A sports collector 21 years ago spent $8 on a pack of football trading cards destined to change his life. He just needed to wait.
Inside the pack was a Tom Brady Playoff Contenders rookie card — fewer than 100 are in existence — that sports memorabilia expert Ken Goldin estimates will bring in well over $1 million when his New Jersey-based auction firm, which is handling the sale for the collector, puts the item on the market.
Brady, who won his seventh Super Bowl last month, has long been a draw for collectors. Fitbit founder James Park, a New England Patriots superfan, plopped down $1.32 million last week for another autographed rookie card of the quarterback, who is considered to be the game’s greatest ever. But the trend extends well beyond Brady and well beyond football.
With a record $5.2 million sale in January of a vintage Mickey Mantle rookie card, soaring speculation about new cards featuring young NBA stars such as Zion Williamson, and unprecedented interest in cards for soccer and other international sports, the industry is booming like never before.
The prospect of finding a one-of-a-kind card is just part of the allure, Mr. Goldin said.
“It’s the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket theory,” he said.
With the luck of the draw and the potential of a profitable investment, opening a deck of packaged cards can be more exhilarating than buying a lottery ticket or purchasing a share of GameStop stock.
“There are millions more people looking to buy this product line today than there were this time last year, than there were this time two years ago, than they were this time three years ago, and so on, so forth,” Mr. Goldin said.
An addictive hobby
When Mikey Glover’s students at Gospel Light Baptist Academy in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, found out that their middle school teacher collected sports cards, they wanted in. Some are as passionate about sports as Mr. Glover, and they quickly picked up on the appeal.
But as interest in trading cards surges, buying a pack is becoming a challenge — especially for youths who are increasingly priced out of the market. Mr. Glover scoped out Walmart stores near his house for new cards, but packs often sold out before he could snag a box. His students experienced the same problem.
Mr. Glover didn’t want them to become discouraged.
He had a few thousand cards at his house that he didn’t need, so he created like-new packages for some of his students. He filled the packs with run-of-the-mill cards and enough rare ones to pique the interest of young collectors. He wanted his students to have the experience of opening decks of cards as if they were brand new.
“It’s so funny because they know that I made the packs for them, but they still come up to me with cool cards that they pulled to show off the next piece of their collection,” Mr. Glover wrote in a message. “Trying to trade cards that I gave them for some of my own [personal collection].”
The nostalgia, the addictive nature of the hobby and the downtime brought on by the pandemic seem to have pulled some former collectors back into the action.
Richard Cambe, a 48-year-old mortgage loan underwriter from Hawaii, said he grew up collecting trading cards of all types, including baseball and Pokemon. Mr. Cambe wasn’t involved in the trading card market for the past two decades, but he stumbled across the surging online presence for collectibles in August while watching videos on YouTube.
He fell right back down the rabbit hole, researching all that had changed since he last enjoyed the hobby. Mr. Cambe said there is mounting interest in all sorts of collectibles, be it G.I. Joe action figures or sports cards. Some of that has to do with the emotional connection people have with collectibles from their childhoods, and some of it has to do with the bottom line.
“You can flip real estate,” Mr. Cambe said, or “you can flip sports cards.”
Money in the cards
The pandemic hasn’t hurt the trading card market. In fact, it has been quite the opposite.
Jason Howarth, vice president of marketing for Panini America, a trading card and memorabilia manufacturer based in Irving, Texas, said sales at Walmart and Target increased by three to five times over the past year.
To offer a comparison of how popular trading cards have become, Mr. Howarth pointed to Bitcoin. The digital currency rose 300% in value in the past year, Mr. Howarth said. Meanwhile, the value of NBA star Luka Doncic’s rookie card grew 750%.
Goldin Auctions reported sales of $27 million worth of collectibles in 2019. That number ballooned to $103 million last year. From January through the end of February this year, the auction house sold $75 million. Goldin sold a record $45.2 million worth of collectibles at its winter auction, which ended last week. The same auction last year sold $4 million in collectibles.
The Doncic rookie card, which sold for $4.6 million in February, became the most expensive basketball card ever.
“When you see a record price and you say, ‘Oh my God, how did that crazy person spend that much for a card?’” Mr. Goldin said. “Six months later, it’s going to look like a good buy.”
A snowball effect
When YouTube celebrity Logan Paul flipped his card deck to find a holographic Charizard, he let out a yell. That Pokemon card alone could sell for more than $500,000. Mr. Paul unearthed the find among a larger haul of first-edition Pokemon cards while livestreaming his pack opening.
Those events have brought multitudes of new eyes to the trading card market, sports or not.
Mr. Paul has 22.9 million YouTube subscribers, and that Feb. 27 livestream has drawn more than 4 million views.
Mr. Paul is not alone in riding the wave of interest. The Ringer launched a podcast, “Sports Cards Nonsense,” to discuss the industry. On Instagram, TikTok and just about every other social media platform imaginable, collectors stream or record their unboxings of cards.
The industry has come a long way from when Mr. Howarth was a boy, opening packs of cards with his friends at the local hobby store. If he discovered a great card, the only people who knew were those with him. Now, the interest in trading cards has had a snowball effect because of its visibility.
“[They] have really grown the trading card category into a global collecting community,” Mr. Howarth said.
The trick, of course, is maintaining scarcity in trading cards. The reason Mantle’s rookie card sold for such a high sum is because there are so few — about 33, Mr. Goldin said.
Overproduction in the Junk Wax Era of the 1980s and 1990s devalued cards. Those mistakes are no longer being made.
So when Panini goes about making a new edition, each batch is produced in strictly limited quantities and cards often are numbered for authenticity. There could be as few as 25 in a specific design. Each version has a distinguishing quality, varying from base cards to those with player autographs, a piece of game-worn jersey embedded or precious metals such as platinum and gold.
“There’s a number of different ways to maintain that scarcity and still manage the volume,” Mr. Howarth said.
‘Cards are now cool’
International interest in collectibles has grown exponentially in the past few years. In 2012, less than 1% of Goldin Auctions’ sales were to international customers. Now that percentage sits in the double digits, rising to 30% for basketball cards and 60% for soccer cards.
“It’s a seismic shift from where it was three years ago,” he said.
Panini has tapped into the Chinese market, launching social platforms there in August 2019.
The company’s direct-to-consumer market opened in April 2020, taking advantage of the growing interest abroad.
All of that has fed into the rapid rise in trading cards and collectibles, starting about three years ago but accelerating since the pandemic spread in earnest.
“The pie of the collecting community has grown dramatically, like an insane amount,” Mr. Goldin said. “Cards are now cool.”
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