It was the spring of 2017, the New England Patriots were coming off of a stunning, come from behind win against the Atlanta Falcons, as Tom Brady began to solidify his career as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. My wife’s family had a typical, backyard BBQ style get-together and the topic of sports cards randomly came up. Her cousin decided to grab some cards to show us, which I did not know he owned prior to this day. He was a huge Patriots fans as a life-long Boston resident and had been collecting Brady since about 2002.
What I saw next I will never forget. Put in front of my eyes, was rookie card after rookie card of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. all sitting in fancy plastic cases with an assigned number to them. I knew nothing about the sets but as I began to look them over, I realized after a short explanation, how rare some of them were. There was only 1250 copies ever made of this card. And oh, that one? Yes, only 100 copies in existence. At the time, he probably thought his collection was worth around $25,000 — $30,000. Here in 2021, those same cards are now worth seven figures if they went to auction. In fact, just one of those cards broke a modern record in April 2021 for a football card, selling for $2.25M. I was hooked.
Knowing how little value my childhood card collection had, I figured the industry was dead and buried. It never occurred to me that players like Peyton Manning and Albert Pujols from the several decades may actually hold value. I was missing one very important aspect that didn’t exist when I was a kid, manufactured scarcity and certified player autographs. The industry had wised up and stopped printing millions upon millions of the same card. Collectors were now after cards where only a few copies were ever produced for someone to add to their collection. And if that player turned out to have a hall of fame type career, they could see a pretty nice increase in value over the course of the superstar’s playing days and into their retirement.
In autumn of 2017, I made mistake after mistake getting back into sports cards. I tried “grading” some cards with little success. I was still purchasing the wrong cards because they were cheaper. I was buying a seventh year card of a player, thinking it would go up in value like a rookie card would. And I was also opening packs without much returned value, now knowing full well it is a huge gamble. Let’s review the five biggest lessons I wish someone had taught me before I dove into the deep end of my new hobby, so you don’t repeat the same mistakes I made.
Not all rookie cards are created equally
I am risk-adverse by nature. If two things look similar and one costs $100 while the other $25, I’d probably lean towards buying two or three of the $25 copies vs. the $100 one. In reality, that $100 copy of a card is probably worth a factor much higher than the cheaper one for good reason.
Let’s take some baseball card rookies as an example. Each year, Topps, who own the exclusive license on MLB cards, releases at minumum, 30–40 different versions of your favorite player’s rookie card. There are “base” cards, there are “parallels” and then there are “inserts”. In 2018, Juan Soto had just over 60 different total rookie card options to buy. An insert in a pack featuring Juan Soto is going to cost a lot less than the same base card of the young Nationals phenom. When I didn’t know any better, I was buying up these low level cards and treating them the same way as his other rookie cards which was a mistake. They take a lot longer to sell because they aren’t as desirable and won’t yield a positive ROI as big as the ones that are most wanted by other collectors.
Player autographs. For whatever reason, I’m not that big into autographed cards. I own just a handful after the past couple of years of collecting cards again. Some people love them and some don’t, it’s a simple preference. With this in mind, you would think the autographed cards command the most value and while they often do, there are definitely rookie cards not autographed that can still hold a lot of value over all others.
After being back into #TheHobby for a bunch of years, my favorite baseball parallel has become the Topps “black” version. Often with print runs only in the 60’s, getting your hands on a key rookie card that is black can be pretty expensive. Choosing the right player here is key, with some of the best black rookie cards selling for five figures just from the past couple of years! I didn’t know any of this back in 2017 but sure as hell do now.
There are also cards out of 50, or 25, 10, 5 and the elusive 1/1. This Luka Doncic 1/1 sold for a record $4.6M back in February 2021. Collectors love scarcity and it obviously doesn’t get more rare than owning the only copy of a particular card. Sometimes these come with autographs and sometimes they don’t. The Tatis example I gave does not, yet can sell for many thousands of dollars from his flagship black rookie parallel. Find a particular colored parallel you love to collect, maybe finish a run of them from your favorite team. The “scrubs” from your hometown guys may only cost you a few dollars, but it is great to have something to chase and becomes the best feeling when you finally track them all down. No matter the player, these cards need to be unearthed from packs by others before they hit the open market.
Not all grading companies are created equally
Love it or hate it, sports card grading is here to stay. We aren’t going to get into any of the scandals that have plagued the industry over the years but rather talk about the differences between some of the biggest “slab” companies and why that matters.
2020 was a huge anomaly. Prior to the pandemic, you would send out cards at any of the bigger companies and usually have them back in 3–4 months. Then it all changed. In March 2021, the CEO of PSA admitted that they are taking in 2 million cards per month! Not long after that, they announced that they needed to shut down intake operations entirely on standard service levels until July 1, 2021, unless you wanted to pay a very high premium to have a card graded quickly.
