Why Are People Spending Millions On Sports Cards?
For many of us, collecting sports cards was one of our childhood hobbies. As a sports fanatic, I loved collecting cards of my favorite players, carefully sorting them into sleeves and arranging them in a binder. However, the monetary value of these cards never crossed my mind. Whenever I saved up a little money, I would find myself at the toy section of Target, looking for a box of sports cards. The anticipation of opening the box and slowly revealing each card one-by-one always excited me and made me want more.
Now in 2021, people are spending millions of dollars on sports cards and it feels like there’s a new six figure sale making headlines every other day. Yesterday, a collector from China (@penny5272 on Instagram) pulled the highly coveted "Zion Williamson One-of-One Logoman Rookie Patch Auto" from National Treasures, another card that figures to bring in well over a million dollars. Since the release of 2019 National Treasures Basketball, people had been pouring thousands of dollars on singular boxes of National Treasures with a dream to pull this very card.
Rather than a childhood hobby, many people have started to view sports cards as a strategic asset, like a stock. However, sports cards are a much more relatable and tangible asset compared to stocks, allowing people to attach themselves to the card. Millennials and members of Gen Z are looking for new, unique investment assets that they actually enjoy, and many may turn to sports cards rather than assets such as stocks, cryptocurrency, or art. The idea of investing in athletes incentivizes people to keep track of players they own cards of, and the thrill of sports brings a much more exciting alternative to investing in stocks.
Looking at the return on investment for the top 2500 most valuable sports cards (in blue) and for stocks (in red) since 2008, it appears as if sports cards have actually been the more profitable asset, especially with a massive spike in recent years.
Narrowing down the scope from the top 2500 cards to just the top 100 most valuable cards, the ROI since 2008 increases from 397% to a whopping 932%. Clearly, investing in more valuable sports cards garners a higher return on investment.
In the past two years, numerous high profile athletes and influencers including Kevin Durant, Mark Cuban, Logan Paul, Mark Wahlberg, and many others have entered the sports card world. With mainstream media outlets and celebrities beginning to promote sports cards, there's a general perception that sports cards are a "cool thing to do”. As a result, many people looking to invest or simply looking for a new hobby have followed in their footsteps and begun to collect sports cards.
Throughout the pandemic, the sports card market really took off. Driven by celebrity influence, boredom from the pandemic, and stimulus checks to increase purchasing power, sports card prices were reaching unthinkable highs. However, by the summer of 2021, it seemed like the card market was beginning to cool off. Many began to worry that the market was about to crash, similar to when the card market crashed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The reality was that the market was correcting itself after reaching unsustainable highs.
In particular, common cards took the most significant hit. The demand for less scarce cards was bound to cool off over time, and I previously analyzed the decline of the Prizm market in a recent article. The primary reason for this decline is overproduction. Looking at Panini Prizm and Panini Select basketball, the overproduction trend has been evident in recent years. The number of parallels, which are supposed to be relatively rare cards, has skyrocketed in recent years. By increasing the number of “rare” cards for each player, there are diminishing returns for the value of each rare card. Since relatively rare cards are becoming common, the supply is outweighing the demand, causing a price drop.
Another example of the overproduction in recent years can be seen by looking at the PSA population report for various Prizm cards. Although Prizm base cards are not numbered, the population report gives a sense as to how many there are in existence. According to Card Ladder, for a Kawhi Leonard 2012 Prizm Rookie, there are 1,134 graded PSA 10 and 992 graded PSA 9. For a Zion Williamson 2019 Prizm Rookie, there are 20,089 graded PSA 10 and 16,004 graded PSA 9. Based off the PSA population report for Kawhi Leonard and Zion Williamson, there has been more than a 1600% increase in the quantity of Prizm base rookies from 2012 to 2019.
Looking back in history, overproduction was once again the primary cause for when the sports card market crashed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Card companies began to overproduce cards to meet market demands, but they ended up flooding the market, eliminating all scarcity and making each card essentially worthless. Although the exact print run is unknown, people estimate that card companies began producing millions of copies of each card. Anyone who wanted a certain card could get it; in fact, they could easily get several copies. As a result, cards from this time period remain invaluable, while cards from the 1970s and earlier still carry a ton of value because of their scarcity.
On the other hand, the valuable cards that remain extremely scarce have continued to soar even amidst the market correction, indicating that the card market is still strong. Looking at the most expensive sports card sales in history, the sales atop the list have almost exclusively come in 2020 or 2021. By owning an extremely valuable and scarce card, the owner can control the market, setting the price at whatever they want. Simply put, if someone really wants the card and can afford the hefty price tag, they’re going to pay top dollar for it. As previously mentioned, multi-millionaire celebrities and influencers are promoting sports cards, helping to bring a lot more money into the sports cards scene. Valuable, one-of-a-kind sports cards continue to rise, and they are certainly prominent investments for those who can afford them.
It’s safe to say that sports cards are here to stay. Sports cards have provided a primary source of entertainment and community for many, especially during the pandemic. Through making profits and meeting new friends, people have been driven to continue trading sports cards well beyond the brunt of the pandemic. Rather than some childhood hobby, sports cards are clearly becoming a legitimate investment asset that can bring in significant profits. There are still new people introducing themselves to sports cards every day. By owning sports cards, people can feel like the have skin in the game, transforming the way people watch and follow sports as a whole.