For much of 2020, 2021 and part of this year, the sports card market was a snowball rolling through an open field in Buffalo. With a seemingly endless supply of newcomers tossing money at the beast and a perfect storm of pandemic and publicity, prices for everything from low end, high-grade modern base cards to lower cost Hall of Famers rampaged across the landscape like Cocaine Bear.
It was an unprecedented period of explosive prices and speculation on countless current players that reminded us of a 1980s monthly Beckett price guide with nothing but up arrows. Most hobby veterans knew it couldn’t last. Not at that rate anyway.
While the hobby remains much more vibrant that it was less than four years ago, it’s a less frenzied place these days. Prices for some high-end modern cards have taken a large dive. Others have dropped noticeably from where they were a year ago.
But does the market really stink as we head into a new year?
It’s all a matter of perspective–and analysis. For that, we turned to a year-end conversation with Chris McGill, the Co-Founder of Card Ladder, the robust online collector of pricing and population data that tracks sales across multiple platforms.
SC Daily: Let’s start with the vintage card market first. There were some highly publicized sales of famous cards this year like the $12.6 million SCG 9.5 1952 Topps Mantle, the million dollar Clemente rookie and the $7.25 million T206 Honus Wagner, but as a whole, how would you describe the vintage card market now compared to a year ago?
CM: Over the last year, Card Ladder’s 3,946 card vintage index (comprised of cards issued between 1946 and 1983) is down 5% over the last year. It had modestly ticked up during the first nine months of 2022 before dropping 11% in the final three months, wiping out 2022’s gains and then some.
CL’s vintage index saw growth of 110% in the prior year, so 2022 saw both a slowing of momentum and then ultimately a retraction.
In the context of Card Ladder’s 24 other indexes, vintage has performed 6th best over the last year, trailing only Pre-War Vintage (+29%), Tennis (+19%), Outlier (+16%), Hockey (+7%), and Baseball (-1%).
SC Daily: In looking at Card Ladder’s indexes, the pre-War sector has seen the biggest growth of any category you track in 2022. What type of cards are pushing this growth?
CM: Card Ladder’s Pre-War Vintage index contains 2,910 cards and is limited to cards issued in 1945 and earlier. It’s up 29% YTD.
The biggest gainers this year in terms of percentage growth include the 1933 Goudey Sport Kings #4 Red Grange SGC 4 (+145%) and the 1915 Cracker Jack #30 Ty Cobb PSA 4 (+88%).
Browsing the Pre-War Index’s list of largest percentage gainers over the last year reveals that it is primarily lower grade cards from iconic sets like 1933 Goudey and 1915 Cracker Jack that are driving the growth.
SC Daily: Is there anything else about the current vintage market that we may not realize has happened or is happening?
CM: It’s worth noting that some pricey vintage cards are coming to auction right now. Memory Lane’s 2023 Winter Rarities Auction, which ended on December 3rd, produced a record high sale of the 1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle PSA 9. It sold for $3,192,000.
According to PSA’s population report, there are nine PSA 9s of the ‘51 Bowman Mantle. Yet the card has sold at public auction only four times in the last 18 years – twice by Memory Lane (2013, 2022), once by Heritage (2018), and once on eBay (2007).
SC Daily: The index for just about everything else is down, with modern and ultra-modern cards you track dropping over 30% this year. What are the main reasons that number has fallen so hard? Any signs it is leveling off?
CM: If I were to theorize about price trends, I’d start by looking at who the buyers and sellers are in a particular category and what they’re up to. For example, is a market dominated by collectors or speculators and flippers? Although Card Ladder doesn’t offer a way to empirically measure this, my anecdotal observation is that the Modern and Ultra-Modern markets became overheated by a subset of folks focused on speculation and flipping over the last few years. Many of them seem to have left the industry this year, causing prices to fall.
With that said, here is the 5-year performance of Ultra-Modern (2009-present), Modern (1984-2008), Vintage (1946-1983), and Pre-War Vintage (1945 and earlier):
Pre-War Vintage: 340%
If Vintage and Pre-War vintage are the benchmark for collector-driven growth, it appears that Ultra-Modern and Modern may still have room to fall. The counterargument to this is that, as a function of the explosion of interest in sports cards during the 80s, 90s, and again recently, there may simply be more collectors of Ultra-Modern and Modern who will drive more rapid growth. Additionally, the childhood collectors of 80s and 90s cards in particular – people who collected them as a kid and are now in their 30s and 40s – are likely experiencing larger increases in income and purchasing power year over year when compared to collectors of earlier eras of cards whose income and purchasing power are now fixed or declining. This might be a contributing factor to more rapid growth for Modern and Ultra-Modern as well.
