redemption cards as you can see in this story, but they still exist.

Maybe it is just because I spent several years managing our Customer Care team and heard so many stories from customers who had a negative experience because their autograph card wasn’t in the pack to start off with that I feel this way. I am pleased that nowadays, our management team really understands the negative effect redemptions have on our customers and dealers. We avoid using them wherever we can.

I always felt like the greatest set in the world would be called “No Redemption” that had a variety of cool inserts outside of autographs and NO redemptions, but I don’t think it would sell. Autographs are just too important for the hobby. You can get away with less of them at retail or using sticker autographs, but the hobby wants and needs those hard-signed signatures and that is tough to deliver. Upper Deck does a great job at it and I have so much respect for every member of our Athlete Relations group that pounds the phones to coordinate the shipping, delivery, receipt, return of the cards while also setting up the signings sessions working with the athletes, agents and witnesses. It is a daunting task, but they do a great job and don’t get enough credit.

Κ−There is debate online about whether or not the hobby is moving in a good direction. What do you think about the hobby today vs. several years ago?

Chris-There is always negativity about where the hobby is heading. I’m optimistic about it still. I see the cool and innovative new cards released and I get excited. I see thousands of videos, articles and posts from passionate fans all over the internet and that tells me people still love collecting. I see events like National Hockey Card Day and all the smiles that event creates and it fires me up. I talk with members of the Upper Deck Diamond Club and Volunteer Alliance and I know in my heart things will be okay because these advocates will fight for the good of the hobby. I see distribution getting cleaned up and less of a gray market in our industry and I feel good about where things are heading. I look at the people I work with everyday and I see a family of people who give everything they can to making great products and a positive experience for our fans. Sure stormy clouds look gray, but I look to the silver lining.

Κ−If you could change one thing in the hobby what would it be?

Chris-Athletes would always return their cards in time for pack out. That’s not easy though. Here’s an exercise for everyone that says they hate redemptions, but love autograph cards. Get a piece of paper and sign your name 100 times. Make sure all those signatures look the same and are legible. Now imagine you had to do that ten times to a card that doesn’t even fit in your giant hands. And a new box of these cards arrives at your doorstep each month. Oh, and you make millions of dollars a year and have a ridiculously busy schedule. Would you want to spend your time doing that? I wouldn’t. It is not easy for athletes to get their cards back to us in a timely fashion, but in my trading card utopia, that would be the one change I would love to see in the hobby.

K-As an insider is there anything about the card company world you would like to tell collectors, any kind of misconceptions you would correct?

Chris-Everyone that works at every company I have met genuinely cares about collectors and wants them to be happy. I know it can seem hard to believe, but it is true. Unfortunately every collector is different with different likes, dislikes and pet peeves. You can’t please everyone, but I think we all do our best to try.

K-Final question. What is the better card; LeBron James’ Exquisite patch/auto rookie or Sidney Crosby’s the Cup patch/auto rookie?

Chris-If I were investing in one for the long haul today, it would be LeBron. He is going to get his championships and having met him a few times, I know he will have a comeback with public perception in time. I can totally see him returning to Cleveland later on in his career even after all the bitter fighting with their owner and coming full circle. The main reason though is that he is healthy. I think Crosby’s concussion issues are very concerning. He is an absolutely AMAZING player with a HUGE following, but if I had to choose today, I’d go with the Chosen One. Can you loan me $29K so I can grab this one?

Thank you to Chris, great stuff.

-K-

2 responses to “Young Gunning, a Hobby Heavyweight interview…

  1. That was awesome. Thanks for putting that together.

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