How the pandemic fueled a booming sports card market

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When Ezekiel Elliot and Dak Prescott signed rookie contracts with the Dallas Cowboys in 2016, Charlie DiPietro noticed something. The owner of Sports Cards Plus in San Antonio, DiPietro began selling boxes of football cards containing Elliot and Prescott at an accelerated clip. The trend continued the next year when the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson became a rookie. Then San Antonians began grappling for rookie cards of NFL stars even outside Texas, like Patrick Mahomes.

Similar interest gathered for basketball cards. The 2018-19 rookies Luka Doncic and Trae Young have driven demand for that season’s cards. In early 2020, after Kobe Bryant’s death, his rookie card sales shot through the roof.

“On the day that Kobe died, Topps rookie cards that I was selling here in the shop for $20 sold for $800,” DiPietro said.

Sports cards are ubiquitous token of American history. Images of heralded athletes are emblazoned on limited-run cardboard for leisure-loving citizens to commemorate their heroes.

In the 1980’s, as fans realized vintage baseball cards held decent worth, Americans stockpiled baseball cards. While the Topps T-206 series featuring the “holy grail” Honus Wagner card retained its value, overproduced 1980’s cards, even of Hall of Famers, never became worth much more than their weight in cardboard. Supply killed the boom.

But in recent years, sports leagues have negotiated exclusive contracts with card manufacturers, who limit production for both their own sake and that of collectors. That, along with privileged access to players’ autographs and game-worn uniforms, has turned the hobby into something of a treasure hunt. Now, fans have one common rookie card of each player to chase rather than dozens to collect.

DiPietro, and other shop owners around the nation, reveled in the increased value of their products. Then, the pandemic hit.

Sports were put on pause. Manufacturers went into lockdown. Many Americans were short on cash. On the face of it, nothing could have been worse for the hobby. But precisely those factors may have been the best things that ever happened to it.

“[Manufacturers] couldn’t produce any cards for about six weeks,” DiPietro said. “So people had to go back to old product [one, two, three years old] and they were buying all that up.”

“There were a lot of people at home [who had extra money to spend and were allowed to work from home]. Now they don’t have to commute to work…they have more money to spend, they’re on the internet in their free time,” he said, describing the perfect cultural storm for interest in sports cards.

Sports gamblers, like our own Paul Fritschner, and market investors turned to alternative means for speculation.

“Horse racing had their best three-month stretch [in a long time],” Paul said. “Did I dabble in it? Yeah, I did a few races here and there.”

Professionals with excess income also turned to the stock market, driving up prices in an otherwise-suffering economy. Many added cards to their portfolios.

“The people that were used to spending money to bet on sports were also spending their money now to bet on cards,” said DiPietro.

Collectors and investors began speculating on young rookies, buying up packs, boxes, and single cards, in hopes of turning a profit down the line. Baseball collectors look to the 2011 Topps Mike Trout rookie card as the pièce de résistance of potential-turned-actual value. In 2011, any collector could have snagged that card for at most a few dollars. Today, a grade 10 card can sell for as high as $7,000.

As a result, card grading companies received a wave of submissions. When cards earn a certified graded condition, they can be traded as commodities regardless of platform. That is, if I buy a PSA 10 Mike Trout rookie card off Ebay, I know I’m getting the exact same product as if I’d bought it in person from a card store. Without a grade, I’m putting my faith in the honesty of the Ebay seller. I’d rather trust a scalper on Half Street, D.C.

“[Collectors] found out through a lot of these internet influencers that if they got their cards graded, they would be worth even more money,” said DiPietro. “So everybody starts sending their cards in to get graded.”

This created a backlog in grading companies’ dockets, driving up buyers’ demands for already-graded cards on the secondary market.

As demand increases for certain rookie cards, prices of the boxes that may contain them rise concurrently.

“What happens first, the chicken or the egg?” Asked DiPietro rhetorically. “When the card value goes up, people say ‘Well, I can’t afford to buy that card, I’m gonna try to buy a pack or a box and see if I can get it.’ So as the value of the card goes up, then people are buying that box, and the value of the box goes up.”

Flippers have left barren the shelves of Wal-Mart and Target that used to contain packs and boxes, holding onto the unopened product to sell for a profit at a later date. While this increases business at hobby stores like DiPietro’s, it’s left unassuming victims in its wake.

“It seems to be pricing the kids out of the hobby,” said DiPietro. “It used to be, a kid could come in and buy a box for 50, 60 dollars. Now, it’s hard to find a pack for less than 30.

“The fact that the Wal-Mart shelves are empty brings a lot of people into my store, but then they get disappointed when they see the prices of the hobby boxes.”

Whether this bubble will burst anytime soon is a complex question. For now, investors abroad have jumped in on the action and have begun buying up soccer cards across the globe. There are few sports untouched at this point.

“Now I’ll predict this,” said DiPietro. “The next one to go up is going to be hockey.”

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