Renewed Lessons from Sports Card Collecting Resurgence

I believe it was a Kmart. I was about 12 years old, maybe 13. It was one of those moments you remember vividly because of the profound impact it had on you.

My mind recalls walking to the sports card section and seeing a single pack of 1994 Upper Deck baseball cards sitting on the top shelf. I can still remember the black and bronze foil wrapper. No idea why, but I grabbed that lone pack and convinced my parents to buy it for me.

What happened next contributed to the answer whenever anyone asks me, “what is the best card you’ve ever pulled from a pack?”

I opened the pack as my parents were still checking out. In the middle of the deck, I pulled an Alex Rodriguez autograph. This was at a time when 1. Autographs were super rare and not as widely available in packs as they are today; 2. This was A-Rod’s rookie year, well before any of the 696 home runs he’d go on to hit.

I yelled. I showed my parents. I showed the cashier. I didn’t put the card down the entire car ride home as to not jeopardize the corners. That card sat in a screw-down case until this past March.

Alex Rodriguez 1994 Upper Deck Autograph

Business is Back

I’m not sure what exactly got me interested in sports cards again 16 years after that fateful night. But on March 4, I purchased my first baseball card in over a decade. It was a Luis Robert Bowman Prospects card that was rated a PSA 10. (Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) is a company that evaluates sports cards, assigning them grades of 1-10 based on how good the corners, centering, edges, and surface conditions are.) I paid $58.64 after shipping for the card off eBay.

Today, that same card, from a different seller, sold for $319.99 — a 446% increase over what I paid for the card six months ago. Yet, that’s exactly how hot the sports card industry is at this very moment — and Robert has turned out to be the hottest name in baseball in 2020.

But what is driving this resurgence? I am by no means an expert — this post is simply my opinion. But we’re seeing something similar to a gold rush as collectors and investors — yes, investors — grab cards to flip for big money or hang on to for even larger potential returns. You aren’t investing in a company. You’re investing in an athlete.

Let’s Go Back

I used to be an avid baseball card collector. The passion is attributed to my grandfather, who also collected and used to take me to card shows. I was always impressed with his collection of unopened packs, well-organized complete sets, and star singles, including a Nolan Ryan rookie card.

I, too, became very organized with my cards — obsessed with looking at Beckett or Tuff Stuff to get the latest pricing. Anything of value I’d put in a top loader. In fact, factory sealed top loaders (1,000 of them) are what I asked for back-to-back Christmases when I was around 13 or so. (Organization was always one of my strong suits.)

Cards weren’t what they are today — the quality was lower (you ever try to get a 1987 Topps into a penny sleeve without damaging the corner?) and they were mass-produced. Turns out, there wasn’t scarcity like it was made out to be. You still had to pay a pretty penny for that 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, but it also wasn’t as limited in terms of availability as collectors found out several years later.

All of my cards were organized by the sport, the player, the brand — in that order. Over 20 boxes featuring 400 top loaders each sat in my basement until this year. No commons; only All-Star players, rookies, inserts, and Hall of Famers. And I went through every single one of them. During this clean-out, I learned a lot.

What I Learned

I’m going to stick specifically to baseball here, for examples, although many of these learnings tie to other sports as well:

  1. Ozzie Smith. Robin Yount. Why are their rookie cards worth so much less than Mark McGwire, for example? Smith (28 career home runs) and Yount (251) are in the Hall of Fame; it remains to be seen whether McGwire (583) ever gets in. Despite being some of the best baseball players ever, one thing I’ve recognized is collectors value the “Sportscenter” statistics, which primarily means home runs. Batting average and stolen bases only add to a home run hitter’s value (e.g. Mike Trout) but being proficient at those pale in comparison to the sexy stats.

  2. Sports cards are hard to find — in the wild. They’re near impossible to find at retailers like Wal-Mart or Target. I was in Target a couple of weeks ago and saw a line of people waiting for the distributor to stock the shelves. They knew the exact day and time this individual was going to be at this location and were ready to pounce. The thing is: the majority of these people aren’t collectors. They’re buying to mark-up and sell on eBay for a profit. That makes the retailer the second distributor, then the reseller the main connection to the industry for consumers — at a dramatically increased price. For me, and other true collectors, that’s disappointing to see. I lucked into snagging a few boxes of Topps series 2 online before the bots grabbed them and visited my local card shop to get a couple of basketball packs. I say this also recognizing the other side of the argument where scarcity creates demand, which is good for the market. 

  3. Of all the cards a player has produced throughout their career, there is going to be only one season worth of rookie cards. And of that season, while multiple brands may produce a rookie card, there are some that stand out among the crowd. For instance, in baseball, Robert has been the most sought after rookie this season. From what I’ve seen, Topps reigns king — Topps Chrome and Topps series 2 are the ones to target (Topps Heritage are in third place, in my opinion, but Robert didn’t have one in that set this season).

  4. Grading cards can dramatically increase card values… in most cases. You can’t get a more pristine card than a 10.  Mix in a rookie (again, if a player has a 20-year career, he’ll still only have one rookie) and you have practically the best card you can own for that given player, excluding “hits” (autographs, jersey cards, and other inserts). There are those who believe a 9.5 (for Beckett Grading only) or a 9 (for PSA) should be valued more than a card that isn’t graded. I’m in this camp. To be fair, I believe even cards from the 90s that were mass-produced do hold value as 10s because there are so few 10s. People didn’t take as good of care of their cards as they do today so I expect many more Robert PSA 10s than Ken Griffey Jr. 10s. Case in point: Remember those 20 boxes of 8,000 cards? I ended up throwing out more than 3/4 of them due to being worth very little or in poor condition.

  5. Sports cards can be easily understood by sports fans. It’s betting on a player vs. a specific company’s stock. The better that player does, the more valuable that card becomes. Now that sports are back and people have been camped out at home due to the Coronavirus, that’s presented a lot of opportunities to get back into the space. Many of these consumers are the ones like myself who have the nostalgia of my youth but now have the disposable income to generate new memories and potentially diversify my portfolio.

  6. I’m not into sports cards to quickly flip them. I’m into sports cards with regard to longterm investments. The realized value fluctuates too much now but if you can hang on to a card for 10 years or longer (and that player has a solid career), you’ll be able to realize some return. I do also understand why flipping certain rookies based on hype is an inevitable gamble worth making. After all, not every player will be a Hall of Fame. Look at this year’s MLB class: Robert, Gavin Lux, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Lewis, Joey Bart, Jo Adell, Bo Bichette, etc. Not every one of those players will pan out. It’s just the reality. But if you can afford to hold, there could be some great upside.

Collecting again has been fun. Recently, I got a box of 2020 Topps Heritage that I opened with my son. It was special to have him show me each card individually, offering up a “wow” when he saw one that stood out.

As for that Alex Rodriguez card from my youth. It sits at PSA, waiting to be graded. I’m not sure whether it will come back as a 10. What I am certain of, however, is collecting is fun again.

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