No other sporting event held on American soil outdraws the Super Bowl. NFL TV ratings continue to soar because the country pretty much stops each Sunday in the fall while fans scramble to find their favorite team’s broadcast. Thursday Night? Monday Night? If the game is good, we’re all watching. With that sort of popularity, it’s no wonder the topic of the best football cards to invest in has been a much discussed topic over the last several years. Like their vintage baseball counterparts, high-grade old football cards have often performed better than any traditional investment.
The best cards from each generation have been in focus for a while thanks to overall demand. Recent price trends solidify the belief that Hall of Fame rookie cards, especially those of popular players, are where much of the money is going. It’s smart not to ignore the modern market if you’re willing to be patient and very selective.
There are fewer vintage football cards in the market than baseball. Topps tried to print to anticipated demand and for many years, baseball was the cardboard king with other sports lagging behind. That’s good news for those who fear oversaturation.
There are certainly cards that are rarer than some of those on the list below. The 1935 National Chicle Bronko Nagurski, 1940s era rookie cards of guys like Sammy Baugh and Bobby Layne can’t be dismissed. Goudey Sport Kings Knute Rockne? A great one.
Yet most people we talk to seem to agree that collectors and investors prefer players they can either remember watching or who they’ve seen on highlight reels and in discussions of players from the NFL’s Super Bowl era. Cards from the late 50s and up are also easier to find, especially in higher grades.
Here then, in no particular order, are 15 football card investments to consider for 2015.
1976 Topps Walter Payton
If you weren’t around to see him, it’s hard to understand how big Payton really was from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s. Playing in a large, football crazy market didn’t hurt. Setting records didn’t hurt. Playing for the Mike Ditka-led team that won Super Bowl XX was the capper, even if he didn’t score a touchdown that day. Payton’s personal life may have been less than perfect, but collectors and fans tend to be more nostalgic and there was no one cooler than Walter. Prices for his rookie card have been rising steadily. If you could only pick one football card from the 1970s to buy, this is the one.
1981 Topps Joe Montana
…and if you were limited to one football card in the 80s, it’s this one. About ten years ago, you could own a very nice one for a song. Today, the going rate for a ‘10’ is around $13,000. A 9 might set you back $800 or more. The good news is that there usually seem to be a decent number available. A slow, steady performer who was a Super Bowl-winning quarterback god for a long while.
1986 Topps Jerry Rice
Their cards were five years apart but of course, Montana and Rice are forever linked through those great Niner teams of the 1990s. Because of the green borders, high-grade Rice cards draw a crowd of bidders. Two years ago, a graded 9 was $250-300. Now, many sell for north of $500.
1957 Topps Johnny Unitas
Few sets have more Hall of Fame rookie star power but Unitas is the king of this hill. Few 9s exist. In fact, it’ll soon be four years since the last one was offered at auction. $1500 would have bought you a nice 8 a couple of years ago. Now? $2500 and up. Johnny U is still regarded as one of the game’s icons and owning one of his rookie cards is almost a point of pride.
1957 Topps Bart Starr
Starr and Packers teammate Paul Hornung form the holy trinity in the ’57 set. Bart was Lombardi’s quarterback and there isn’t much more you have to say. A winner who is almost underrated because his stats aren’t gaudy, Starr’s Ice Bowl sneak is one of pro football’s most memorable plays. Worshipped by Packers fans means this card will always have a following.
2005 Aaron Rodgers rookie cards
Starr, Favre and Rodgers. Not a bad trio of QBs in Green Bay over the last several decades, huh? We’re not picking one specific card because there are many to choose from but it’s hard to imagine any of them not continuing an upward climb. It’s safe to say Rodgers could re-write the NFL passing record book before he’s finished—which may be more than 10 years down the road. Right now, he’s virtually flawless with more championships potentially ahead.
