Alternative Investments

Are Sports Cards Valuable? Understanding the Market

by Modern Money


Gone are the times of putting baseball cards in your bicycle spokes. Since the early 2000s we have seen a substantial uptick in both popularity and value of sports cards. Today, the hobby is thriving and the demand for sports cards is increasing exponentially. 

Each year, a new crop of rookies enter their respective professional sports leagues, leaving collectors eager to obtain their cards in hopes of it rising in value. An ever evolving landscape, the sports card market has never been so popular and there are no signs of it slowing down, but what makes these sports cards so valuable?  

The early days of the sports card market 

The 90s, often referred to as the “Junk Era”, was the low point in the sports card market. People had been hoarding cards of players or sets in hopes of matching the rapid increase in value they saw in their older cards, now deemed as “Vintage” (Pre 1981). Demand was high, but supply was even higher. Manufacturers continued to print cards to match the demand for box purchases, however, people soon realized that these cards were no longer scarce. In fact, there were so many copies of key rookie cards during this period that everyone on the planet could have owned multiple copies at significantly deflated prices.

The difference was that Vintage cards were never well taken care of and people weren’t as interested in them at the time they were produced. Supply was low, but so was demand. Fast forward a few decades and people began to realize that their parents’ and grandparents’ sports cards were actually in demand. People wanted a copy of the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle to commemorate his storied career.  

What changed in the sports cards market? 

First and foremost, licensing rights to each major sport has been limited to just one company. For example, if you wanted to find Connor McDavid’s rookie card (“RC”) you will only be able to find it manufactured by Upper Deck. The same can be said for other major sports as Panini controls the NBA and NFL card license, whereas Topps controls the MLB license.  

The second biggest difference can be attributed to the concept of “perceived scarcity”. Manufacturers began to produce serial numbered copies that could be pulled from packs. Now, instead of pulling that RC of Mike Trout, you could also pull one with a gold border limited to just 2,000 copies. Instead of owning a card with an unknown print run, you are able to understand how rare that card is – just by looking at it.  

These serial numbered copies are often referred to as “Parallels” as they represent a parallel set to the main set of cards. Parallels are highly sought after cards and even ones without serial numbers are often short printed (“SP”), implying a scarcity which, in turn, increases value. Parallels are most often identified through their colour or tint. A common parallel in the baseball card market is the Blue Refractor. Typically serial numbered out of 150 copies, the Blue Refractor has been a stalwart parallel in the Topps brand for years. Due to its brand recognition and eye appeal, Blue Refractors can sometimes sell for more than other more rare serial numbered parallels. 

Inserts are another type of card within a set which often represents a mini series within the main set of cards. These inserts are very distinct and usually are themed. A very popular insert set in the last few years has been the KABOOM inserts made by Panini. These have stretched across multiple sports and appear in a wide variety of sets. The cartoon themed insert series have been very popular among collectors.  

How does buying sports cards work and what is the general format of the sports card market? 

Each sport has more than a dozen products that are released each year. Products are rolled out in a format where you would purchase a box often referred to as a “hobby box”. Each box will contain a specific number of packs. Traditionally, the standard format has been 24 pack boxes with approximately 12 cards in each pack. Each box promises a “hit” which means an autograph or relic (jersey card). These packs are where you can pull rookie cards of your favourite players. For example, if you are searching for a Connor McDavid rookie card, you will need to purchase a 2015-16 Upper Deck hobby box. This was McDavid’s rookie year, so this is the only year you will be able to find his rookie cards. You will be able to find Connor McDavid cards in subsequent years, however, these are much less desirable and will often only be valued at a mere fraction of its rookie counterpart.  

Which products should you be buying?  

This is the toughest question and it can change from year-to-year, however, there are certain product releases that you can always bank on. The chart below indicates some of the most desirable sets each year. With demand rising each year, some of these can be extremely hard to find, often selling on the secondary market for a multiple of the MSRP ($150 – $1,000 USD).

sports cards

If purchasing a box is out of your price range, there are many other options for purchasing cards. This can be done by purchasing individual cards on eBay or through other online forums. This is referred to as purchasing “Singles”, as you can obtain the cards you want without having to risk your luck on pulling that card from a box.  

The one question we often get asked is “why are these sports cards valuable?” 

The answer to this is very straightforward and often overcomplicated. It’s best compared to the stock market. If you are interested in a specific publicly traded company, you are able to purchase one or more shares on the open market and participate in the value fluctuation of that company. If the company performs well, the value of your shares increase. If the company performs poorly, the value of your shares decrease. The same concept can be applied to the market for sports cards. 

As players perform well, and people watching them take notice, their cards tend to increase in value. Significant outings on any given night can have a profound effect on card values. Something as simple as a home run or a touchdown catch can send prices upward.  

Although player performances have the biggest impact on value, card condition plays a part as well. The problem with card condition is that it’s subjective and cannot easily be quantified unless graded. Grading card companies such as Professional Sports Authentication (PSA) and Beckett Grading Services (BGS) are the two main companies involved in grading sports cards.  

On a scale of 1-10 with half point increments, the smallest of blemishes can affect the grade. This allows condition to be objectified and collectors will pay extreme premiums on high grade cards. Although grading fees can be as low as $15 USD, a low grade can leave collectors eating the cost with no increase in value. 

To put grades into perspective one of the more popular cards that has been graded in recent years is the 2018 Topps Update Series Ronald Acuna RC #US250. Using eBay completed sales as a gauge on value we are able to determine the impact a grade has on price sales: 

sports cards

Just because a card was well taken care of does not necessarily mean that it will grade perfectly (PSA 10). Factory blemishes are the norm, not the exception. We would estimate that any card pulled from a pack would likely grade somewhere between a PSA 8 or PSA 9 on average. The differences between these grades are often and not readily apparent at first glance. 

Each year the market gets publicity through major transactions being thrust into the spotlight. This year has been no different as a Luka Doncic RC sold for a whopping $4.6M. As you can imagine, this one was particularly special. Limited to only one copy, this specific card is autographed and contains the NBA logo (the “Logoman”) from one of his jerseys. A link to the article can be found here.  

What impact does an autograph have on card value?  

Firstly it’s VERY important to distinguish that “pack-pulled” autographs are the most desirable.  

Pack-pulled refers to a card that is pulled from a pack of cards. Collectors seek these as they are certified out of the pack. The cards that are autographed are designed for signatures, meaning that they were always meant to be autographed.  

Any card that comes out of a pack without an autograph, but is signed by the player in-person (often referred to as an “IP auto”) is not nearly as desirable for a couple of reasons. The first reason being that they must be certified by a third party, which is often an expensive and cumbersome process through a reputable source like PSA. Secondly, a card that was autographed afterwards can be seen as a form of alteration by some collectors and is therefore less collectible. It’s similar to having an artist autograph their painting in the middle of the painting – it takes away from the appeal and the natural state of the piece. IP autographs are great conversation pieces but rarely do they meet the mainstream appeal of collectors. 

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