Trading sports cards is a recreational pastime that has been going on for generations.
The oldest known sports card was issued as a marketing device during the 1860s.
The cards were given away for free in tobacco packs, and later, in bubble gum.
Today, they are part of a $13 billion industry that is expected to rise to more than $100 billion by the year 2027.
Consisting of nothing more than printed information on small cardboard cards, one might wonder why the hobby can be so expensive.
Here is a list of ten reasons sports cards can be so expensive:
Why Are Sports Cards So Expensive? (Top 10 Reasons)
1. The Pandemic
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The lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic found many people staying home without a lot to do.
As a result, local businesses began to notice a vast increase in buying and selling sports cards.
Early on during the lockdown, a five-part Netflix series called The Last Dance was released.
It was a story about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls and was reported to have more than 5.4 million viewers.
It is speculated that this series spawned a huge demand for Michael Jordan memorabilia.
Subsequently, Jordan sports cards took center stage.
In February of 2022, a signed card by the basketball star was auctioned for a whopping $1.44 million, followed by a rookie card featuring LeBron James that brought in $5.2 million the following April.
The Bleecker Trading card event gauged the total value of authenticated sports trading cards present to be around $20 million.
The cards are now said to provide hot investment opportunities that are still growing in value.
What started as an advertising scheme has apparently become a high-stakes investment tournament and contributes to the reasons sports cards are so expensive.
2. Sentimental Value
For long-time collectors, baseball cards can hold great sentimental value.
They represent actual times in some owners’ childhoods, good times with friends, and among other things, relationships between fathers and sons.
Pragmatically, a time may come when the cards should be sold, but letting go of them for less than a large sum of money might not seem feasible to the person who has owned the cards for decades.
This can result in sales prices that far exceed the price of the cardboard and printed images that were acquired decades before.
The Endowment Effect
Along the lines of sentimental value, there exists a phenomenon that behavioral economists refer to as the endowment effect.
This refers to a type of emotional bias that makes object owners value their objects irrationally higher than the actual market values of those objects.
There is a correlation between the length of time the object(s) has been owned, and the amount the owner feels that it is worth.
Interestingly, studies conducted on the phenomenon found that individuals who bought tickets to the 2000 Final Four would not take less money for them than fourteen times their face value when sentimental elements entered the picture.
3. Investment Opportunities
As investment opportunities, the new face of the sports card industry is a force to be reckoned with.
The value of sports cards is spiking exponentially at this time, and more than ever before in history, they are being viewed as excellent investments.
Over the last year, three-quarters of the ten highest value sports card sales in the history of their existence have taken place.
The record high during this period was a Topps Mickey Mantle card that was sold for $5.2 million.
In February of 2021, a specific Michael Jordan card sold for more than $730K at auction after having risen in value by 243% over the previous two weeks.
The primary serious investors who trade sports cards consist of three different groups:
The first group is known as the Quick Flippers.
These are the individuals who would rather enact a quick turnaround than obtain cards to add to their collections.
They are best characterized as people who purchase baseball cards in bulk, mark up the prices, then sell them on online auction sites such as eBay.
Wall Street Types
Wall Street Types view sports cards as tangible stocks.
They keep their eyes on value trends and seek to buy low and sell high, similar to stock trading.
These individuals, like the Quick Flippers, are in the game for cash and little more but are able to invest more money than the former groups.
The last group is a different one altogether.
Known as Nostalgic millennials, this group is comprised of people who were kids during the 80s and 90s, and who, during those decades, enjoyed collecting sports cards.
They are now gainfully employed.
Many have kids of their own, and a lot of them have some disposable income that enables them to invest hundreds or even thousands of dollars in collecting cards, and they are able to snatch up the pricier cards that enable them to turn a good profit.
All three of these groups are major determining factors in why the prices of sports cards have risen in value in recent history.
4. Supply And Demand
The New York Times reports that when a sports card becomes rare, its value increases.
When sports card trading became popular, the major card companies, such as Upper Deck, Topps, and others, printed an excessive number of cards to meet the demands of the market.