It’s hard to predict when prices will level off, but my hunch is that they will not bottom out until they hit a floor of support established by collectors who plan to keep their cards for the long term. When cards are primarily transacted rather than collected, they will be increasingly susceptible to the strategies and whims of folks who are primarily focused on short term ROI. Of course, broader macroeconomic bearishness is almost certainly putting downward pressure on prices, too, especially of cards that are seen as short term investment vehicles rather than as components of a collection.
Another potential factor contributing to the Ultra-Modern and Modern correction this year is that these categories have experienced a larger increase in supply. For Ultra-Modern, there are dozens of new products coming out every year containing coveted chase cards, which spreads thin the available demand for cards of active players. For example, each year Prizm Basketball adds another 10 gold parallels to the supply of each player. LeBron James had only 10 gold parallels in 2012 during the product’s inaugural release. Today, he has 100, and that will soon be 110 when 2022-23 Prizm Basketball is released. One way for the market to combat this, of course, is for collectors to purchase and remove these cards from the market, so that the available supply remains small, even if the total supply is growing. Another way is by adding more collectors each year.
For Modern, population counts have grown over the last few years as returning collectors send in their childhood collections for grading. For example, from April of 2021 through today, the 1989 Upper Deck #1 Ken Griffey Junior PSA 9 has seen its population grow from 25,534 to 29,127. In other words, the population of this card has increased by 14% over the last 20 months while its price has decreased by 37% over that span. Eventually, perhaps soon, returning collectors will run out of childhood cards to grade, and we will likely see populations and supply stabilize.
SC Daily: Which cards in which grades that trade on a fairly regular basis have seen the biggest losses this year?
CM: Among cards with a population greater than 500 and a price greater than $250, three of this year’s biggest droppers are the 2018 Prizm Silver #78 Trae Young PSA 10 (-75%), the 2020 Topps Chrome F1 Sapphire #1 Lewis Hamilton PSA 10 (-73%), and the 1996 Metal #181 Kobe Bryant PSA 10 (-65%).
SC Daily: On the other hand, where do collectors seem fairly bullish?
CM: Earlier this year we built the Outlier index. It has appreciated 16% this year, trailing only Pre-War Vintage in terms of growth during 2022.
It’s called the Outlier index because it’s limited to cards that rarely sell. To qualify for a normal Card Ladder index, a card must have sold at least once in the last six months and twice in the last year. Of course, this doesn’t apply to every card. So, for every card that has a verified card profile in Card Ladder but hasn’t sold at least once in the last six months and twice in the last year, it’s thrown into the Outlier index.
In other words, the Outlier Index – which has virtually never gone down, even when retroactively analyzing its performance since 2003 – suggests that cards that rarely sell are not getting hammered the same way cards that transact frequently are. In fact, they seem to be doing well on the whole.
Of course, given the nature of this index, it could simply be lagging behind other indexes, and could experience its own correction over the coming year. Time will tell.
SC Daily: It looks like you’ve tracked 38 sales of a trading card at $1 million or more this year, some vintage and some produced within the last 20 years. What do those cards have in common, if anything?
CM: In general, they’re extremely limited (whether due to condition scarcity or manufactured scarcity), depict iconic athletes (such as Mickey Mantle, Tom Brady, and LeBron James), and come from prestigious hobby brands (such as Topps, Exquisite, and National Treasures). There are exceptions, but typically the most valuable sports cards are era-defining productions that only a handful of people, or only one person, can own.
SC Daily: There is always speculation that some sales aren’t what they seem. Especially now, it’s important that pricing information be as accurate as possible. With so many marketplaces in the hobby now and so many high dollar cards changing hands on a regular basis—especially in the low pop, high-end modern rookie card market– is it difficult to ascertain whether some sales are legitimate?
CM: It’s difficult, and we can and do make mistakes, but it’s largely a manageable task.
At Card Ladder, we have two separate databases. One is called “Sales History” and it contains over 50 million historical sales stretching back to 2002. Typically, roughly 50,000 new sales are loaded into “Sales History” daily from sources including eBay, MySlabs, Goldin, PWCC, and roughly a dozen other marketplaces.
