Earlier this month, Upper Deck and Flying Lab Software launched the beta of UpperDeckU, a new kids world focused on sports and, specifically, sportscard collecting. It’s not the first step that Upper Deck is taking towards bringing today’s kids back to card collecting. Three years ago only 3% of boys were collecting cards. Upper Deck launched UpperDeckKids.com to tap into the digital generation and offer kids points and rewards for codes on their cards. Now 49% of boys are collecting cards, but the company is looking for new ways to engage its audience with UpperDeckU.
“What we found was it was a nice first step towards what kids were doing. We realized 18 months ago that the online world was changing significantly and that kids were spending more and more time online and really in a virtual world capacity,” explained Louise Curcio, VP of Marketing for Upper Deck. “We decided we needed to make sports cards more relevant to kids and we could do that with a virtual world.”
In both general market research and UpperDeck’s own focus groups on where kids spent their time online, Webkinz and Club Penguin came up over and over again, said Curcio. Virtual worlds weren’t only taking kids’ time away from other online properties, but offline activities like television as well.
Going to virtual worlds was an obvious choice for Upper Deck, but it wanted its destination rather than to simply appear as a brand in another property. Upper Deck evaluated 30 different companies interested in developing the virtual world and eventually settled on Flying Lab Software to start developing a whole new world last summer.
“One advantage we have is that we have millions and millions of packs of cards in the market on any given year. We have a distribution model set up to reach those kids and the kids are buying our products,” explained Curcio. “That being said, we did do a partnership with NFL Rush Zone and we’re still a partner with them. That was our first step into the world to see what kind of branding we could do and how we could get kids engaged. We realized we had a compelling enough brand and a strong environment with sports to bring them in.”
The goal is to expand on kids’ traditional play patterns. Curcio, who spent years at Mattel, says that while the technology and toys are changing, the focus is always on how kids play. And it doesn’t change that much. That’s why, she says, sports are booming for virtual worlds right now. For a long time, virtual worlds were geared at girls or contained more fantastical elements, but Curcio says there’s an opportunity to meet the needs of that group of boys that are always going to be fascinated by sports–and maybe bringing new audiences in as well. UpperDeckU takes the card experience and broadens it online.
“It gives them an extended experience. In the current business model, kids buy cards and trade them and collect favorite players and teams. In our world, they can join teams and wear player jerseys. It extends their world into an online space,” said Curcio. “When we were growing up, baseball cards were a community unto themselves, and kids were collecting them or putting them in bikes. Were taking them and connecting them online. It’s broadening their potential community and bringing in kids that may not have been into cards before because it’s a destination social experience and virtual experiences.
Currently, the world is tied to only baseball and hockey leagues as those card packs recently made their way to retail. It also features, in its beta form, slightly limited functionality. Within four weeks, though, Curcio says Upper Deck will add the ability to form teams and play in groups, customize virtual houses, and play more games.
“A lot of the stickiness is still to come, but the initial foundation is there. And they like to just hang out in their space and talk about sports. There are plenty of other activities, but we see them just hanging out as well,” she explained.
Money And Marketing
There are soon to be more revenue options as well. UpperDeck will monetize on three levels. First, in the traditional physical cards, kids will be able to find codes for Insider Access that lets them decorate their rooms with team merchandise and collect all the leagues and players. The second is a virtual set of cards that allows the same options. If kids are into collecting, but not the physical material, they can still build up their card catalog. Finally, microtransactions will come online as the world develops to purchase Gold Coins as a secondary currency for special items. It may also eventually include sponsorship options.
“The vision is that this is a marketing tool we’re using to engage kids into collecting cards more. That being said, there’s also the possibility that it could be a viable business,” said Curcio. “But we’re really not doing it from that perspective. Like any business, you always want that other leg to stand on. I know a lot of the other players out there, Action AllStars being one, is doing it to make money. We’re doing it to extend the life of baseball, football, and hockey cards. But we’d be remiss not to include [revenue options].”
Along those lines, Upper Deck is investing a considerable amount in promoting the new world. We reported earlier this month, based on a PR Week article, that the world would be supported with a $10,000 budget. That’s, apparently, solely for PR. Curcio says the total marketing effort will come in somewhere in the “tens of millions of dollars” range. With efforts already underway to market the physical cards, the virtual world will get a boost, including a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated For Kids, two television commercials starting in March, and an online campaign.
The goal, according to Curcio, is to push past the tipping point for card collecting. She says she doesn’t have a firm target for market penetration but doesn’t want to repeat her experience of four years ago, trying unsuccessfully to hand out cards at a kid’s baseball game.
“That’s where the concept for the virtual world came in. Where does collecting cards become part of growing up? We wanted to instill that in this generation. To do that, we thought we needed to move into the virtual world’s space. This is a natural step for us to hopefully take us from 49% to above 50%,” Curcio said. “We really look at the size of our retail business, the business with the Walmarts and Targets and Toys R Us of the world. If we can grow that business, we can reach that tipping point. Whether it’s 50 or 60 or 75%, I don’t have that as a target. It’s the anecdotal stuff where you take the cards to a little league game and kids are saying, ‘I want cards.'”