Sunday Conversation: Upper Deck’s Grant Sandground
By Stephen Laroche | Beckett Hockey Editor
With the 2014-15 season in full swing, hockey card collectors are gearing up for some new releases featuring the hottest rookies and one of the key people behind the products they open in Grant Sandground, who is Upper Deck’s Director of Product Development. He recently took the time to answer some questions from Beckett Hockey.
Some of Upper Deck’s recent hockey releases have been featuring unannounced content that gets both collectors and dealers talking. What spurred the company’s decision to take this route and is it a trend that will carry over into more releases going forward?
It’s always nice to deliver some unexpected surprises for collectors, especially when they deliver additional value. We also think these unannounced “Easter Egg” cards provide the hobby community the opportunity to share their findings with one another and experience a communal sense of discovery. One of the great joys of collecting sports cards is the interaction that collectors have with one another, and “Easter Egg” cards are a great topic to discuss with one another. Additionally, “Easter Egg” cards carry a great sense of mystery to them because upon release of the product, no one knows the seeding ratios or the checklists, though folks have caught on if you’re fortunate enough to hit an Easter Egg” card out of an Upper Deck product, it’s likely pretty scarce. All too often, the perceived values of cards are boxed in by announced seeding ratios and/or serial-numbering. Though there’s obviously no guarantees where or when these cards can be found given their secretive nature, it’s hard to argue against making them as long as collectors enjoy them.
What is the biggest challenge you face in creating content that is compelling to hockey collectors?
It’s difficult to single out one area, because different collectors are looking for different things they find compelling. Some collectors just love to rip and flip, looking for big hits while others are focused on building sets or collecting their favorite player or team. There are obviously big expectations to deliver value in every box and case. We make every effort possible to deliver products with good value on a consistent basis, but it’s difficult to do so in a fickle marketplace where cards that were amazing and innovative one or two years ago are considered blasé today. Additionally, the quality of a rookie class has a huge impact on the hockey market from year-to-year. That’s obviously an area we have no control over, but if you have a red-hot rookie, like Nathan MacKinnon was throughout much of 2014, you’ve got some of the most compelling content possible.
One of the most satisfying aspects of creating compelling content for me is outside of the realm of game-used memorabilia and autographs. If Wayne Gretzky signs a trading card for us, it’s obviously compelling content. But to be able to deliver hugely desirable cards bereft of game-used memorabilia and autographs, such as Young Guns, including the popular Acetate Variations, Ice Premieres rookie cards, Day With The Cup inserts, O-Pee-Chee Team Logo Patches, Jambalaya inserts, etc., is very satisfying and I strongly believe one of the healthiest manners to build and deliver content for all involved in this industry because it allows us to build valuable cards without the expense and production issues inherent to creating auto and memorabilia cards.
That’s not to say, we don’t respect and appreciate auto and memorabilia cards. For many collectors, autos and memorabilia cards are the number one and number two reasons for buying new product and to that effect, we’re constantly trying to deliver quality auto and memorabilia cards for the best rookies and stars in the league. As part of our status of being the exclusive trading card licensee for the NHL and NHLPA, we’re now in the privileged position of having the league itself working directly with us to gather and obtain game-worn jerseys directly from the equipment managers of all 30 teams. With the growing concerns about the veracity of game-used memorabilia for the trading card market across all sports, we’re incredibly excited about this expanded partnership with the league. Additionally, the league has been unbelievably helpful in securing assets from some of the most important games and events of the past few seasons including the Stadium Series games, Winter Classic and the Stanley Cup Finals. Additionally, we remain vigilant in tracking down unique and compelling memorabilia from retired stars from some of the memorabilia industry’s most-respected auction houses like Classic Auctions.
With the annual Upper Deck set now in its 25th season, are there any particular hockey cards that stand out for you from the brand’s long history? What do you think has made the brand such an enduring success?
The 2005-06 Crosby Young Guns was, and remains one of, the most important hockey cards issued in the modern era. If you had to single out one card from the 25-year run of the eponymous Upper Deck flagship hockey brand, Crosby’s Young Guns rookie card is number one in my book.
Of course, the heritage and cherished status of the Young Guns rookie cards has a massive impact on the success of the product. Young Guns are almost singular in nature across any of the sports in that they carry significant values while simultaneously having attainable seeding ratios that encourage set building and provide a realistic chance of hitting a key rookie card in almost every box. The quality of the photography is another major tenant that defines this product, and our photo department puts a great effort every year into providing collectors with compelling images of their favorite players.
More recently, the addition of popular inserts like Day With The Cup, Acetate Young Guns and UD Canvas have provided consumers with some great case hit quality cards while still being able to enjoy the annual tradition of building the base set.
The brand has, and continues to be, an enduring success because it provides the definitive base hockey set to collect every year loaded with rookie cards that have some serious punch in the secondary market at a relatively affordable price point, allowing collectors of all fiscal means to buy boxes, and it looks beautiful.
Before coming to Upper Deck, you spent over a decade with Beckett Media – much of that time as a Senior Editor. How have you found the transition from hobby media to working for a manufacturer to be? How has your experience here translated into success with Upper Deck?
I’ve been at Upper Deck for six years now, and I’m still looking to learn new areas of trading card production. When I was at Beckett, I was fortunate enough to do a lot of both editorial and price guide work. I relished delving deeply into every aspect of a new release, trying to figure out SP info on autos and memorabilia cards and comparing and contrasting the new releases among one another as the years went on to see what new cards were being developed, what was being over-saturated and what was NOT being made that needed to be made. It was a lot of fun to write product reviews and the Beckett Market Watch, but I was ultimately an outsider looking in. The fact that I spent so many years at Beckett essentially studying the sports card market 40 hours per week gave me an advantage to hit the ground running regarding how to conceive products that had a viable shot of being appreciated by card collectors when I had the opportunity to move to Southern California to work for Upper Deck. What I didn’t know was just how challenging it is to put card products together given the many steps involved with pre-press and production. We have an amazing staff of talented coordinators, designers, athlete relations personnel and production personnel among others that all team together to make our cards. It truly takes a village to make great hockey cards.
