Sports collectibles became one of the breakout stars of an otherwise rotten 2020. While shops and shows took a COVID pause, online business boomed. There was still plenty of uncertainty in the world as the 2021 calendars arrived but whether you were part of “the industry” or “the hobby,” a new year brought new anticipation and it didn’t disappoint.
In 2021, the sports collecting world simply lost its mind.
- Cards got so popular, stores stopped selling them and graders stopped grading them.
- Long-time card manufacturers were left to ponder their future after one giant company turned their worlds upside down.
- Card shows in 2021 looked like card shows in 1991.
- Money flowed into cards and corporations
With full acknowledgement that there was much more that happened in 2021 than what we’ve managed to cobble together here, let’s take a helicopter tour of a year that will be hard to forget.
Fanatics and the Future
2021 saw big money enter the hobby…and it wasn’t just to buy cards.
A stunning turn of events during the summer saw online retail giant Fanatics swoop in and not only spoil Topps’ plan to go public but end a 70-year relationship with big league baseball.
The behind the scenes machinations were also happening in football and basketball with both leagues poised to join MLB and its players in new deals for trading card production once the current partnership with Panini America expires.
Money talks and Fanatics has plenty of it, but exactly how it will all shake out remains largely unknown, at least to the public. Josh Luber, who grew StockX into an online behemoth, will run the new trading card division. Fanatics increased its value to $10.4 billion after receiving additional investments.
Fanatics didn’t acquire the NHL’s card license, which will remain with Upper Deck after an extension was announced in October.
Blaster Box Brouhaha
As flippers and collectors swarmed Target, Walmart and Meijer stores, stock days became a zoo in some locations with collectors standing in line, running to the displays and making tidy profits. In suburban Milwaukee, a disagreement between customers led to a gun being pulled and that was the last straw for Target, which yanked most products from its shelves.
Online shopping bots and collector alert subscription services mean fresh meat—er, boxes—don’t last long there either, unless it’s a product that’s been produced in massive quantities. It’s an ongoing issue for collectors who’d long enjoyed buying their cards while picking up paper towels and ibuprofen.
Boxes have started to return but it’s safe to say it ain’t like it used to be.
PSA bought Genamint to help bring additional tech and resources to its grading process. Then, they acquired Card Ladder in the late fall in an effort to increase its pricing information. Meanwhile, longtime boss Joe Orlando left the company and Turner became CEO.
Despite an uncertain future, Topps opened an office in Japan and later created the first baseball card product for that country’s market. Then, they partnered with longtime retailer Dave & Adam’s to buy a Cooperstown storefront and put cards inside.
Cards you say? eBay said sales of trading cards in the first quarter of 2021 ($871 million) had already surpassed all of 2020.
That number may be going down after eBay also cut ties with one of its largest online sellers of trading cards, tossing out shill bidding accusations against Oregon-based PWCC but not offering any specifics. PWCC called the move “defamatory” and quickly created its own auction platform and has replaced its monthly auctions with weekly events.
The auction business as a whole boomed. A $10 million auction event was considered a big deal a few years ago. Now, consignors are liquidating items like crazy and auctions with thousands of lots raked in two, three, four and even five times that amount over the course of the year.
Supply chain issues in the aftermath of COVID continue to cause delays in the multi-pronged process of bringing trading card products to market. Some releases are arriving weeks or even months after their original release dates are announced and a few brands were scrubbed from the schedule. Locating cardboard and packaging supplies to get the job done are part of the issue for manufacturers.
After nearly 12 months on hiatus, shows began opening up across the country and collectors flocked to them.
Regulations differed from state to state and in the late spring there were still doubts about whether Illinois would progress to the stage that would allow the 2021 National Sports Collectors Convention to take place. Having missed out on the 2020 show, collectors jumped on board once the go-ahead came. Dealer tables had long been sold out and VIP passes had also gone quickly. The Chicago NSCC became one of the best attended shows in its long history, with dealers doing a booming business (you can catch all of our coverage here).
New shows popped up, too, with plenty of support from both new and veteran collectors.
In August, plans for a re-opening of the I-X Center in Cleveland were announced. NSCC officials indicated an interest in staging a future show there after being forced to move the 2022 event to Atlantic City.
Soon the Graders Will Have Agents
In February, the deal to take Collectors Universe, parent company of PSA, private was completed. The investor group led by Nat Turner paid $853 million for the company and was immediately tasked with figuring out how to keep the company from being buried by the weight of its popularity.
The increased interest that carried over from 2020 resulted in grading company backlogs growing to unprecedented numbers. PSA, SGC and Beckett all applied the brakes. Southern California-based PSA cut off submissions for nearly all service levels in late March as its new leadership began to seriously address what had become unmanageable numbers. Some collectors who had submitted their cards in 2020 were still waiting for them as 2021 wound down, but PSA began opening some service levels late in the year on an allocated basis thanks to an increase in space and staffing. The company says it graded seven million cards in the first 11 months of 2021.