1971 Topps Terry Bradshaw
Much maligned early in his career, Bradshaw simply became the engineer of the dominant Steeler teams of the Chuck Noll era. Bradshaw remains in the public eye today so he’s not unfamiliar to those born in the 1980s or 90s. His rookie card is from a set that drives lovers of high-grade cards crazy. NM/MT graded examples were $450-500 just a couple of years ago. Now, they’re pushing $700. Late last year, a PSA 9 sold for $6,600.
1972 Topps Roger Staubach
There’s no denying Staubach’s greatness as the leader of Tom Landry’s Cowboys of the 1970s. There’s also no denying how hard this card is to find with sharp corners and good centering. The majority weren’t cut very well from the sheet. Two years ago, a 10 sold for more than $22,000 but nice 8s are attracting a big audience these days and offer an entry point that’s more palatable to investors.
1958 Topps Jim Brown
Did you know Brown was born 27 years to the day after Michael Jordan? The best basketball player ever and perhaps the best football player ever share the same birthday. That dark background on his rookie card is often scuffed, making high-end Brown rookie cards difficult and desirable. There aren’t many fresh graded examples entering the hobby at this point. This is 1950s football card royalty. Three years ago, $600 would have been sufficient for an 8. Now? Double that or more. Near mint 7s have been moving up quickly as well.
1966 Philadelphia Dick Butkus
As Brown was leaving, Butkus was just getting started. Along with Ray Nitschke (1963 Topps), the two toughest linebackers of the era. Loved in Chicago but feared everywhere else, his rookie card is virtually impossible at the highest levels. NM/MT selling prices are all over the board but the long term future of this card would seem to be very good if you find one with strong eye appeal in most any grade.
1965 Topps Joe Namath
Butkus the bruiser was the 60s NFL. Broadway Joe was the AFL. You can argue stats all day, but the bottom line is that Namath quarterbacking the Jets to the Super Bowl III title was a hugely important moment. There is constant demand for Namath’s rookie and prices have skyrocketed over the last five years. Centering and corner problems abound but again, buying a card with good eye appeal at a good price for the grade would be sage advice.
1984 Topps John Elway
It’s hard not to like mid-1980s football cards. They’re easy to find. The players are remembered by anyone close to 40 or older and high-grade cards are more affordable. Popularity trumps large production numbers—on some level at least. Elway was a two-sport guy remembered for his rocket arm and going out in a blaze of NFL glory. Amazingly, PSA 10 Elway rookie cards were under $1,000 just a few years ago. Now, they sell for $6,000-$8,000 consistently. If you think that’s nuts, you can still buy a ‘9’ for $175 or so. It’s likely they’ll continue moving upward.
1984 Topps Dan Marino
It seemed like Marino broke an NFL record every other week, especially late in his career. Despite limited deep post-season success, he’s still considered among the best of all-time. High-grade Marino rookies are easier to find than those of Elway but sales of gem mint 10 Marinos have still tripled in value over the last five years, selling now for around $1,500. Nines are plentiful and can usually be had for a little over $100.
1988 Topps Bo Jackson
Kids who grew up in the late 1980s idolized Bo. So did anyone who watched him carry the football or play baseball. Those who return to the hobby now and understand the impact of grading have no problem jumping in with Bo’s first football card. Three years ago, a ’10’ was $40-50. Now they’re more than double that. It’s easy to land a 9 for under $20 because so many are available but it’s not hard to envision them moving much higher over time because of Jackson’s iconic status among an entire generation of sports fans.
2nd Year HOF Rookie Cards
When prices for rookie cards push past the financial comfort or capacity of some collectors and investors, the ‘next best thing’ often comes into play. With 1951 Bowman and 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle cards soaring out of sight, a trickle down situation has pushed 1952 Bowman and 1953 Bowman and Topps cards higher. There’s nothing wrong with chasing down high-grade Hall of Famers from early in their careers that don’t come with the rookie card label. High-grade 1959 Topps Jim Brown, 1958 Topps Unitas or Starr, 1966 Topps Namath, 1977 Topps Payton or 1982 Topps Montana could all be good value plays, especially if you can spot a high quality example at a good price.