What they didn’t realize was that this would flood the market and result in virtually worthless cards.
To make certain that this never happens again, today’s card manufacturers are creating and marketing “special” cards and releasing them in limited quantities to fabricate scarcity.
Sure enough, that was all it took to drive prices back up again.
A rookie card representing Kevin Durant was printed in an extremely limited edition of 35 cards.
An autographed one recently brought in nearly $800,000 at auction.
While the vintage market is strong, these new cards are taking the industry by storm.
5. High Grading
In the sports card industry, the cards receive grades that help determine their value.
Grading refers to the condition the card is in when it is traded or sold.
Grading sports cards is something that novices may find confusing.
In these cases, there are professionals who, for a fee, will do the grading for them in a way that will reflect how potential traders or buyers might grade them.
The TPGs (third party graders) are individuals who understand that theirs is an important skill that can result in the making or breaking of a valuable deal.
The occupation is a subjective one, but it is not without exacting standards that are followed by most people in the sports card trading industry.
Both vintage and contemporary cards are graded using the same methods of evaluation.
Even if an old card was printed many decades earlier, it is still held to the same standards that a brand new card is.
One can expect to pay from $10 to 15 per trading card for a professional grader to evaluate it.
Shipping and handling fees are extra.
If a sports card turns out to be valuable, the grading fees go up, depending on the declared value of the card, to amounts that can exceed $700.
Grading ranges from mint, meaning the best possible condition, to authentic.
A card that is in mint condition will be as close to perfectly new condition as possible.
It will have a clean look without any types of surface flaws, such as scratches, creases, bends, or coffee stains on either side.
The picture must appear centered between the edge borders with a 55/45 ratio or better around the parameter of the card.
It is also important that the corners and edges of the card be sharp and in like-new condition similar to those of a new business card.
Some people prefer to follow guides or manuals rather than hire professionals to grade their cards, and this is a personal choice.
Professional evaluations are not necessities upon which a trade or sale depends, but they can certainly help.
The person who is seeking a fast sale is least likely to need a professional grader unless a collection is of excellent quality and was printed before World War II.
Three large grading entities seem to have a near-monopoly on grading high-end sports cards.
These companies can bring value to one’s collection by providing the standards for grades and by authenticating cards, but even so, they can be problematic.
Certain sports card collectors refuse any card that has been encased for long periods in plastic covers.
These collectors prefer what is known as raw cards and refuse to pay for graded versions of card collections.
There are times when collectors who don’t have a lot of experience will evaluate their own cards before submitting them to a professional grader and end up being disappointed when the results are returned.
Some also make the mistake of paying professional graders more than their cards are actually worth.
These collectors can find many sports card dealers online who can help them decide whether or not the investment in grading is worth their money.
In any case, cards that have higher grades tend to be the more expensive sports cards.
6. Autographs And Stickers
As is the case when athletes endorse their sponsors’ products or lend their name to a product, club, or activity, value is added when they autograph sports cards.
In fact, sometimes they are compensated for signing cards.
It is, therefore, more likely that an autographed sports card will be more expensive than one that is not autographed.
This is especially true when the player is a very well-known athlete.
Signed rookie cards seem to bring premium prices, in most cases.
Sticker autograph values tend to differ according to the circumstances.
As with any type of collection, sports card collections do not have one standard set of rules.
Sticker autographs consist of a sports player’s autograph that has been signed on a sticker and affixed to the card.
For a fee, athletes sign sheets of stickers that are provided to them by various card companies, who then remove the stickers and stick them to corresponding cards.
This basically means that the collector has an autographed card that the athlete has never even seen, let alone touched.
A certain stigma is attached to sticker cards that, as a general rule, make them less desirable than the more expensive on-card autographs.
They are considered by some to be less attractive, and others feel that they damage the cards, thus lowering their value.
However, a sticker autograph is better than no autograph at all, so they tend to be more expensive than an unautographed card, and less expensive than an on-card autograph.
