May 29 - The last time Upper Deck ventured into a new major sports league with its trading cards was in 1991, perfect launch conditions considering the Chicago Bulls had won their first NBA title and the company had signed up Michael Jordan. Ten years later, Upper Deck founder and chairman Richard McWilliam is just as excited about his next project — golf.
InsertArt(1034073)ONE MONTH after Tiger Woods completed an unprecedented sweep of the major championships, sports’ biggest star signed a five-year deal with Upper Deck that gives the Carlsbad, Calif.-based company rights to produce his autographed memorabilia.
In addition, Upper Deck has separate agreements with 86 other players to produce the first major set of trading cards in golf. Woods will be the centerpiece for the 640-card set that will be launched June 13, the day before the U.S. Open.
“He is the reason the consumer is going to be buying this product,” McWilliam said.
Upper Deck is the only company licensed by all four major sports league to produce trading cards. The company is expected to finalize a licensing deal with the PGA Tour in the next two weeks.
“The initial interest in the marketplace has been surprisingly huge,” said Wesley Haynes, vice president of retail licensing for the PGA Tour. “We do think its time has come.”
McWilliam first considered golf a year after the basketball launch, but only as a niche product. And for good reason. The elite in golf was primarily international players, with Fred Couples the only American in the top five of the world ranking.
He thought about it again in 1995, but baseball — its primary sport — was coming off a strike. Three years later, Tigermania was in full bloom.
“The sport has expanded so much with consumers and fans over the last three years,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with Tiger. He’s the main driver behind the increase. He brought something to golf that was never there before, an incredible enthusiasm.”
The cards will be sold in packs of five for $2.99. Among the 87 players who have agreements with Upper Deck are Couples, David Duval, Tom Lehman, Davis Love III and Jesper Parnevik, who signed an endorsement deal and began wearing the Upper Deck logo on the flipped-up bill of his cap at the Byron Nelson Classic.
It also will have legends cards of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gene Sarazen.
“It was long overdue that someone did a golf set, especially including something with Tiger Woods,” said Bill Panchak, who works at Medina Sports Cards & Collectibles in Ohio. “From what I’ve seen, this should do real well. I’ve already had a bunch of calls on it.”
McWilliam said the cards will be sold at typical outlets, such as hobby shops and convenience stores, but he also wants to distribute them to golf shops.
Anyone who buys a pack will be hoping to get a card of Woods, but tour officials say the cards can only help introduce more players to casual fans.
“It’s not just Tiger. Believe me, he’s going to be one of the most — if not the most — prized collection in their trading card set,” Haynes said. “But it’s also a great opportunity to expose the Joe Durants of the world and making them celebrities.”
The total set will be 200 regular cards and 440 inserts, cards that feature items such as “Tiger Tales.” Photos on the front of the card will range from players driving, chipping, putting, even some with the effect of the ball coming directly at the card holder.
“The entire set creates the full aspect of golf,” McWilliam said.
Some cards will be more valuable than others, and not just those with a picture of Woods and his awesome accomplishments.
Upper Deck plans to randomly insert an undisclosed number of cards in the packages that have been signed by 83 players. For some fans, it’s like opening a Willy Wonka chocolate bar and finding a golf ticket inside — especially if the ink is on Woods’ card.
And that might not be the only surprise.
Upper Deck has an expansive contract with Woods to produce memorabilia, such as his authenticated autograph on photos and pin flags, and McWilliam said the company has been doing the same with Nicklaus the past 18 months.
McWilliam anticipates a type of sweepstakes in the cards, in which consumers might find a card that can be redeemed for tickets to a PGA Tour event or collectibles.
The age of Upper Deck’s consumer base ranges from 5 to 80, and golf could have an extra advantage of being a game for all ages.
“I think it’s going to be a huge hit because there’s a great model in the other sports,” said Mark Steinberg, Woods’ agent at IMG. “Golf has become that hip sport. You have not just golf fans tuning in, but casual fans, people who have never picked up a golf club. The audience is so much more diverse than it was, and that drives a strong market.”
© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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