This year has brought several new players into the fray that are willing to grade your cards while prices continue to rise at the more established companies who have been in business for 20 or more years. CGC and HGA are two of the more prominent companies in the new sports card grading space competing for your business. Many prices have risen to get your cards graded in just the past several months, including the newer companies. There was a time that PSA offered up specials at $8/card but those days are likely gone forever. SGC doubled their prices in early 2021, BGS increased them in late 2020.
The problem with using a grading company that may have only been around for less than a year is the long term value of the cards you decide to put into their holders. People love the look of HGA graded cards. But with them only starting out in 2020, will that card in a HGA holder be as valuable in 2050 as say, the more established companies? Nobody knows, and anybody who says they are certain you should not listen to.
I’m not here to tell you which company to pick, I’m here to say that the long term prices of each is yet to be determined. PSA has been in business for more than 30 years and holds the crown at this very moment. At the same time, you can’t really grade a card with them until after July 1st for less than $300. Decisions, decisions. Don’t choose a company that could go bankrupt in five years, if you decide to hold that card long term. There are dozens of grading companies that were around 10 or 20 years ago and are now out of business, many of these cards can still be found floundering on eBay. You are better off buying that card in “raw” form than you are in one of these defunct company cases. They can be trimmed, recolored or even fake.
There are “off seasons” with cards so use it to your advantage
No matter how hard you try, unless you are an diehard fan who only follows one sport, when the stage isn’t set for a particular league because they are not playing during certain months of the year, those players aren’t front and center in your mind. Who is thinking about the NFL in May? That’s baseball season along with the NHL & NBA playoffs getting underway.
This theory is difficult to put into action. I need to constantly remind myself to look at what certain NBA cards are selling for in August or what some of the hottest MLB prospects are going for in mid-December. That’s why these cards can become much cheaper during certain times of the year, because just like the average sports fan, those players are out of sight and out of mind.
If you want to utilize the “buy low, sell high” method, there is nothing more important in the cyclical nature of sports cards than this. When a player starts out hot in their new season, and you didn’t buy 1–2 months before it started, it’s likely already too late. This can even be important with heavy hitters like a Tom Brady who is still winning Super Bowls. I purchased a rookie card of his in December 2020, with no idea that he was about to win Super Bowl #7 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It went up 300% from December to February after the Super Bowl was over and remains there ever since. You may still see a small downturn in his stuff over the summer, but once the season starts and he remains healthy and winning again, it’ll once again be too late.
Pro tip: If you really want to take advantage of picking up some cards on the cheap, try shopping on major holidays where people are gathering with families, like Memorial/Labor Day, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The site traffic going to eBay is a fraction of what it may be on a typical Sunday night (when many auctions are set to end). Use it to your advantage to bid on items that few may be watching end as they stuff their faces full of hot dogs & beer.
What retail arbitrage is and how it works
Retail arbitrage is simply defined as buying an item from one place and selling it at another. There are so many places you can do this with a variety of items, these tricks can work within multiple categories of inventory. People raid thrift stores for trucker hats that they can purchase for $2 and sell for $25 on eBay. Others buy up a popular toy at their favorite big box store when it goes on sale and immediately list the same item on Amazon for double the price, due to high demand.
Sports cards work no differently. One website may have your favorite rookie card listed for $250 while an eBay seller desperate for some quick cash, lists it at a “Buy It Now” price for $175 to produce a fast sale. You often need to be quick, as those educated on a particular card know the “comps” of what others have paid recently and are looking for discounts. This can also controversially be done by buying sealed boxes of sports cards and reselling them elsewhere. It has become more difficult over the past several months, as both Target and Wal-Mart have instituted new limits on the amount one person is able to buy. There are still people lining up outside before 8 AM each Friday to get their hands on a handful of boxes of the best products out there. If you have the time and energy to burn, you can buy these at $20 each and resell many of them for $100 or more. Not a bad ROI for a few hours of “work”.
I didn’t really understand any of this when I first got back into sports cards but with some practice, I have learned how to use arbitrage to my advantage so I can get what I want. I tend to focus on most items under $100. There are sites where people can run sales on individual cards they sell like COMC. I have been a heavy user of COMC for four years and utilize it to fund most of my collection, essentially for free. What I do is buy up a card that was offered at a discount and resell it at a higher amount on the same site, which also cross-posts their cards to eBay. You can buy COMC’s auctioned cards on eBay, which if people aren’t watching them closely, you can get a nice steal and then immediately relist it on COMC at a higher price. I have turned $10 into $40 several times using this method. Repeating this hundreds of times over and all of that profit simply turns into the cards I want, with a net overall price to me of $0. I can even make so much back with this method that it pays for all selling and shipping fees when I want to send cards home to me.