7. Complete Collections
Sports card collectors find that an entire collection from a particularly notable season can fetch higher prices than if the cards were sold individually.
The search for that last card can add to the fun of collecting, and gradually adding to collections that have been gathered over many years can be quite gratifying.
If a collection comes from a particularly famous sports season in which a team, for example, has won a Super Bowl, or when a particularly famous player does something outstanding, the collection will naturally be more expensive.
Some of these collections bring big bucks.
The Dimitri Young collection is a prime example of why an entire sports card collection can drive up the card’s value.
Young, himself, was an athlete who took up collecting sports cards after his retirement.
His collection is noted for containing rare cards and sold at auction for over $2.4 million.
8. Historically Significant
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Sports cards can be more expensive when they represent a historically significant period, either politically or in the history of the sport being represented.
People collect sports cards for different reasons.
For those who have a special interest in the history of baseball, football, or some other sport, collecting cards that signify a certain team’s most historically significant accomplishments can be lucrative.
This is a niche endeavor that requires other collectors who want the same cards.
Because these cards are specialty items, and because the collections themselves are in a particularly specialized niche, it becomes a seller’s market in which he can ask for higher prices when someone really wants to complete a collection.
A good example of a historically significant baseball card is that of Johannes Peter “Honus” Wagner.
This card is valuable for many reasons, but mostly because of its rarity.
However, for the card collector whose collection focuses on the historical aspect of the game itself, this card should have a higher value by virtue of the player having been arguably the best shortstop in the history of baseball.
Another example is of interest to the collector of Americana.
There are two versions of a Mickey Mantle card that are iconic Americana.
Mantle was a baseball hero during the 1950s and ’60s whose career took him from small-town Oklahoma to New York City, where he became a centerfielder for the best-known baseball franchise in history.
This, again, exemplifies a prime card for the historian and would command a very high price.
Ken Goldin of the renowned Goldin Auctions notes that the difference between trading stocks and trading sports cards is that nobody loves stocks.
Traders love their sports cards.
Since card trading is currently transforming into a digital enterprise, it is this auction owner’s opinion that, since the hobby has taken the world by storm again, it has taken on new life and will grow larger than ever because it is embracing the 21st century.
Buyers’ love of sports cards and the act of trading them enables sellers to ask for whatever they want for a particular card, especially the rare ones, because people are willing to pay high prices to get the cards that they love.
WTP or “willingness to pay” is a term used by Harvard Business School to characterize the rule that says that something’s worth is determined by the amount someone is willing to pay for it.
Price is not the solitary feature that matters to customers.
For example, intense love for a particular sports card can influence how much someone will pay for it.
This is another factor that explains why sports cards can be so expensive.
Many sports card traders wanted to be sports stars when they were growing up and now view the cards as a way to relive their dreams.
Rookie cards are among the most valuable, and nostalgic-minded people like to pick them up as a remembrance of times past when they witnessed the beginnings of the careers of sports superstars.
In some collections, Larry Byrd’s rookie card is the holy grail.
To others, a Mickey Mantle card or a Babe Ruth card will evoke memories of the distant past.
Rookie cards represent these times because they represent the first year that a particular athlete competed at his or her highest level of competition.
Nostalgic investors in sports cards are among the most conservative, but their penchant for cards that represent stars from days past who rose to superstardom can pay off.
However, this is not without a hefty investment.
These are the cards that sellers mark the highest in price.
Topps Manufacturing is one of the top sports card manufacturers.
Each year, the Topps Transcendent Collection, priced at $25K and limited to only fifty cases per year, plays further into the nostalgic dreams of the nostalgic sports card buyer by issuing invitations for the buyers to meet personally with some of their favorite baseball stars at a special social event at which they are allowed to attend question-and-answer sessions with their favorite ball stars.
Topps asks top dollar for this honor, knowing full well that there are people who dreamed of being ball stars who are willing to pay that steep price.
Each year, the limited collections are sold out to people who meet exactly this description.
For some, sports cards are the next best thing to living a dream.