In 1997 Upper Deck Ushered in Iconic SP Authentic Football with Solid RCs, Stunning Autos


The arrival of 1997 SP Authentic Football is significant in its release as it was the debut of the wildly popular brand for Upper Deck in the football card market.

The premium 198-card, all foil base set is generally considered to be a very attractive product, even by modern day collecting standards. As we know with foil, condition sensitivity issues arise and that is very prevalent with this set.

The packaging for the product was high-end. The five card per pack, 24 pack hobby boxes are foil themselves, featuring the SP Authentic logo with all of the contents found listed underneath. The imagery featured is Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman. There’s even a sticker on the box noting his special insert set. (We’ll get to that later). The pack wrappers themselves are also high-end for the time.  Packs had an SRP of $4.99.

The rookie class is not as strong as others in some of the key skill positions like quarterback and running back but it holds its own in some of the less glamorous positions on the gridiron.


The base set opens with the 30-card Future Watch rookie subset. The cards offer a photo shoot picture or in-action shot of each player with the words Future Watch found in big bold letters. The backdrop of the card shows the players jersey number surrounded by circles with the card covered in foil. The SP Authentic logo is found in the lower left corner.

The number one overall pick in the draft that year was massive Ohio State lineman and future Hall of Famer Orlando Pace. Future Hall of Fame lineman Walter Jones was a high draft pick and featured prominently in the set as well. We do find the most significant rookie cards of Kansas City Chiefs tight end and Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, Tampa Bay running back Warrick Dunn, and running running back Corey Dillon, who fashioned a solid career in the league.

Some of the best rookie cards are found outside of the Future Watch subset at the beginning of the base set. Key rookie cards of Tiki and Ronde Barber and Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame linebacker Jason Taylor were found later in the base set. It should be noted that Arizona Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer is prominently featured and that card was as hot as any in the set when he was competing at the highest level. ‘Jake The Snake’ had his moment in the Arizona sun, for sure.

SP Authentic gained even more traction in recent years as some initial afterthought rookies such as Taylor, Barber and others became Hall of Famers and potential future Hall of Famers.

Regular Base Set

The photo choice for Vikings’ QB Randall Cunningham was an interesting one.

Following the initial Future Watch subset, the base set begins. The design features a full color photo of the player with the background being, again, completely foil with a square and triangular somewhat frosted design. The team’s name is found in the upper left-hand corner in gold and the SP Authentic logo and players name is found in the lower right hand corner. The cards are very aesthetically pleasing as Upper Deck continued to try to push the premium envelope.

Inserts and Autographs

The insert sets and autograph offerings ramp up a bit with 1997 SP Authentic. Back when Upper Deck had a football license and was producing high quality hits like they did in this product, they offered many, if not all, on card autographs. That fact may be hard to believe for new and younger collectors.

The Marks of a Legend autographs include on card signatures of some of the all-time greats including Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Roger Staubach, Franco Harris and more. The card offers a large action photo with a smaller, miniature shot of the player with the cursive text of Mark of a Legend running up the left hand side of the card.  The autograph appears in a designed box at the bottom of the card. These can be found one in every 168 packs.

The ProFiles insert features in an action shot of the player with the NFL shield in the background. The SP Authentic logo, the word ProFiles and the player’s name are found at the bottom basically inside a half football. There are a few parallels of this insert including Level 2 Die Cuts found 1 in 12 packs and Level 3 Die Cuts that are serial numbered to 100, making that insert one of the first sports card releases featuring such low production runs.

The Sign of the Times insert mirrors the Marks of Legend as far as design but futures current NFL stars as opposed to the legends found in the other insert set. You’ll find on-card autographs of stars like Dan Marino, Troy Aikman, Jerry Rice and Marshall Faulk. It’s another quality set from Upper Deck when the company was in its heyday.

Tradition dual autographs was an autograph insert set found one in every 1,444 packs. The cards feature a horizontal design featuring two teammates or players that once played for the same team. The checklist includes Jerry Rice/Joe Montana, Roger Staubach/Troy Aikman, and Tony Dorsett/Emmit Smith. Heck, all six cards in the set could be highlighted as standouts. 

An interesting insert set in this product is the Troy Aikman Power Deck audio set. This unique three card insert set are shaped like and can be played like a CD to reveal exclusive audio content. Again, Upper Deck was trying to push the envelope as it married standard trading cards with what was relatively new technology.

There are also a few redemption sets including Authentics signed memorabilia and Authentics Collection signed memorabilia checklists. The redemptions are found one in every 289 packs and the first offering has redemptions for Dan Marino helmets and jerseys and the second offering gives redemptions for Troy Aikman, Joe Montana and Dan Marino signed memorabilia. That’s it. That’s the end of the checklist. Imagine that in today’s card market.


SP Authentic is a reasonably priced set, thanks to the absence of high cost rookie cards.  Complete 198-card base sets can usually be found for $75-$100.  Hobby boxes typically start at around $400.  The Jones, Taylor, Gonzalez and Pace rookie cards are the most valuable non-autographed cards in the set. Many of the Sign of The Times autographs–even some of the Hall of Famers– can be had for very reasonable prices.

Although 1997 SP Authentic Football didn’t offer a huge rookie crop, it continued a growing tradition of Upper Deck producing higher quality cards with enough big name autographs and inserts that kept the wrappers flying.

About Tony Reid

From the time he was a little kid, Tony has been a huge sports fan. If he could play sports, watch sports and talk about sports it was a great day. From as early as he was drawn to sports, Tony was drawn to collecting sports cards. Not much has changed over the years. He collects RCs of star players in baseball, basketball and football. He also has a soft spot for first autographs of MMA stars. If you want to talk to Tony about the greatness of Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson or Ken Griffey, Jr. you can reach him at @reidrattlecage on all social media platforms.

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