The other database is called the “Ladder” and it contains ~37,000 verified card profiles (with new verified card profiles added on a daily basis) with daily sales coming in from the same sources (eBay, MySlabs, etc.), except every sale of every card in the Ladder has been verified by a qualified researcher.
On a given night our research team will verify ~2,500 sales. The vetting process requires inspecting bid histories for signs of shill bidding, reviewing feedback scores of bidders and the seller, checking that the image of the card in the listing matches its description, referencing the recent sales history of the card and similar cards, referencing the index performance of the subject and the categories to which the subject belongs, contacting the seller if necessary, and more. The goal of the vetting process, in a nutshell, is to verify only those sales that are likelier than not to have been paid.
We publish a list every morning of the sales we failed to verify the previous night to Card Ladder’s “Feed.” It can be found in the “Daily Sales Recap” post. For example, yesterday we failed to verify 35 sales out of a total of 2,861 sales reviewed, which is a 1.2% rate.
Three of the typical scenarios of sales that we will not verify include: 1) auctions realizing prices that are substantially higher than other similar auctions that are won by bidders with eBay feedback scores of zero, 2) auctions that end for 2x or more of the value of fixed price listings on the same marketplace of the identical card in the identical card, and 3) dubiously underpriced items sold by eBay sellers with zero feedback that are likely scams designed to elicit payment for an item that the seller does not actually possess.
With respect to non-eBay marketplaces like Goldin or PWCC, they have policies of removing unpaid items from their historical databases, which adds a layer of confidence to their sales results. It takes time before an item is designated as “unpaid”; generally, the grace period for payment lasts a few weeks. However, once it has elapsed, those sales are removed by the marketplace from its historical database. Thus, the marketplace designates sales remaining in their historical databases after the grace period as paid, which is valuable information to the hobby, and information that we rely on in verifying sales transactions.
With respect to private transactions that are reported to us directly, the following criteria must be met: 1) The submitting party must offer proof of the transaction, such as a wire transfer receipt and invoice, along with high quality images of the card that was transacted, 2) The submitting party must be the buyer, seller, or 3rd party intermediary that facilitated the deal with permission from the buyer and seller to disclose it, 3) The submitting party must be in good standing in the hobby community, 4) The submitting party must allow us to publicly link to their social media and publicly disclose their name, and 5) The price must be reasonably in line with comps or value estimates derived from Card Ladder’s index-based price modeling.
Regarding the low pop high-end rookie card market, typically sales of those cards occur in two different settings. The first is through a high end auction, such as Goldin’s “Elite” Auction or PWCC’s “Premier” Auction. The second is through a private deal. If it’s the former, we rely on our vetting practices at the time of the sale to make an initial judgment, plus reference the marketplace’s historical database after the grace period has elapsed to modify the initial determination, if necessary. If it’s the latter, we apply the private transaction criteria described in the previous paragraph.
To be clear, despite our best efforts, we have made mistakes in both verifying and failing to verify transactions from marketplaces like PWCC and Goldin, but such mistakes are rare. When we do make a mistake, we promptly correct it as soon as we become aware of it. With respect to private transactions, we have only had one instance of incorrectly verifying a sale that later turned out to be inaccurate, and it was for a card worth a few thousand dollars.
It’s important to underscore that our research team only verifies sales of the ~37,000 cards that are currently in our Ladder database, not every sale in our Sales History database. Verified sales appear with a prominent green checkmark in our Sales History database, so that it’s easy to decipher which sales our team has verified, and which they haven’t.
A final thought on verifying sales: The integrity of our pricing information is a central focus of our business, and is one of the key factors that distinguishes us from other price guides, but collectors should not rely exclusively on our judgment. We provide direct links to every sale in our database so that our users can quickly evaluate transactions themselves. Card Ladder’s player indexes, category indexes, and sales histories are useful tools to reference in rendering a judgment as well. It would be prudent to consider as many relevant information sources as possible when evaluating the credibility of any sports card transaction.
SC Daily: How often do you run into a situation where you’re skeptical?
CM: As a matter of principle, we are skeptical 100% of the time. Moreover, even after we have verified a sale, and it satisfies all the criteria one would like to see satisfied, there is always the chance that it is later revealed to have been unpaid or that some sort of foul play was afoot.