What do you consider to be your favorite release that you have worked on to date?
For hockey, it would likely be the run of The Cup products from 2010-to-present that I’ve had the good fortune to participate on. Within those products, I’d say the Monumental Emblems booklet cards are my favorites because they’re simply jaw-dropping when you get the right patches.
Incorporating ALL of the products I’ve worked on for Upper Deck, I’d say Goodwin Champions is my favorite release because it’s a completely open slate for creativity. We’ve incorporated such diverse subject matter as animal patches, asteroids, insects, the world of classic art, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Civil War, etc. into the realm of trading cards. To be able to make a card with dust from Mars in it or a hand-painted spot-on replica of the Mona Lisa is kind of mind-blowing, even for non-collectors.
Is there a particular innovation that you have brought to an Upper Deck product that you are most proud of?
For hockey, the addition of the UD Canvas cards as an annual element into the Upper Deck Series 1 and Upper Deck Series 2 brands is a set I’m particularly proud of because it’s sort of like collecting the base set because at 270 cards per year, it’s big enough to cover the entire league in a comprehensive fashion, but on steroids, because the base set cards are a tougher to track down, the Young Guns carry serious values in the secondary market, they feature killer photography on the front and back of the cards and the high series cards are a real challenge to finish.
I also love the Day With The Cup cards. The idea was born from reading The Hockey News several years back and seeing an image of Andrew Ladd holding the Cup on the top of a mountain range as a helicopter hovered in back of him. The second I saw that photo, I thought to myself, “That type of image needs to be an Upper Deck hockey card!”
The three year run of Team Logo Patches within the O-Pee-Chee brand is another set I’m really proud of that we as a company managed to make. With so many great cards being made over the past 25 years of the modern era of hockey cards, it’s difficult to come up with a concept that has never really been done before in that landscape. After the success we had with the Animal Kingdom patches in Goodwin Champions, we took that idea of making manufactured patches whereby the more endangered the animal was the scarcer their patch card was, and applied it to hockey using the storied history of the leagues team logo designs from 1917 to present. It’s a huge challenge for collectors to build the set given how rare some of the high-number cartoon patches are, but collectors certainly responded favorably to it.
Also, the Black Diamond Quad Diamond Gem Relics from 2013-14 were something I’m proud we were able to get done. We had been working on those cards for 18 months prior to release. Each card housed four one-carat diamonds and they were only available through a live draft we held at the end of the 2013-14 regular season. Heaven knows what the MacKinnon would sell for if it ever surfaced in the secondary market.
Regarding autograph cards, the gold-ink signed SP Authentic “Moments” cards that we’ve been doing for the past few years are also a personal favorite in that the documentary-style images provide collectors with emotionally resonant cards picturing their favorite players at key times in their careers. The Lemieux-Jagr combo with Jagr’s sweet mullet hairdo and the quad-signed 2013 Hockey Hall of Fame Induction card featuring Sundin, Sakic, Oates and Bure are two cards that I think are particularly timeless.
For game-used cards, one of my favorites is the SP Game Used Net Cords because they feature truly important material (an actual piece of game-used net from the Stanley Cup Finals – often used in up to three different games), they’re beautifully designed with a dual-sided acetate window and they tell the story of that year’s Finals with game-specific photography, so they’re emotionally resonant.
Outside of hockey, I think the Museum Collection cards we’ve done over the years in Goodwin Champions were ahead of their time in that we made cards of materials and relics that no one ever dreamed could be featured in a trading card and provided a framework for how to construct those cards. I can’t stress enough, however, that I’m just one person among a group of very talented people that helped get those cards made.
My favorite set of all time is likely the Goodwin Champions Art of the Ages cards. I did my fair share of art studio and art history courses in college, and to see a collection of the greatest paintings in the world compiled together into a high-end trading card set was likely the biggest thrill I’ve had in my 25-plus years of involvement in the card industry. When we pitched the idea initially, I had grave concerns that the quality of the hand-painted one-of-one trading cards would not be able to match anywhere near the originals – a daunting task when you’re trying to respectfully replicate Rembrandt and Van Gogh amongst others. Along with Upper Deck’s Art Director, Neal Johnson, I was fortunate enough to help him check in every one of these cards, so I saw hundreds of them all together at one time in his office. That was truly epic.
Is there anything you would like to let collectors know about when it comes to upcoming hockey releases?
For the back half of our 2014-15 calendar we’ve got some really exciting releases including what I believe is the best SP Game Used we’ve ever made, the return of Ice – with an all-acetate base set (Go big or go home right?), the debut of the O-Pee-Chee Platinum brand featuring 100% on-card autographs on Chromium stock, an even-more beefed up Fleer Showcase release featuring all the cool stuff from last year plus all-new premium Flair cards including Rookie Auto Patches, the return of Masterpieces, now featuring active and retired stars with 100 percent on-card autographs, the all-new, super-premium UD Premier – just wait until you see of the jumbo patches in this one, plus the Rookie Auto Patch cards feature acetate top sheets – and, of course, we “might” consider doing The Cup at year’s end.
Stephen Laroche is the editor of Beckett Hockey and Beckett Basketball magazines. Have a comment, question or idea? Send an e-mail to him at SLaroche@beckett.com. Follow him on Twitter @Stephen_Laroche.