10 Lessons Learned From Collecting Sports Cards in the Modern Era
Like many kids that grew up in the 90s, I loved collecting sports cards. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t see the value in them and I was stuck with getting whatever base cards I could buy for some change at the local card shop.
My interest in cards waned as time went on. My main hobby was video games, and that used up enough time and money. It wasn’t until I got out of college in 2010 that began to gain an interest in cards again. The baseball card industry was buzzing after Stephen Strasburg was drafted #1 overall by the Washington Nationals. I heard about his autograph cards in the initial release of 2010 Bowman being very valuable and thought it would be fun to open up a box. I had a bit of expendable cash from my first job and figured why not take the gamble.
I did a ton of research on sports card collecting and decided I would buy a jumbo box of 2010 Bowman along with tons of supplies like toploaders and penny sleeves to get started. I ordered a jumbo box that comes with 3 autographs and I’m thinking to myself – I’ve gotta get something decent out of this. 3 autos, one of them should be a good one.
Here’s what I got from that box: 1 Patrick Schuster Chrome Auto numbered to 500, 1 Dustin Richardson Chrome Auto numbered to 500, and a David Lough Chrome Auto.
It’s 2020 now and let’s just say none of those guys panned out. The cards weren't even worth much at the time, perhaps around $15 total. I learned a hard lesson that day, and I have learned many more over the past 10 years of collecting. Here’s a few tips and ideas to keep in mind so you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did.
- Know who you want to collect: I don’t know about you guys, but I have a tendency to go all in when I am getting into something new. I started off by buying different types of cards from players of every single team I liked as well as hobby boxes from nearly every product I could find. Rather than go all in, I would suggest finding a couple players to collect and start gauging the market on their cards. For one, you’ll be able to spread out your money over time. More importantly, you’ll get an idea of all the ins and outs of card collecting so you know what types of cards you want to buy, how much you’re willing to spend, and how to look out for good values.
- Card values vary tremendously over time: Another reason I would urge caution in buying early on is that there could be a tendency to buy a lot of cards when their value is at their highest because there is a rush to add pieces to your collection. For example, I am a big fan of the Boston Red Sox. In 2010, I bought tons of cards from veterans and prospects of their club. This included players like David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Pedro Martinez, Daniel Bard, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury. Most of the cards I purchased have decreased in value, some of them significantly, because these players were at or near the peaks of their career at the time I purchased them. Card prices can be volatile, so go into it with that in mind when you’re making purchases.
- Don’t go out buying all the hobby boxes: Buying sealed hobby boxes and cases is an expensive proposition for most of us. When I first started collecting I would buy boxes constantly. It’s such a rush to open them up, but part of the reason why it feels that way is because of the inherent risk involved. I know from experience that you can lose big. I’ve opened up $100-$300 boxes and come out with close to nothing of value. I may have a conflict of interest in saying this, but I absolutely do recommend doing box breaks online if you want to take the risk on being involved with opening hobby boxes. It will help spread out the risk amongst the group you are breaking with and allow access to some products you may not otherwise be able to afford in such high quantity.
- You can succeed as a sports card investor: ….but it involves some skill and a lot of luck. The skill involved includes knowing what types of cards tend to appreciate in value, what types of players to target as an investment, and knowing how to evaluate a player for potential growth in their sport. All of that won’t matter if luck doesn’t swing your way. A player may get injured and never be the same (see Derrick Rose). A player may have low draft capital and seem like a poor buy, but they get the chance to excel anyway (Russell Wilson, Tom Brady). A player may pass away unexpectedly (Jose Fernandez, Oscar Taveras). A player may have a peak in their career in the exact moment where you own their cards (Jeremy Lin). There’s a lot of variables you can’t control, but you have to put yourself in the best position you can to succeed.
- Track your investments: This is a simple tip, but one I believe is easy to ignore. Get a spreadsheet and start tracking how much you paid for your cards along with other relevant data like serial numbers or where you purchased it from. If you start having success with any sort of volume there may come a time where you have to pay taxes on your profit. It’s also important to track whether or not you’re successful as an investor. Even if you don’t plan on selling, it can still be fun to look back on how much a card was then vs. now.
- Rookies and Prospects: Generally speaking, rookie cards are the most valuable type of cards for a player. Overall value will vary wildly by the product and design, but this Is the general rule. In baseball there is also the Bowman 1st card, which is the first card produced of a player in their major league uniform. These cards can be created well before the prospect makes it to the major leagues, if they ever do. Recently, there has been an increase in demand for cards from a player’s second professional season, since rookie card prices typically carry a very high premium and second year cards are more affordable.
- Grading matters: There are two prominent card grading companies in the world right now, Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) and Beckett Grading Services (BGS). There are others out there, but these graders add the most value to cards. Opinion varies as to which service is best, and both have their pros and cons. PSA has thinner slabs that the cards are kept in and are widely recognized as a grading authority when it comes to retro cards. BGS has subgrades (grades on specific aspects of the card, such as surface condition) and a bigger slab. BGS grades in increments of .5, while PSA grades in increments of 1. A PSA 10 (Gem Mint) grade is considered roughly the equivalent of a BGS 9.5 (Gem Mint). A BGS 10 (Pristine) is rare and carries a higher premium, especially when it comes to the “black label” grade that includes perfect 10s on all subgrades. At the end of the day, a good grade from either company will increase the value of your card tremendously. Later on I will get into how to properly assess the condition of a card. A general rule of thumb is if you can notice any imperfections (lines, scratches, creases, bad centering, white on corners/edges, etc.) without closely inspecting the card then it probably isn’t worth grading. This rule applies to modern cards, since it is more acceptable for vintage cards to have flaws due to their age.
- Store your cards properly: All cards of any value should be, at a minimum, put in a penny sleeve and topholder to protect the condition of the card. There are also “one-touch” card holders that are thicker and are easier to insert cards into. It is recommend you purchase some cardboard storage boxes specifically made for cards for storage. Make sure the area the cards are being stored isn’t too hot, cold, or humid. I would recommend not storing any cards of value in the sleeves of trading card albums due to the risk of damage involved.
- Game used cards aren’t typically very valuable: A lot of the guaranteed hits in hobby boxes will be game used memorabilia cards. The basic game used cards aren’t typically worth more than a few bucks. They’re fun cards to have but have been overproduced over the years. There are also concerns about authenticity of the game used items in the cards, as well as some manipulation of language as seen with the “player worn” jerseys that were never used in an actual game. MLB has started putting authentication stickers on some relic cards that tie the material to a specific baseball game. Large patch relics do carry a high premium, especially when they are on the same card as an autograph.
- Licensed vs. Unlicensed cards: A licensed card typically carries a higher premium than a similar card that is unlicensed. What is a licensed card? It would be one that officially uses the logos and team names of the relevant teams as well as being allowed to use the likenesses of the players. For instance, the MLB and MLBPA license is owned by Topps. Panini only has the MLBPA license. Topps can use all the logos, team names and images of MLB jerseys in their cards. Panini can use the name and images of the players, but team logos must be hidden and the full team name isn’t allowed. Unlicensed cards are typically a great way to get autographs of your favorite players for cheaper than you normally could because they aren’t valued as highly in the card industry. This is great if don’t have any plans of ever selling the card and don’t have to worry about how much its value might appreciate over time.
That’s all the info I have for now. I hope you have found something helpful for your card collecting journey. I plan on elaborating more on some of these topics in the future as well as discussing others.
Please feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any follow up questions. We look forward to hopefully chatting with you during one of our breaks!
- Just Dingers