It was like one long Stefon skit from Saturday Night Live.
2020 had everything. Millennial artists doing weird things to famous rookie cards. A case break party at a football stadium. Babe Ruth in a baggie. Pre-War white elephants in Yahtzee boxes. Russian ransomware. Card shows during a raging pandemic.
And the hobby’s hottest nightclub is…Walmart.
There’s no way we can even begin to chronicle or even remember everything but let’s take a helicopter tour of a sports collecting year for the ages.
Curbside, Online and On Fire
A little over two months into the year, everything turned upside down but no matter how hard COVID-19 may have tried to derail the hobby, it simply got stronger.
Collectors dug in harder, looking for something to occupy their time. Folks who collected as kids held reunions with their cards and began buying more. Shops found ways to sell. New ones even opened. Breakers broke to growing audiences who couldn’t get enough of watching them online. The auction business boomed. Prices soared. Masked up flippers lined up at Walmart and Target chasing blaster boxes and packs of new product, selling it online to a rabid audience that couldn’t find it themselves.
It all led to an increase in media attention across the U.S. and Canada, which brought even more eyes–and dollars–to the market.
Even before we were all forced inside, the basketball card market was hot. It was kickstarted by an awful tragedy and a TV show.
Kobe Bryant’s stunning death at age 41 in a Sunday morning helicopter crash on January 26 resulted in a new wave of intense interest in his cards and memorabilia. Prices skyrocketed as fans–not necessarily collectors–sought out some tangible memories of a player who, for many, had a strong connection to their youth. Later in the year, Panini America announced it would honor redemption cards for some of the last autographs Bryant signed as part of his long-running endorsement deal with the company.
In the late winter and early spring, when COVID-19 began to impact North America, anticipation built for The Last Dance, the long-awaited ESPN documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ last championship season. Prices for Jordan cards began to escalate but even the end of the multi-part series did nothing to quell the interest in Jordan cards and hoops in general.
The fever pitch for all things MJ and ’86-87 Fleer reached a fever pitch with the announcement that, yes indeed, there was at least one unopened case left. The 12-box unit that pedigreed to the late, great dealer Larry Fritsch sold through Collect Auctions for nearly $1.8 million.
The return of Zion Williamson after a pre-season injury fueled an already surging market for the top NBA Draft pick’s cards and the few jerseys that hit the market, including the one he wore in his first game.
The biggest story from a business perspective is the still unfolding sale of Collectors Universe to a group of investors including entrepreur/collector Nat Turner and Steve Cohen, the new owner of the Mets. The $700 million deal for PSA’s parent company could close in January but is facing some legal challenges.
Topps kicked off its year by hosting a “Million Card Rip Party” at AT&T Stadium in Dallas with a live stream marathon attended by breakers, Topps execs and Pete Alonso, who all tore into a massive supply of Series 1 Baseball.
Just as the season was supposed to have been getting underway, Topps launched its Project 2020 platform, turning 20 of the company’s most well known cards over to artists who put their spin on them. The cards were sold on Topps’ website, with new cards issued daily. Over 2.4 million of them were sold.
The company also unveiled a new deal with Formula 1, which will result in some new racing products in 2021 and hammered out a new endorsement/autograph deal with Derek Jeter.
Panini renewed some of its exclusive licensing deals, while dealing with a large crush of business on its website as interest in the newest products reached a fever pitch. The pandemic shut down both the NBA and NFL Rookie Photo Shoots–and the plant that prints their cards, but after some slight delays, it was back to business.
In October, Upper Deck announced it would return to the golf card market. The company also hammered out a deal with the NHL’s top draft pick, Alex Lafreniere, and managed to get his Young Guns card into Series 1, which helped drive sales.
Late in the year, eBay announced a potentially game-changing option for sellers of lower value cards with Standard Envelope. It’ll provide trackable shipping for $1 or less.
