2020 brought with it a fair number of surprises, and one that no one could have predicted was the massive surge in the sports trading card market.
After a collapse in 1999, the card market has slowly but surely built itself back up, and when the pandemic hit, hobbyists and investors alike expected to see a repeat; instead, the perfect storm overtook the card market and has brought it to previously undreamed of heights. At just the right age to be nostalgic for the days of popping down to the corner store to trade their pocket change for packs of cards, millennials now have enough disposable income of their own to indulge in old hobbies, and while stuck indoors, many have taken the time to bring their old collections down from attics and out of the backs of closets.
Internet innovation has also contributed greatly to the revitalization of the market. Online sales have made buying and selling easier than ever, but some entrepreneurs take it a step further with the concept of “case breaking,” wherein a group pools their money to purchase unopened cases or boxes. These are opened during a live streaming session, where viewers who can’t afford to do the same live vicariously through the streamers. The videos generate revenue through both viewer traffic and donations, often allowing the streamers to turn reasonable profits.
The unprecedented growth of the card market has shocked fans. In 2018, a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card broke records when it sold for $3,000,000 at auction. Last January, one was sold for more than $5,000,000. Over the course of the last year, cards have been breaking and rebreaking record sale prices over and over again, leading to massive profits. From May to early June of last year, more than forty cards sold on eBay for at least $50,000. From mid-May to July, that number rose to 96, with more than 35% of those going for $90,000 or more.
There are, however, many factors that contribute to the going price of any one card: the athlete’s popularity and skill, the age of the card, and how many of that card were produced are all important. While in the early ‘90s cards often touted feigned rarity caused by overproduction of “rare” cards, nowadays the industry runs on scarcity in what are known as “chase cards.” Generally, these cards are printed in low numbers, autographed, have memorabilia embedded in them, and are serial numbered to precisely define their rarity. Unexpected events can also have a massive impact on pricing; after his death, Kobe Bryant’s cards soared to 600% of their previous value.
Today, a single pack of Topps Baseball cards sells for about $8. Serious collectors, however, often buy the boxes, or a case of 12 boxes for around $1,500. Despite this, many investors recommend purchasing already-graded cards, rather than gambling on what many collectors have compared to the lottery. In addition, some investors prefer to purchase cards featuring athletes that are already deceased, as the odds of a scandal bringing down the athlete’s popularity (and subsequent price) are much lower.