Sports trading card values rocket as pandemic pauses social lives
Whether digital or physical, the values of trading cards have reached unprecedented heights in the past few months, with little sign of slowing down
The memory of an innocent pastime has many sensory triggers.
The taste of hard, stale gum that somehow stayed sweet. The staccato sound of cards flapping in your bicycle’s spokes. The brutal business conducted in countless hours of playground trading sessions.
If nostalgia could be distilled into physical form, it would take the shape of a 1909 Sweet Caporal Honus Wagner, a 1996 Topps Kobe Bryant or a 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky because, measured strictly by a dollar value, these are some of the most valuable sports trading cards in existence.
Trading cards have always had eye-watering valuations. But since the pandemic locked away people in their homes for a year, the industry is experiencing one of its biggest booms.
Industry insiders are throwing around words like “madness” and “insanity” in describing the rapid and near unprecedented growth, one that has seen historical high-water marks for single-card sales in the past few months.
In January, a 1952 Mickey Mantle became the highest-selling card in history with a purchase price of $5.2 million. Less than a month later, Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic saw his autographed rookie card fetch a staggering $4.6 million (all figures are in U.S. dollars).
“It was a perfect storm,” says Mike Chark, a Vancouverite who trades in cards with his business AA Sports Cards.
“I think in this online world … everyone I think was looking for something to take their minds off the doom and the gloom.
“But it’s going up so, so fast, so quickly that I’m … I’m worried. It’s fantastic — don’t get me wrong — it’s amazing. But it just seems like there’s a lot of guys in it right now who are sniffing money and are kind of trying to get involved in something.”
Chark doesn’t stop there. “It’s not really a love of sports, as much as it is gambling. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, just because I saw what happened in 1993. I want to be optimistic, and I want this to grow, but it’s like dating a beautiful woman and you know you’re out of her league, and you’re just like going along for the ride till she wakes up and realizes, ‘What’s she doing with you?’ ” he says.
“I just keep thinking, ‘When’s it gonna end?’ I don’t even know what something’s worth (this moment) because it’s changed so much. And it keeps getting crazier and crazier.”
‘The Junk Era’
Chark has been around the game long enough to remember the value crash of the early 1990s. A few factors played into the bottom falling out of the market then.
Card companies pumped out millions of cards, a massive overproduction that flooded the market during what’s become known as “the Junk Era.” Most buying and selling was done at conventions; and with the internet still in its infancy, the proliferation of card sets wasn’t really uncovered until sales started happening online, mostly through eBay.
Investors, attracted by the allure of a quick sale, entered the market for the first time, driving prices up, and the hype also attracted a flood of hobbyists who had little knowledge of the industry.
The 1994 Major League Baseball strike was the catalyst for the collapse, as casual collectors, turned off by the lack of new cards, turned away — and the bubble burst.
Then Gretzky’s rookie card sold for $1.29 million last December — the most ever for a hockey card — and it sparked the return of a familiar cycle.
“When it did, no word of a lie, I couldn’t get any work done. My phone would just ring and ring, and I knew what they (wanted) before I even picked up the phone,” says Chark. “They all had Wayne Gretzky rookie cards and they all wanted to sell them, and they all thought they were worth a million dollars.
“I tried to be very polite, up front and honest, but by the 13th phone call from a guy who had one with a bullet hole in it, you get exhausted just trying to explain the whole process. It’s not like you have Apple stock, (and) you phone your broker, sell it, and it’s immediate. It doesn’t work like that.
“This isn’t about collecting, this is about futures. It’s really more like the stock market than anything else. But there’s a small pool of people that do this in the world, and you have to really know what you’re doing.”
It used to be there were the boys — and the sports card industry is dominated by males — who had a card they wouldn’t part with at any price because of the connection they had with it.
Fred Hume counts himself in that category. An athletics historian at UBC for the past 20 years, he’s been collecting since the 1970s, when he returned to his boyhood hobby as a 30-year-old. He focused on baseball cards, collecting complete sets, hitting the conventions and taking out ads in the Buy And Sell as he scoured Western Canada.
He, too, has been surprised by the recent explosion.
“When I first started in ’73, I thought I was the only guy on the planet who was doing this crazy thing. It’s about collecting, and … the artistic appeal,” says Hume, whose grandfather Frederick J. Hume owned both the Vancouver Canucks and New Westminster Royals of the Western Hockey League.
“Quite frankly, it’s gone insane. That graph has just kind of shot up off the charts.
“I’m strictly collecting. I just love looking. I don’t really care about the values, but I see that it’s just going crazy. I’m just more of your kind of guy on the sidelines watching this, but I’m not really participating, but I have to admit … even I have spent a little more money in the last year.”
Like a true collector, while what he’s amassed has some monetary value, some of it is valuable only to him. But he’s done well through enough sales — though how much he has spent and made is a subject best left off a public forum — to be considering various charitable foundations or donations his collection could be left to, as he has no children.
