Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Sports card market on fire

The sports card market appears to be coming back strong.

I've been seeing occasional articles and hearing things popping up in the news during the last year or so suggesting that the overall market for sports cards, which had largely been in the dumps for many years, is all of a sudden back on fire. I know I've been seeing a resurgence in card and memorabilia shows here in the Milwaukee area. The pandemic, apparently, has a lot to do with this sudden and exciting revival. Several factors are at play here, from what I've been hearing and reading: Older collectors are rediscovering the hobby, getting back to collecting players that they grew up with. Meanwhile, these older collectors are getting younger ones, today's kids, interested in collecting. And - the pandemic has caused the factories to produce less new cards, so values for cards that are coming out now are instantly surging because their print runs are much shorter.

In this post, I'll discuss some of the main trends and currents happening in the market at the moment, as well as offer some tips on how to be careful with your money. These are all based on both my own recent research and experiences in the marketplace, as well as on informal conversations I've been occasionally having with collectors, dealers, show organizers, and shop owners around the Milwaukee area. Fortunately, what I've been researching and experiencing myself seems to be largely in line with what's been coming up in these discussions with others, and vice-versa, so hopefully we can present a pretty accurate picture here for you of what's going on. I've been warmly embracing this renaissance of the hobby for the last few months, checking out a few shows here and there, along with a shop near my home. These are exciting times for the sports card market, indeed, and I've truly been like a kid in a candy store. It's all bringing back fun memories from my childhood.

What I don't address in this post is the subject of graded cards, which could easily take up a whole separate post of its own. That may be a future project here.

Some 1980s and 1990s card values are suddenly on the rise - I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I mostly collected baseball cards as a kid, and that's still true today. Baseball is my #1 love, but I also got into basketball and football cards to some extent, as well. The problem with all cards produced during this era is that there were far too many made. Even today, in 2022, you can walk into virtually any card shop, and you'll find tons of unopened packs, boxes, and sets of cards from this era, still factory sealed as if they came off the assembly line just yesterday (I wouldn't recommend testing out the 30+ year-old chewing gum, though). These shops can't give this stuff away, there's just so much of it. Don't get me wrong. They're still fun to open and pick through. I just bought a total of 30 packs between 1990 Fleer and 1990 Score baseball a couple weeks ago at a local shop near my home. I spent a total of $15.00, or just $0.50 per pack. I had a lot of fun going through them, and I found a good number of star cards to hold on to - Ryan, Ripken, Griffey Jr., Maddux, Glavine, Yount, Molitor, Bonds, Clemens, Biggio, Sandberg, Gwynn, Ozzie Smith, etc. They're not worth a whole lot, because there are so many copies out there, but they're still worth a few bucks. But something interesting is happening in the 80s/90s realm right now. Although the supply is enormous, there's a resurgence in demand, driven largely by collectors in my age group that grew up with this stuff. Additionally, more and more players from this era have been entering the Hall of Fame in recent years, further driving up overall values and interest.

Beware of the highly-volatile fluctuations in values of today's modern cards - I've heard this from many of the dealers, shop owners, and collectors I've been talking to. Today's kids and their parents, especially, should beware, since it's largely today's kids that are collecting today's newest cards. Makes sense. There's a lot of betting taking place on the values of today's cards, led largely by the efforts of Wall Street investors (literally - a lot of these guys are stock brokers or day traders) who have entered the hobby looking for the next big investment or business opportunity. As a result of their involvement in the hobby, there's a lot of speculation going on with these newer cards. And the average collector - the average kid and family - can easily find themselves stuck in the middle of this Wall Street -style pricing war, and find themselves out a lot of money in the end. These investor types are trying to bank on what they're betting will be tomorrow's new superstars. They're scarfing up as many cards as they can get their hands on, and they're willing to fork out big, big bucks for them. As a result, they're driving up values across the board, taking some of them to insane, unrealistic heights - thousands and thousands of dollars per card. There's no doubt that people are making some serious money on all of this, including the occasionally-lucky working class kid and family that just happens to be holding one or more of these cards. But many who have been in the hobby for years are seeing a bubble ready to pop. The problem is that these cards, whose values have been artificially driven up to tens of thousands of dollars in some cases, can easily sink down to nothing tomorrow with an injury, scandal, or lost championship.

If you're collecting newer cards, then, it's best to apply some old-fashioned investing principles, since you're likely going toe-to-toe with big Wall Street money on the other end of the deal. For starters, buy low and sell high. If a card is already priced unrealistically high and you don't own it yet, it's best to stay away from it at that price. Again, one injury, scandal, or lost championship can bring it down to zero in a blink of the eye. Also, always assume that your collection is worth nothing until you have actual cash in hand. Values on paper don't necessarily mean anything. And that goes for anything you may own - cars, homes, antiques, coins, etc. You need to find a buyer who's willing to pay for your item in order to turn it into cash.

For a much safer bet, true vintage (1970s and prior) continues to be where it's really at - Anything 1970s and older is usually a safe bet. These cards don't have the overproduction problems of the 80s and 90s, and they don't have the stock market -style speculation problems like the new stuff. Because these players are long retired, deceased, already in their sport's hall of fame, etc., their careers and stats are firmly set in stone, for all eternity. There's no fear of these athletes ending up on the injured list today, or losing a championship tomorrow. Everything they did or failed to do is fully known to us. For the ones still living, barring any future scandal or crime they may find themselves in, there's really nothing they can do now that will make their card values fluctuate. And barring any sudden surge in demand for a particular year/player (living or deceased), which would be pretty doubtful, these values are going to be consistently stable. Now, there's both an upside and a downside to these stable values. The upside is that we shouldn't have to worry about these values ever falling much. On the flip side, however, they're most likely not going to ever climb much, either. They're largely stuck for good in a kind of equilibrium. Therefore, those who are devoted to collecting vintage are usually in it for reasons other than pure investment/monetary gain. Perhaps they just want to be able to say they own cards of true, true legends of the game. Maybe they really enjoy the artwork and layout of certain cards and sets - there were some really beautiful, visually-appealing sets that came out in the 1950s, for example, and during the tobacco card era of the 1880s-1910s. Some of these collectors may be strictly into collecting vintage team sets and/or hometown favorites. And still some may have the goal of building complete sets from their own childhood years.

Do you collect sports cards? Is this post pretty accurate at the moment? Why or why not? What advice and resources would you offer our readers here? Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts, observations, tips, and experiences in the comments section below. We'd love to hear from you!

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