Bob Means might have the coolest job title on the planet. As eBay’s General Manager of Trading Cards, he’s certainly been in the epicenter of the trading card boom, watching unprecedented numbers of buyers enter the space, monitoring buying and selling habits, seeing new businesses unfold and watching people who left the hobby as kids rediscover their love of collecting.
It’s nearly impossible to overstate eBay’s massive influence and involvement in these unprecedented sports and non sports collectible card times. Sales of trading cards on eBay grew 142% from 2019 to 2020 and $871 million worth of sports cards were sold in the first quarter of 2021.
While some sellers believe the market has softened a bit for some modern cards and products, there’s no doubt the interest remains far greater than it was just a couple of years ago and prices reflect that. eBay currently has over 41 million listings for baseball, football, basketball and hockey cards alone.
eBay is also utilizing the collectibles category as part of a new holiday promotion. The Hard to Find Collectibles Shop was a two day pop up shop and exhibit showcasing what can be found on eBay for a constantly evolving consumer base with an insatiable appetite for more. Means took time out from the event to chat with us about the massive growth in the category, the power of nostalgia and the cards his mom threw away.
Tony Reid–The trading card boom had what one could call the perfect storm of the pandemic, nearly unlimited free time, extra stimulus money, people starving for sports, and influencers pushing people into the trading card market. When did it hit your radar that this category was blowing up?
Bob Means-Going back a bit, even in 2019 and 2020 we were on growth trajectories. The category was really growing. It was growing with what you would classically call the collector, the sports card collector and fan. Prior to COVID hitting there were all the trade shows, The National and all of the various shows around the country. The business was healthy. You are right. COVID hit and all of the things you just mentioned were big components of taking the trading card industry into a whole new level.
Since late 2020 we have seen new graders come into the marketplace. We have seen tremendous change in ownership of companies. We have seen consolidation. We have seen expansion. We have seen everything out there. It has been a lot of fun to be a part of all of that.
To give you an idea of what the first part of 2021 looked like, you guys probably know this information, we did $2 billion in sales in the first part of the year. That is equal to what we did for the entire year before for the entire year. The year before we were selling a sports card per second, so you can do the math on what we are doing in the first half of this year. It’s been incredible growth. We have seen some real expansion on what people are willing to pay from a price point perspective. Goldin and Heritage and others have had some really crazy high value sales.
We have seen a lot of new customers come into the space with a lot of energy. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a great business and continues to remain a strong business. Our business continues to outpace the rest of the company. It’s really been great.
TR–Whether it be collectors, flippers, breakers or even gamblers, who do you see as the prominent base of people buying cards today?
BM-You are right. All of those categories of people came into the business. What I think has happened, after all is said and done, or after COVID has slowed down, is that the collector base has increased. I think more people are engaged in the trading card space then there has ever been before. Again, with eBay that is a very democratic statement. We service all price points. You can get yourself a brand new raw five dollar card of the player you think is great. You can also get yourself a six figure card that is graded that you are looking at as an investment. The collector base has increased.
All of the other people you are talking about the investor, the flipper, all of them, they are engaged, they are still a part of it but I think what I am most excited about, and I can’t tangibly prove this, I think the collector base has expanded. We have more people involved in the category. We are seeing the category bleed into some other things. You see sports card guys get into collectible cards games or you see them get into non-sports trading cards like Garbage Pail Kids or Star Wars.
You are seeing growth in the non-big three. Football, baseball and basketball have always bene the most important business within sports trading cards but soccer, tennis, wrestling and the UFC, those are all skyrocketing in popularity right now. That has to be both collectors and possibly some flippers and investors getting involved with it. Those are the places that tell me that collecting is expanding. We are also seeing a lot of exports, so I know for a fact those are collectors. The people of Australia love our basketball cards. China loves our basketball cards. Obviously Europe loves our soccer cards. We are definitely seeing that collector base expand as well.
TR- Did you collect sports cards as a kid and do you have a collection today?
BM-I’m not sure what to call myself from my younger days. I had baseball cards but I have that classic story of how my mom threw them away after I went to college. I was a collector, I guess. Somewhere there is a landfill with some very nice late seventies and early eighties baseball cards.
I have gotten back into it. I am probably that journey that a lot of people seem to take. You get engaged in it. If you are a sports fan you probably start with the guys you like and you slowly expand. As a part of this job I wanted to learn how to play some of the CCG games. I started collecting some of those with my son. We learned how to play Magic: The Gathering. That game naturally turns into a collection chase as does Pokémon.
I have totally reengaged in trying to find those cards that my mom threw away. Looking back to the early eighties, I was a San Francisco Giants fan, so I always tried to get the complete sets. I have no idea how much bubble gum I ate through that process but I was obsessed about getting the full Giants team roster.
It’s funny as kid you aren’t thinking about this in the best possible way. I was throwing away George Brett cards or throwing away Dave Winfield cards. I reengaged the process of trying to fill in those collections. I love when the card comes in the mail and I open it up and suddenly I am holding a card that I used to hold when I was 13 or 14. That surge of nostalgia is very powerful and it’s a lot of fun.
TR–What was the inspiration for the eBay pop up shop in Houston?
BM– Houston is an easy choice, Houston has a great sports heritage and if you have a great sports heritage you have great sports fans and if you have great sports fans you have great spots collectors. Houston made a lot of sense from that perspective.
We are really trying to remind people with the holiday season coming up that eBay is the home of the hard to find collectible and hard to find gift. Trading cards are such a thoughtful gift for your dad, your son or whoever it is. eBay is going to be the pace to find that inventory. We are trying to reconnect that story for people. The pop up shop is great way to do it because we can’t show anything close to the breadth of inventory on eBay but even coming into this little store you see a John Cena card sitting next to a Joe Morgan rookie card sitting next to a Pokémon card and that really drives home the spirit of merchandise assortment breadth.