My goal is to spend as little money as possible out of my own pocket, to buy the cards I really want to own and keep. If that means I need to sell and “flip” 25 cards I never wanted to begin with, to pay for that large purchase I really do want, then this strategy works best. Again, use it on sealed boxes, use it on hot single cards, the opportunities are vast and it’s impossible for people to catch all opportunities. Stumbling upon a killer deal is also one of the best feelings in this hobby as a card collector! Speaking of card collectors…
There are a lot of terrible people in this hobby
If you don’t know what a “reprint” is, they are essentially a copy of a key card that came out in a particular year. There are plenty of 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle reprints that have been made over the years and nobody should ever spend more than buck or two on one vs. the real thing. Original ’52 Mantles even in the lowest grades are tough to find below $10,000. There are people who attempt to sell these reprint cards as the real thing over and over again to uneducated buyers. Talk about scummy.
We have talked about retail arbitrage, which is a huge “industry” right now, if you can even call it that. As I mentioned, people will stand in line for hours to get some of the hottest releases on the shelves. But with that comes a shadowy arena for thieves and scammers. There are users on the Facebook Marketplace who list pictures of unopened boxes at a price that seems too good to be true. People fall for it, pay for the purchase with Venmo or Cashapp that offer no buyer protections, and they never hear from the seller again who essentially robbed them. This swindler likely just pulled a vanilla photo someone else had put up of all of the boxes they had bought at Target, and never really owned them outright.
Wherever there seems to be easy money to be made, there will always be scammers. I have done a decent job at avoiding scammers when it comes to sports cards but many have had to learn the hard way. Use your gut and check out someone’s eBay feedback or Facebook profile. Often times, these Facebook/eBay users can’t hide the fact that they opened the account last month, which means it’s potentially someone looking for their next victim. The photos and names likely aren’t real on the Facebook account.
Then there are the sellers that will mail a card or cards that aren’t what you paid for. I’ve seen cases where somebody bought several expensive cards that may have weighed 8 ounces overall. What they get is a worthless box of commons in the mail that weighed the same amount. The buyer will put in a claim but the packaged shows as delivered and it had the proper weight to it, so the case is tougher to prove you didn’t get exactly what was purchased. It becomes a he/she said-he/she said with eBay as a mediator. The ol’ bait and switch happens far too often with sports cards. It’s easier to appeal on eBay (why you pay the big bucks for transaction fees) vs. on a social media account where you have less recourse to resolve it.
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there seem to be a lot of horrible people around sports cards. From those that have trimmed cards for a hefty profit to resell them in a better grade, to those that I mentioned looking to take your hard earned money from you through one of the online marketplaces. Tread lightly and don’t dive head first into large purchases until you know exactly what you are doing.
You’re often protected on eBay as a buyer, but what about as a seller? There are stories of people opening a sealed box, not getting anything good, and filing a claim that the item was “not as described” to get their money back. Again, just another example of the terrible archetype that may be into sports cards. There are the gambling types who have an addiction to opening packs and rarely get their money back from what they have spent. These degenerates have credit card bills to pay and when they realize they can’t do so with the cards they got in a break, they resort to lying about the transaction in an attempt to reverse the charges.
The Golden Rule in Sports Cards
Bonus time! It would be almost impossible to jump right into sports cards as a full time business without knowing what you are doing over the course of several years to gain practice. There are too many places you could massive huge mistakes and ruin your ROI to keep yourself in business.
Sure, there are many card shops still in business, online breakers who open cards 6–8 hours a day live on video and do it well to stay afloat. But there is one Golden Rule that often gets overlooked and I don’t want you making the same mistake if you want to enjoy this for many years, if not decades. And it’s pretty simple to understand.
You need to be a collector first.
That’s it, that’s the Golden Rule. If you don’t have a joy or love of collecting something first and foremost, it is bound to fail. I don’t care who you are, eventually any sort of passion for #TheHobby will wane and you will be left wondering where it all went wrong. It shouldn’t be about the money, it shouldn’t be about the lure of opening a $5 pack and pulling a $5,000 card. It shouldn’t be about buying some unknown rookie and 20 years later that card is worth tens of thousands of dollars. You will flame out if collecting isn’t in your DNA and you only see dollar signs in your cardboard.
I see many people jumping head first into card collecting right now with googly eyes full of potential riches. And I feel strongly that 90% or more of them will fail long term. I collected 6–7 years as a kid and 5 years now as an adult, about a quarter of my life. You know what? I still go to bed dreaming about cards, what product to potentially buy next and what up and coming nobody player I want to target before the other guy does.
So be a primogenial collector. Have a lifetime passion you’re excited about, a hobby you can share with friends and like-minded individuals. It’s the most rewarding part of the experience and one that will pay for itself in happiness over and over again. There is no feeling like it. Follow my advice via the first five points so you don’t go broke from #TheHobby along with the Golden Rule and I can guarantee you will love and cherish it forever.