Beckett suspended grading on June 1 and continued to work on catching up in the months that followed.
SGC set its prices high to limit the intake, then lowered them as it tried to establish a manageable level of intake. The company set its mark at $35 and kept its turnaround time for lower level service at around three weeks.
New grading companies opened for business, led by CSG, a card grading subsidiary of Certified Collectibles Group that began grading in February. Based in Florida, CSG was deluged with orders from the jump and also found itself looking to add employees. In mid-year, CCG was gobbled up by an investment group.
Record Setting Cards (and Not So Record Setting Cards)
Whether high-grade iconic vintage or low serial numbered modern rookie cards, prices for some of the hobby’s biggest cards created big headlines. A 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle PSA 9 and a LeBron James Upper Deck rookie patch autograph numbered to 23 each sold for $5.2 million in the first four months of the year.
As the National opened in Chicago, a 1/1 Patrick Mahomes was brokered for $4.3 million.
After COVID claimed the life of Dr. Thomas Newman, an avid collector from Florida, his stash of rare and high-grade pieces were sold at auction with a 1933 Goudey Ruth fetching $4.2 million alone. The Babe’s cards remained the overall king of the hobby. One of fewer than a dozen 1914 Baltimore News Ruth cards was sold into the fractional shares market for a valuation of around $6 million.
An OPC Wayne Gretzky rookie card graded PSA 10 set a hockey record at $3.75 million—peanuts compared to the August auction of a T206 Honus Wagner for $6.6 million that established a new record for any sports trading card. It broke the Wagner record that had stood for all of five months.
It wasn’t that long ago that only Wagner cards threatened to sell for seven-figure prices. Now, rarely a month passes when at least one card enters that rare air. Multiple Wagner cards were sold or brought to auction by December.
What would one of the three 1952 Topps Mantle cards graded PSA 10 sell for today? Who knows, but one of them went on display during All-Star Week in Denver. Marshall Fogel’s card arrived via armored car for its brief public engagement.
Soccer cards caught fire in 2021 with a 1958 Pele rookie card setting a record for the sport in November.
Not all cards saw their late 2020 growth continue beyond the spring of 2021. Prices for many of them dropped significantly, especially as population report numbers grew in categories like modern basketball cards.
The $500,000-$700,000 sales of Michael Jordan rookie cards that took place last year are a distant memory, though still far ahead of where they were a couple of years ago.
Pieces of the Games
It wasn’t just cards making news. A 1950 Jackie Robinson game worn jersey was sold privately for $4.2 million. The earliest known Kobe Bryant jersey was bought by self-made billionaire Bob Duggan for $3.66 million. Bill Russell consigned most of the items from his career in basketball to Hunt Auctions where they sold for a combined $7.4 million in Boston, led by the final jersey he ever wore.
The world’s most valuable collection of artifacts relating to the Yankees’ greatest icons quietly went on display in Florida, having been curated for 20 years while the late Hall of Famer Al Kaline’s memorabilia wound up at Heritage Auctions.
The market for historic and milestone tickets was…well… ripped with prices soaring across the board. A full ticket to Michael Jordan’s debut with the Chicago Bulls set a record at $264,000.
Look What I Found
As word spread of the rising interest and value for cards and memorabilia, people dug into their attics and closets and sent what they found to auction.
A family in Georgia finally unloaded a generational collection of more than 2,000 T206 cards and a T210 Old Mill stack that included Joe Jackson.
A South Dakota family just happened to have some 1952 Topps high numbers sitting around including a pair of Mickey Mantle cards.
The family of former Yankee Earle Combs located a bat once swung by Lou Gehrig and turned it over to auction.
A long deceased relative’s high school memory book included a 1917 Collins-McCarthy Babe Ruth that was on display at the National before being sold at auction.
An estate find netted only the second known copy of a super scarce tobacco card of 19th century great Jim O’Rourke.
An abandoned storage unit purchased by a New England real estate agent held a 2009 Bowman Chrome Mike Trout autograph, among other things.
Crime and Punishment
In August, a faker of autographs was finally sentenced after pumping out tons of bad stuff he advertised on local TV stations.
The larger pool of people who suddenly have an interest in sports cards isn’t all filled with inflatables and good intentions.
Hobby shop burglaries became commonplace from Maine to Southern California, where The Bullpen lost an estimated $1 million in inventory to a crew of thieves that knew where the good stuff was. Even more frightening was an armed robbery at a Pennsylvania shop, but a suspect didn’t escape local police who learned he’d used some of the proceeds to buy Halloween decorations.
So here’s a toast to the hobby as it was in 2021. Whether you think it deserves it or not, you can’t say it was dull.