History of Upper Deck Brand Sports Cards – Upper Deck changed the sports card marketplace forever when it introduced its first licensed baseball card set in 1989. The southern California company introduced several innovations to the baseball card category including:

  • Printing the cards on a premium, white, glossy card stock.
  • Placing an anti-counterfeiting hologram on the card back.
  • Packaging the cards in foil and not wax wrappers.

The flagship sports cards brands from Upper Deck have always been some of the first to incorporate new ideas, printing technology and content. The long tradition of innovation continues with the company to this day.

In 1990, Upper Deck became the first company to randomly insert autographed cards into baseball card packs. For those that may not know, yes, the autographs were on-card.

Over the course of the next 12-months, Upper Deck would reach agreements with each of the other “Big Four” sports leagues for the right to produce trading cards. They would be the first company since 1980 to be licensed by MLB, NHL, NFL and NBA.

The first appearance of ,the now well established hobby moniker, “Young Guns”, was introduced in the 1990-91 Upper Deck Hockey set. The formulaic success of this rookie card set would evolve through the years but the name would become synonymous with hockey rookie cards.

In 1993, to help bolster sales of its factory baseball set, Upper Deck included a special gold variant card in every tenth factory set produced. The value for Derek Jeter’s gold variation quickly escalated and remains one of his most valuable rookie cards.

The design team at Upper Deck introduced borderless, full-breed photography for their sports cards sets in 1994. Using close-up action photos added a level of realism that would become the standard for future card sets in the years to come.

That same year also saw the introduction of a Base Parallel Set called “Electric Diamond”. These cards were distinguished with the moniker written in a sparkling foil on the bottom front of the card.

During his hiatus from basketball, Upper Deck spokesperson, Michael Jordan pursued a lifelong dream of playing professional baseball. His 1994 Upper Deck  Baseball rookie card garnered main stream attention across the globe and with it, significant demand from collectors and fans alike.

Although Press Pass is credited with introducing memorabilia cards to the hobby, Upper Deck was the first trading card manufacturer to embed swatches of game-used jersey material into cards. In 1996, Upper Deck Football revolutionized the hobby with the inclusion of these cards in the base brand sets. Unlike today, the odds of finding one of these treasures made the cards extremely rare. As a result, early Upper-Deck game-used jersey cards still command a premium to this day.

The incorporation of trading cards embedded with game-worn jersey material was quickly rolled out to Upper Deck’s other flagship sports cards sets. This culminated with the release of 1997-98 Upper Deck Basketball which saw the debut of the hobby’s first autographed, game-used jersey cards.

In 1998-99, Upper Deck produced the first game-used bat cards including the, now famous, Piece of History insert set. Designed as an evergreen set that would continue in perpetuity, this concept itself was revolutionary to the hobby as the ongoing commemorative achievement set was the first of its kind.

After several different insert formulas, 1999-00 saw the re-emergence of the “Young Guns” cards to Upper Deck Hockey. This time, the cards were short-printed and inserted at the rate of one in every four packs (1:4). This helped immediately bolster the cards’ values and has remained the norm for the Upper Deck Hockey brand to this day.

The emergence of Tiger Woods as a superstar in the world of golf, provided new opportunities for Upper Deck. Between 2001 and 2004 the company would release an annual golf set that capitalized on Woods’ fame and the growing mainstream popularity of the sport as a whole.

As the modern trading card market continued to evolve, collectors demanded more value and easier odds of finding what they were calling “hits” or autographed and memorabilia cards. Upper Deck responded in 2002 by inserting one (1) game-used jersey card in every box of 2002 Upper Deck Baseball.

Before 2003-04, Upper Deck had focused its efforts regarding basketball on several of its other brands. The base brand was always produced but it lacked some of the flair reserved for more premium brands like the SP line. However, with the debut of a high-profile rookie class, that included LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, the company aggressively marketed their flagship basketball brand.

2004 saw yet another value-added focus on the Upper Deck Baseball brand. Every hobby box of 2004 Upper Deck Series One Baseball included an update set to 2003 Upper Deck Baseball. This set included traded players and late season call-ups similar to competitor Topps’ Traded or Updates and Highlights sets.

That year’s Series Two set also saw an increase in the number of game-used jersey cards guaranteed in the product from one (1) to two (2) per box. It also included a 2003 Update set for a few of the company’s other baseball card sets from the previous year.

The demand for premium “hit” cards continued, and in 2005, Upper Deck Football was seeded with three (3) game-used jersey cards in every box.

An over-sized draft class after a work-stoppage in the NHL resulted in a highly-talented and deep checklist of rookies in the 2005-06 Upper Deck Hockey set. Featuring Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, Upper Deck “Young Guns” rookie cards from that year would see increasing demand in the years to come as more and more players from that year’s rookie class became NHL stars.

For whatever the reason, conversely in its 2006 football brand, Upper Deck changed the insertion rate of Star Rookies from 1:4 packs to one (1) in every pack. While that did devalue the rookie cards to a certain degree, Upper Deck took the step the following year, in 2007, of including one (1) autographed card in every hobby box. This was at the expense of one (1) memorabilia card with hobby boxes now having two (2) such cards.

The tinkering with the value equation didn’t stop there, however. In 2008 the decision was made to keep the one per box autographed card, re-insert the third memorabilia card and insert Star Rookies back to the original 1:4 pack ratio.

The Presidential Election campaign race of 2008 was one that displayed just how deeply the country was divided on numerous social, diplomatic and financial issues. Upper Deck added some levity to the political race with the release of a 17-card parody set that became an instant classic. The set garnered mainstream media coverage across the country.

2009 was a defining year for the Upper Deck flagship sports cards sets. Due to a contraction in league licensing, that year would mark the end of the run for MLB, NBA and NFL licensed sets. As a result, the company aggressively pursued the acquisition of a NCAA license from the Collegiate Licensing Company or C.L.C. The company successfully produced collegiate sets for several years.

Upper Deck has maintained its line of NHL licensed trading card products and the “Young Guns” rookie cards have continued to be a dominating force in the hobby market that continues with the anxiously awaited 2015-16 Upper Deck Series One Hockey set.

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