If there’s a dust-covered shoebox full of baseball cards hiding somewhere in your house, now’s probably a good time for you to go look for it because sports cards are having a moment.
And it’s a big moment.
Yahoo! News reports that seven of the 10 biggest sports cards sales in history have taken place over the past eight months and, during that span, the record for the “most expensive card ever sold” has been shattered twice. As of March 30, the current record holder is a 1952 Topps Micky Mantle card that was purchased for $5.2 million, according to Action Network.
Card value is spiking at unprecedented levels. In February, a Michael Jordan rookie card sold at auction for $738,000, according to CNN. Two weeks earlier, the same card sold for $215,000. That’s a 243% value increase in only 14 days.
As card values are spiking, transaction numbers are following suit. The Athletic reports that eBay hosted 4 million more trading card transactions in 2020 than 2019 at a 142% growth rate. According to the site, the recent surge in interest has created problems for card manufacturers like Topps and Panini as they struggle to keep products on store shelves.
It’s clear more cards are being sold now than ever before, and some of them are fetching absurd prices. But what’s behind the trend?
What caused the resurgence of sports cards?
This trading card resurgence came as a direct response to the pandemic shutdowns in 2020, CNN reports. With live sports on hiatus, bored fans started raiding their attics and basements to dig up old cards and check their value. CNN mentions that the nostalgia wave brought on by the ESPN documentary series “The Last Dance” also helped usher sports memorabilia back to the forefront of people’s minds.
With help from high-profile endorsers like Mark Wahlberg, Logan Paul, The Ringer’s founder Bill Simmons and Pittsburgh Steeler Cassius Marsh, the pastime has grown and found new hobbyists over the past year. Social media has played a huge role in the resurgence too as collectors are opening boxes of cards on YouTube and TikTok and racking up thousands of views.
Who’s collecting sports cards right now?
Brakken Barben, a Utah-based card collector who’s invested thousands of hours (and dollars) into the hobby, claims there are three main groups of people participating in the boom. Here’s how he breaks them down:
- “Quick flippers” — Flippers are more interested making a quick buck than collecting cards, so they load up on boxes from local department stores to resell them online for a marked up price. According to Barben, unopened boxes are tough to find these days so scalpers are selling them for 200% MSRP, or more. Next time you go to Walmart or Target, take a walk down the trading cards aisle. Barben guarantees the shelves will be empty.
- “Wall Street types” — Like stocks, card values fluctuate over time. Wall Street types see trading cards as tangible stocks. They put in time to research value trends and are always looking to buy low and sell high. Like the quick flippers, Wall Street types are in the hobby for the money, but they deal in larger sums and seem to find enjoyment in the ride.
- “Nostalgic millennials” — This is where Barben places himself. Kids who enjoyed collecting sports cards in the late ’80s and early ’90s are all grown up now. A lot of them have homes, jobs, kids and (most importantly) disposable income. Now, these adults can throw hundreds (or thousands) of dollars into the hobby and snatch up rarer and pricier cards than they couldn’t afford when they were kids.
Lessons from the past: Supply and demand
According to The New York Times, scarcity has always driven the value of sports cards, and card companies learned that lesson the hard way in the 1980s. As card collecting surged in popularity, card companies like Topps, Donruss, Upper Deck, Fleer and Bowman overproduced cards in enormous quantities in an attempt to meet market demands. They mistakenly flooded the market, eliminated scarcity and rendered their cards worthless. Even today, many of them still are.
To assure that they never repeat the mistake again, card producers today are fabricating scarcity by creating special cards that are released in extremely limited quantities.
For example, the Kevin Durant rookie card pictured below comes from Upper Deck’s Exquisite collection, and only 35 of them were ever made. This card, which comes adorned with Durant’s signature and a swatch of cloth from one of his jerseys, recently sold at auction for over $750,000.
Boom or bubble?
Is this hobby here to stay or will it vanish once the pandemic is in the rearview mirror? The short answer: Nobody knows for sure. But when it comes to opinions, there are multitudes.
Ezra Levine, the CEO of the Collectible app is bracing for what he believes is an inevitable market decline. In a recent interview with The Athletic he said, “There will certainly be losers once the market takes a downturn, and it will at some point. Many collectors, particularly those prospecting or investing in less rare stuff will get burned once the euphoria ends.”
Ken Goldin, the founder of Goldin Auctions, on the other hand, is expecting marginal fluctuations in the sports card market. But he said he believes overall demand will stay constant, according to CNN.
“The difference between cards and stock (is) nobody loves a stock,” he said. “Some people who buy these cards, to get them to sell it is like getting them to take off an arm.”
As the hobby has captured the world by storm this past year, it has taken on a new form online. The fact that card collecting is adapting to the 21st century might be an indicator that the pastime is here for good.
The future is digital
While people have been using the internet to buy and sell cards for some time now, the hobby’s online presence extends much further than transactions. Today, hobbyists are buying and selling purely digital products.
In February, someone sold a video clip of LeBron James dunking a basketball for more than $200,000 on a site known as NBA Top Shot. As previously reported by the Deseret News, NBA Top Shot is a blockchain-based online platform that creates and sells collectible videos called “moments.” These moments are part of a larger digital trend called NFTs.
The acronym NFT stands for “non-fungible tokens,” and NFTs are, in essence, collectible digital objects (like videos, images and sound bites) that people buy and sell with cryptocurrencies. I like to imagine NFTs as trading cards or collectible works of art that are only available in the digital world.
Each NFT video “moment” sold on NBA Top Shots is branded with a specific serial number that helps assign its value. For example, a 1 of 100 Steph Curry “moment” is more valuable than a 1 of 500,000 clip of Ersan Ilyasova, so it’ll fetch a much higher price.
Welcome to the All-Star Family Challenge expires Thursday, April 1 at 10am PDT ⏰— NBA Top Shot (@nbatopshot) March 31, 2021
Collect all 5️⃣ required Moments & score this exclusive reward of Mike Conley breaking down the defense for an easy dime to Rudy Gobert 💪🏼
More info: https://t.co/Rkg3ropdV1 pic.twitter.com/vJ0hUtAAJ9
Just like physical sports cards, the NBA Top Shot website sells NFT “moments” in randomized booster packs. This method of distribution gives buyers the sensation they might open up a rare, highly valuable clip when they crack open their packs. Of course, if someone is looking to buy a specific clip of a certain player, the site gives users that option too.
The market for this new digital trading platform is no joke either. NBC reports that on Feb. 26, more than 200,000 eager collectors waited in an online queue to buy one of the 10,600 new virtual packs that NBA Top Shot released that night. The packs contained six NFTs each and were being sold for $99 a pop. During that week alone, NBA Top Shot reportedly raked in $150 million from sales.
So, is the future of card collecting really digital? If money is any indicator at all, then the answer is a resounding yes.