Gargantuan Grading Gluts
As the market boomed, the demand for grading and authentication services continued its upward climb. PSA announced a massive backlog that wasn’t getting any better. Then, the company had to close its offices for a time due to pandemic protocols. Despite hiring dozens of new employees and adding space, customer wait times continue to increase. Orders also piled up at Beckett and SGC with both companies running way behind.
Certified Collectibles Group announced it would start a trading card grading division, hiring two former Beckett employees to lead. They plan to launch the CSG website in early January with information on services and pricing and will start accepting submissions shortly afterward.
Piece(s) of the Action and S’s Are Wild
There’s a growing market for fractional ownership of high dollar cards and memorabilia, allowing average collectors to own at least a small part of a five or six-figure item. Several of Collectable’s first offerings were sold out within minutes including a PSA 10 Jordan rookie.
Star Stock kicked its program into high gear, allowing collectors to buy and sell modern era cards without ever touching them. Late in the year, they picked up $1.3 million in funding from investors, including Kevin Durant.
StockX ramped up its sports card bid/ask business, expanding to unopened boxes and partnering with Topps for another exclusive release.
It Sold for What???
We’ve already chronicled some of 2020’s top selling pieces of sports cards and memorabilia, but safe to say, it’s the first time that more than a dozen items sold for over $1 million. High-end modern cards saw interest from investors and collectors and an audience that’s worldwide. The 2009 Bowman Chrome Mike Trout Superfractor became the highest priced sports card ever sold–passing old reliable Honus Wagner–when it went for $3.84 million at Goldin Auctions.
Vintage card prices also soared, especially for rookie cards of icons in every sport.
Most auction companies enjoyed their biggest year ever, with each event bringing record totals or at least a new round of record prices for certain items. Over a one-week period, six auctions were held, with a total sales amount that was more than the GNP of some small countries.
Not all the auctions went off without a hitch. Malware attacks by hackers created some issues and in December a ransomware attack on Simple Auction Site took numerous companies offline as the company was forced to negotiate with the Russian group that demanded cash in return for bringing the servers back online.
Jimmy Micioni loved baseball and collecting. The only people who really knew that were members of his own family. When the 97-year-old New Jersey resident passed away, the family turned to Wheatland Auctions to sell the thousands of cards, autographs and photos he’d accumulated.
We would soon learn that the “Uncle Jimmy Collection” included nine Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig signed 1933 Goudey cards netting his heirs a total of over $2 million across three auctions.
Find of the year? This one will be tough to beat as the Coolest Find of The Decade.
Century-old cards are still being discovered, like the Florida woman who inherited a bunch of M101-4s she kept in a baggie. After finally getting around to finding out they were actually worth something, a Ruth rookie card and other luminaries from the 1916 issue wound up at auction.
A Southern California man had stored his inherited collection of ancient cardboard in a Yahtzee game box.
Inside were over 400 candy cards including a one-of-a-kind 1914 Texas Tommy Ty Cobb and one of only two known Joe Jacksons that sold for over $270,000. In all, there were 400 cards sold through SCP Auctions.
Then there was the find of a 1910 Old Mill Joe Jackson….
….and some 1967 Topps rack packs, two with Mickey Mantle showing that were found in Texas.
The pandemic arrived in the U.S. as the Chicago Sports Spectacular was about to open its doors in Chicago last March. Newly imposed restrictions on public gatherings shut the show down and sent dealers packing up and heading home. It started a wave of cancellations that included the 2020 National Sports Collectors Convention in Atlantic City. The show was first postponed until December, but to no one’s surprise, it was eventually canceled.
Then, the IX Center in Cleveland, a regular host of the NSCC, announced it would be shutting down, forcing the show to look for another venue to host its 2022 event. AC was chosen as a makeup for losing this year’s event. Meanwhile, collectors cling to hope that the 2021 event can still take place in Chicago.
Small local shows were able to take place in areas where restrictions weren’t quite as strict. The CSA Fall Show in Chantilly took place with a variety of changes and so did a couple of three-day events in Dallas.
While most of us are glad to be rid of 2020, the hobby played a huge role in making sure a lot of people had a positive distraction and some energizing news they really needed in a year no one will ever forget.