The Sports Card Market Is At An All-Time High; Let Me Explain What I’ve Learned Through the Lens of Digital Innovation
It all started roughly 30 years ago when I began to receive baseball, hockey, and basketball cards as gifts for my birthday. Back then, the card packs we would receive had sticks of gum in them that we had no idea who touched or added… but boy, did they taste good.
A few friends got into sports cards too, and together, we would go to the Westchester County Center every so often and attend a sports card show. At the time, we were kids with pocket money walking around the mostly adult cottage industry of sportscard collecting. Buying a $3 card at the convention center was pure adrenaline, and every so often, we’d buy a full set or box and come home to open it.
We probably made every mistake a rookie card collector could. We opened everything. We touched everything. We sleeved very little. Take care of edges? Oops. The double card in plastic sleeve pages. Yup. Store cards with rubber bands around them? Absolutely.
But, we had fun, and I would not trade that for anything.
I’d like to say that I started to learn “business” from reading the Becket magazine that I would receive each month in the mail. This magazine lists card prices of recent sales and highlighted cards that had high and low volume. I never knew how they got the information, and my parents always reminded me that cards are only worth what someone will actually pay you, regardless of whatever Becket says. I had a few cards worth $1, $2, $3… and I was over the moon.
Fast forward to today… 30+ years later. I’d all but forgotten about my cards. I bought my son a few packs last year and started to get the itch. I recalled my conversations with entrepreneur friends Nat and GaryV about their collections and inspired me to get back in.
November and December 2019 was when I started to make some “real” purchases. I also dove back in the market during a ski trip in January 2020… those evenings were when I purchased multiple Lebron James eTopps and some 2018 Luka rookie cards. I didn’t do much else until June 2020, just 85 days ago. Since then, it’s been game on. The “good cards” in the collection now number close to 900 and they are all available here if anyone is interested.
Today’s card market is such a transformation of what I remembered way back when. The Westchester County Center exhibitions still exist, but the digital experience is absolutely incredible these days, and collecting and/or investing is no longer solitary, a community now exists 24/7 online.
Do you know what happens on Instagram, YouTube Live, or Twitch after 9pm EST? Do you know what happens on the multitudes of message boards like Blowoutforums each day? Or the dark web of Discord and all of the card related chat rooms?
Card collecting has taken off. That is an understatement. If you do a Google Trends search, sports card collecting is seeing a significant resurgence.
Many smart people have thoughts as to why now is an all-time high in the card market. Some of those thoughts are:
1/ The stimulus checks are going into the sports card market,
2/ People have more time at home to browse for a variety of reasons, therefor, card collecting is an area that they are spending more time in,
3/ There have been 100–300% price appreciation in cards recently, and it’s hard not to make money. So people have dove into the industry with the hopes to make quick profits,
4/ People with large followings like GaryV and Darren Rovell (the cooler Darren) have openly discussed the card market and have introduced people who might have never experienced it or forgotten about it,
5/ The internet has brought exponential amounts of buyers and sellers together from across the world,
6/ More comfort in alternate asset classes,
7/ Sports gambling was relatively quiet for a while so sport card games offer up an opportunity,
… and clearly, there are many more reasons
To give you a sense of size and scale, a Mike Trout 2009 Bowman Chrome SuperFractor just sold for $3.84M. He’s still an active player in Major League Baseball. You might recall that Honus Wagner, another baseball player, was the previous high sale… at $3.12M. A bunch of Lebron James just sold for well north of $1M, and Luka Doncic, an active NBA player on the Dallas Mavericks in his second season, now has routinely six-figure cards on the market.
What is most interesting to me about this is how digital innovation has penetrated this entire hobby, which is now end to end digital.
I study, strategize, invest, and execute digital innovation at work and have been super impressed at the creativity occurring within the sports card sector.
Acquisition of cards, packs, and boxes (aka wax) has become more accessible (but expensive) than ever. You can go to the mega marketplaces like eBay, groups on Facebook, vertical marketplaces like Comc or StockX, boards like Blowoutforums, live platforms like Instagram Pullwax Marketplace, follow the 5dollarcard account, or the many underground chat servers such as SportsCardInvestor on Discord. Or, of course, you can go to your local Walmart or local hobby store (Baystate Cards for me) but most likely will find that Walmart has been wiped clean by sports card investors and speculators. Note, I went to my local Walmart recently, and since it was not a megastore, it did not carry sports cards. Who knew?
