Upper Deck Exquisite

One of the undeniable themes of the last decade or so in the world of sports cards has been the rapid evolution of its most expensive products – call them high-end, super premium, or any similar term. In 1999, the thought of someone paying $100 for a single pack of modern cards would have been laughable, but just a few years into the new millennium, card manufacturers had not only reached, but blown by that price point.

Just when it appeared that trend couldn’t possibly continue, Upper Deck seized upon a unique opportunity to push it even further. Spurred by the incredible demand for the 2003-04 NBA rookie class headed up by LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade, the company introduced Exquisite Basketball at the eye-popping suggested price of $500 for a single pack of five cards.

To be sure, the content of that first Exquisite set was like nothing that had come before. Each pack held an autographed patch card numbered to no more than 100 copies, an autographed rookie memorabilia card from that deep crop of newcomers, and the potential to pull truly limited cards from UD spokesmen like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Even so, there was a healthy amount of skepticism about whether the market would accept a product so expensive.

That fear proved unfounded, as the LeBron rookie card from Exquisite’s debut went on to become the most valuable modern rookie card in any sport, and several others broke the $1,000 mark. Today, packs of 2003-04 Exquisite Basketball (if you can find them) , go for several thousand dollars each.

Upper Deck continued to manufacture Exquisite sets in the years to come and even took the brand to football and (though it went by the name The Cup) hockey. No subsequent release was able to catch the same lightning as the original, though, suggesting that without the once in a generation star power of LeBron and company, the ceiling for the high end of the sports card market had finally been reached.

The primary reason for the end of Exquisite is a logistical one, as Upper Deck’s license to produce NBA trading cards expires soon, with Panini America taking over as the league’s lone trading card partner. Even with exclusive autograph deals with Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, Exquisite just wouldn’t fly as an unlicensed brand.

It’s fair to wonder if Exquisite, or products like it, could continue on anyway. It’s no secret that overall sales of sports cards have been in a steady decline, and while there will always be deep-pocketed collectors interested in high-end sets, consumers are scrutinizing their discretionary purchases harder than they have in years.