“So I get the good feeling of the pleasure of collecting, and the accomplishment that derived from it for all those years, and then you can liquidate it, and actually have it go to a good cause,” he says. “For me, that would be the perfect cycle.”
But the lure of making serious money has become as powerful as the nostalgia for others of Hume’s ilk. They see the spiking prices and figure it’s time to cash in.
“All of a sudden, I have this business where people are coming to me; I’m not going to them, they’re coming to me and they want me to sell their stuff for them,” says Charke, who has started consignment sales for the first time after seeing an “exponential” growth in his business.
And there are even more options. One of the new off-shoots is buying a share in a card, like a Mickey Mantle. The owner will keep 60 per cent of the shares and sell 40 per cent to individual investors. In other cases, the cards might never leave a specific location — just the total ownership of them is sold and traded digitally.
Not just sports cards
And the pandemic bump isn’t just limited to sports cards — it’s every trading card, says Ken Richardson, owner of Pastime Sports & Games. There’s Pokémon, Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, Marvel, Star Wars — “it’s the whole category,” he says.
“So the first box of Pokémon that came out, called a base set … when they originally came out around ’98, I sold those for roughly $100 a box. One of those just sold for $400,000 U.S.,” he continues. “With Magic: The Gathering, you’re in the same category. So that originally came out in ’93, and a box of those was a little under $100. I haven’t seen one trade in a very long time, but I would imagine that would probably sell in the $750,000 range.
“You’ve got individual cards that are approaching a million dollars in Magic: The Gathering, they just had a Charizard Pokémon card sell for half a million dollars. It’s a hot market, for sure.”
The kids whose moms wouldn’t buy them that $100 Optimus Prime toy when they were young have now grown up, have disposable income, kids of their own and, thanks to the pandemic, plenty of time to spend with them.
“Twenty years ago, you’ve got this young person, 8, 10, 12 years old … they wanted that Charizard or they wanted that Pokémon card, and it’s something maybe they remember doing with dad. Or maybe dad’s not around anymore, but those memories still are,” says Richardson. “It’s something that they can do now and share it with their young person. And especially when it comes to those gaming-type cards, the demographic is a lot of these techie-type people.
“A lot these people that are buying them, maybe they work for Microsoft or maybe they started their own tech company. They view these differently. These people view these as art. They’re not interested in … I’ll say a Rembrandt because I don’t know anything about art — in hanging something on the wall. They’ve got no emotional connection to it. But they have an emotional connection through their memories.”
But those “techie types” have also embraced a new entry into the industry, one that has the traditional traders flummoxed.
The digital trading card, best exemplified by NBA TopShots, is a licensed highlight registered by an Non-Fungible Token (NFT) that is, in essence, a unique, unreplicable digital certificate of authenticity. This in turn is recorded in a permanent digital ledger — the blockchain. Just as a picture of Wayne Gretzky is readily available through a quick internet search, the TopShot highlight is, too, but this individual file becomes tradable as an NFT.
NFT’s have been the most recent facet of the exploding crypto evolution, and can be used on just about anything. Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, had his first tweet sold as an NFT for $2.9 million. Music artist The Weeknd is about to jump into the game.
A digital work from artist Beeple recently sold for $70 million. In another mind-bending example, a group bought a work by street artist Banksy for $100,000, then burned it in a park in Brooklyn — but not before digitizing it. They then sold the digital version as an NFT for the equivalent of $380,000 in Ethereum cryptocurrency.
With NBA TopShot, which was the brainchild of Vancouver-based Dapper Labs, the wave has just begun. The highlight of a LeBron James dunk has sold for $209,000, with the asking price on another reaching $250,000. A $10 pack can be resold on eBay for hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
Dapper Labs just raised $305 million in funding off a $2.6-billion evaluation, including a group of investors that includes Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant.
“I have come to realize that I’m an old man now, and I just don’t get it, right?” says Richardson with a laugh. “The younger crowd that grew up more with the internet and more in the digital age, maybe has a lot more connection to it than someone like myself. I don’t get it. But somebody does.”
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“A lot of this boom is fuelled by younger people who, you know, are way ahead of this,” says Chark. “You think of card collecting, a lot of it is these young, entrepreneurial guys who are looking to monetize something that never changed from decade to decade to decade. And now all these things are happening, and anyone that’s been in this for a long time has to be, like me, your head is spinning. You’re trying to play catch-up.
“I hope that if a 65-year-old man sells his Mickey Mantle card, that the 28-year-old buying it is going to own it for a while. I hope there’s someone there who will give it a good home,” he says. “Because I want this to continue. I’m never going to be part of the craziness of NBA TopShots. I’m going to be doing the same thing I did 20 years ago, I hope, in 20 years from now.”
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