There was a time–not that long ago, really–when the most expensive baseball cards were old ones. Whether it was 1975, 1985, 1995, 2005 or even 2015, “record price” headlines were the unchallenged domain of T206 Wagners, Ruth rookies, ’52 Mantles or Goudey Lajoies.
The weekend sale of the 1/1 Mike Trout Superfractor for a price that approached $4 million is screaming for the folks in the back that there is monster money in modern cards. Baseball, basketball, football and, yes, even soccer cards issued in the 21st century have attracted an entirely new audience to the hobby and it’s happening at a dizzying pace.
The most watched lists of eBay auctions are now dominated by modern cards.
Packs of certain brands have become lottery tickets for some, rather than the collectibles they’re intended to be.
Vintage cards are doing just fine as always. Higher grade popular rookie cards of the greats across every major sport are up, too, and if you want to blow someone’s mind, tell them how many Ruths, Gehrigs and Mantles they could buy for what someone paid for the five, six and seven-figure cards from the current millennium changing hands these days.
The truth is, though, that modern cards occupy a bigger slice of the upper tier of the market than ever before. Sure there were hot cards years ago, but the amount of money being tossed at cards produced in the last 20 years is unprecedented.
I don’t know the identity of all of the biggest buyers (investors?) of current era cards or what has made them so bullish on cardboard pictures, but clearly there is a lot more money flowing into the hobby than ever. Some of the newcomers aren’t really collectors; just folks who believe in the ultimate flip game. Some are professionals at trend spotting who’ve seen in the hobby’s explosive growth go from a buzz 12-18 months ago to a loud roar in 2020. Some are investors moving away from things they’d normally be buying into because of the impact of COVID. Some are under the influence of “influencers” who began saying the market was getting ready to take off last year. Undoubtedly, there is some market manipulation happening, too. Some are indeed collectors who just happen to have done well in life and have opted to spend a lot more money on their favorite hobby.
Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of money being spent on boxes by newbies who don’t understand that not every product is going to be a winner, whether you open it or stick it away. Not every case or box break is going to be worth it. Some $20 blaster boxes will still be $20 blaster boxes in three years. Some of today’s $5,000 hobby boxes will be worth $2,000 in five years. Not every hot young player is going to be Trout, LeBron or Giannis. Some “sure things” will get hurt. Some prospects won’t match the hype. It’s so much a giant roll of the dice and the money being spent on players still in their rookie, second or third seasons is staggering. By Monday morning, we’ll see the first six-figure Fernando Tatis, Jr. card. He has 449 career at-bats.
I’ve noticed there are a lot of poker players getting into the hobby. I ‘ve also noticed there are a lot of guys who like to gamble on sports (or used to). They like spreads and over/unders but have fallen head over heels for Prizms and Refractors. Unlike gambling, though, you don’t lose everything you put in if you’re not a winner. Cards still have value even if it turns out you don’t own a blue chip. For some, that’s an attractive proposition.
In some way, it’s really not all that different than what we now call the junk wax era of the late 80s and early 90s when speculation on current players ruled. And yes, I know that card companies aren’t making the quantity they once did and the cards that are selling for big bucks today are far more limited. It’s manufactured scarcity, yes, but scarcity nonetheless. Thanks to grading company population reports, we can make a pretty educated guess at the number of Goudey Babe Ruth cards now, but we really don’t know exactly how many there are because not all of them have been graded and every year a few more are discovered in old collections. We know there’s only 1 Trout SuperFractor, 25 Orange Refractors and 150 Blue Refractors, etc. Some of the newcomers appear to prefer their cardboard investments in finite form. It’s the influx of new money, the media buzz, the crazy stories from big box stores of people stalking distributors, offering bribes to managers and fighting over boxes that reminds me of what was happening 30 years ago. Everyone wants to score.
So are the majority of today’s buyers smart or silly? There is no shortage of opinions but the realistic truth is that no one really knows for sure. Some believe the sports card market is still a baby. Others think it can’t possibly sustain the current pace. Of course, the latter statement is one we’ve heard for the last 30 years or so.
We do know the competition to auction modern “holy grail cards” began heating up at the end of last year. Money is money, after all, and even if an auction house is more familiar with Hank Aaron than Aaron Judge, you can bet there will be more modern cards showing up in big auction catalogs. You can also bet many old school-minded collectors will still shake their heads when it’s over when they see some shiny cards go for more than a bunch of guys who’ve been in the Hall of Fame for decades. Closets and attics will be inspected again as media reports on the latest auction circulate–but the hunt won’t just be for the box grandpa handed down. This time, younger folks will be reexamining what they may have pulled out of a pack a few years ago and forgot about.
The “hobby” has been turned on its head in more ways than one. But in 2020, would you expect anything else?