Social + Following: Many folks have set up Instagram accounts for their sports card collections, including me: @midlifecrisiscards. I even have set up a simple Google Sheet that lists my collection for prospective buyers. On Instagram, YouTube Live, Twitch, and possibly other platforms, you will find many ways to participate in buying cards, packs, and boxes. Facebook Groups has a bunch of solid sports card groups including Baseball Card Trading, The Alternate Live Auction for All Sports, Sports Cards Buy Sell by Case Breaks, and Baseball, Football, and Basketball Card — Buy, Sell, and Trade Auction House.
In order to understand the options available to you as a speculator or collector, you must understand the terminology. While this is not fully comprehensive, it’s a solid list of digital innovation at its core with a bunch of additional ingenuity.
Box Break: Multiple people split the cost of a box(s) of cards, and the hits (cards) are divided up amongst people in the break based upon which sports teams they select when signing up for the break. For instance, there are 30 NBA teams, and if the break contains 10 slots, there will be 3 teams per slot. Sometimes, you pick your own team (PYT) or other times, it’s randomly assigned using Random.org. The randomization will usually be done live via video and chat so everyone in the break can watch and validate the spot/team they receive. Some breaks allow you to choose more than one team. Some breaks also treat different teams as different buy-ins. Meaning, to select the 2019 Heat will cost more than picking the 2019 Cavaliers. Box breaks are an excellent way to get many players from a limited number of teams and lead to some big hits. Box breaks range in price based on the actual cost of the box. Usually, within 24–72 hours, your cards will be mailed to you in sleeves and top loaders, depending on what you hit from the box. You can watch this video to learn more about how a group break works.
Razz: essentially a lottery. For instance, a 2003 Lebron James eTopps rookie card has a street value of say $750. There will be 10 spots in the lottery though there could be any number of spots. Each spot costs $75 to participate. The organizer of the Razz will get the $750 of street value based on 10 spots * $75 to participate. You sign up for a spot #, and then the organizer uses Random.org once the Razz is filled (all spots are taken) and rolls dice to determine how many randomizations will be used. The winner is in the #1 spot, after all, randomizations are selected. This is a game of chance, and I’ve found this to be a quick way to lose some money :) You can watch this video to learn more about how Razz works.
Pick & Pulls: you can go on Instagram Live each night and find accounts like @daddy_rips, @shortprintpulls offering you the ability to purchase a pack (or box) of cards, and they will rip it open live on Insta and show you what hits you have. Or for pulls, they have say 50 cards laid out and charge $3 per pull. You purchase say $15 worth of pulls (5) and tell them which card numbers you want. They will then go through and show you which cards you “pull,” which then become your cards. You will then receive them in the mail shortly after.
If you log onto Instagram after 9p EST and tap thru the live feeds of sports card accounts, you can join the live breaks, razzes, pulls, etc. You can learn a lot by watching — kinda like going to the casino and standing aside from the craps table before you dive into playing.
Organization: Now, once you have your cards, you probably want to price check and keep them organized. There have been a few recent tools that have hit the market, such as Market Movers by SportsCardInvestor and the forthcoming release of Slabstox. There’s also a pretty nifty Excel sheet template created by @balxoriolesx_sports_cards.
The hobby is full swing with digital penetrating both the front end and back end of the market.
But beware, markets work in cycles and expect there to be some pullback in the next year or two. The transient money will run, and prices will come down a bit. Those are critical buying times within the market, and I look forward to that.
The above chart comes from a DailyFX post about financial market cycle phases. I believe that history repeats itself and the financial markets are indicative of other markets as well. Not a perfect parallel but similar. The smarter investors will keep this in mind. In talking to some smart investors and collectors, they have mostly sat on the side of this bull market and will dive back in when it dips. I am not saying that is good or bad, just trying to provide some context.
Some Instagram accounts that I have found awesome to follow:
Hopefully, one day I’ll run into you at The National, the world’s largest sports card show. Until then, follow me on Instagram @midlifecrisiscards or @dherman76 on Twitter, and let’s chat. For those who want to talk about the digital innovation of the industry, let’s geek out.