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The reason Michael Jordan doesn’t appear on basketball cards anymore

There’s always that one card in every hobby that stands out among the rest. Football fans have Tom Brady’s rookie cards, Magic: The Gathering has the First Edition Black Lotus, and there’s the First Edition Holo Charizard for Pokemon enthusiasts. For basketball fans, it’s the GOAT – Michael Jordan.

A good piece of evidence that solidified Jordan’s cult status among basketball card fans is his 1986 Fleer Rookie Card and the exorbitant prices it’s commanding now. In an auction held last month, PSA 10 graded copies of this card reached an insane amount of $738,000 and it’s expected to go higher than that in the coming years.

Since Jordan’s rookie card is out of the question for most people, collectors would turn to chasing his other cards on the market, which consists primarily of those made in the 90s and early 2000s. New collectors or those returning to the hobby would often wonder why Jordan, with his legendary status and all, is absent from today’s basketball cards.

The answer is both simple and maddening, at the same time.

A background of Michael Jordan’s partnership with Upper Deck

The year was 1992 and Jordan just named the Most Valuable Player in the league at that time. A billboard with the words “TRADE JORDAN” went up in Chicago shortly after, much to the dismay of the city. Another billboard was put up with the same phrase but with the line – “We’ve been doing it for years…” included in the bottom.

Michael Jordan, Bulls

Turns out, this was part of a marketing campaign done by Upper Deck. It turned out to be a huge success, which led to enormous sales for the company. 

In 2000, Upper Deck signed Jordan to be their company spokesman to the tune of $14 million. Part of that agreement states that Upper Deck will be the sole manufacturer of memorabilia items that feature Jordan. And yes, that includes trading cards.

As such, no other card company out there is allowed to produce a card that features Jordan or even the slightest hint of his likeness. That has been the norm for quite some time until a few years ago.

Panini vs. Upper Deck

Without a doubt, Panini is considered the go-to option for people who want to collect basketball cards. The company boasts a wide array of basketball players, both legends and active stars, under their umbrella. The company also has most of them under an agreement to provide autographs for Panini’s card offerings.

But even with all of their success, Panini can’t feature Jordan in any of their products. Just last year, Upper Deck filed a lawsuit against Panini for featuring His Airness in the background of some cards. These were the 2018-19 Contenders Winning Tickets Dennis Rodman and 2017-18 Donruss Optic Retro Series Scottie Pippen cards.

Michael Jordan Scottie Pippen Dennis Rodman

The former has Jordan prominently seen in the background while the latter has him far away from the card’s featured player, Pippen. Upper Deck alleged that Panini inserted Jordan’s image into these cards to generate profit. 

For their part, Panini pointed out that Jordan is not a party to the aforementioned suit and his rights should not be asserted by Upper Deck. The case has not yet been resolved as of this writing.

The state of Michael Jordan cards right now

It’s safe to say that we won’t be seeing any new Michael Jordan cards in a Chicago Bulls, or even a Washington Wizards jersey anytime soon. Panini has the exclusive license to produce cards that feature past and present players wearing an NBA uniform.

On the other hand, Upper Deck is still producing cards of Jordan via their Good Champions brand. The photos used by UD in these cards do not have any trace of the NBA to prevent any legal disputes.

Those who are planning to chase Jordan’s cards would do well to settle with those made before 2000. There are still a lot of amazing pre-Panini cards of the GOAT in the market right now and can be purchased at a good price. Just keep an eye out for reprints or damaged cards to keep your investment safe.