Basketball Cards Are Having a Moment

Cards, packs and boxes are exploding in value overnight. What's behind the spike in interest? An inside look at a changing industry.
photo of DeMarco WilliamsDeMarco WilliamsSpecial to Bleacher ReportAugust 25, 2020

The headline was so eye-catching, so unexpected, that even coming amid the latest news about cities and sports leagues closing and reopening, you couldn't help but notice it.       

LeBron James Rookie Card Sells for Modern-Day Record $1.8 Million at Auction

You read that right. Nearly 2 million dollars. And it wasn't just the average B/R or People magazine reader, uninitiated in the trading card world, who was taken aback that a piece of 2½" x 3½" cardboard could fetch those kinds of funds. Even those in the industry couldn't believe it.

"I was blown away," says Matt Johnson, a card enthusiast and host of PSA Collector, a YouTube channel with more than 30,000 subscribers (PSA is short for Professional Sports Authenticator). "Basketball cards were never number one in the hobby. It was always baseball, then football, then basketball, then hockey. Now, all of a sudden, basketball is the number one sports card with the highest sales.

"It's crazy to see how quickly the sports card hobby can evolve and adapt and just switch up on you."

And this wasn't an isolated event. We're not just talking about LeBron cards, either. We're talking about the whole industry.

Take Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, for example. SGA's 2018-19 Panini Prizm PSA 10 base (standard cards in a set that don't get the special color or texture treatment) went from selling for $114.99 on eBay on April 29 to $400.00 on August 7, according to data tracking by Sports Card Investor's Market Movers tool.

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Or take a six-pack 2019-20 Panini Prizm NBA Basketball blaster box, which includes 24 cards total. It's selling for $299.99 on Amazon. At first glance, that might not mean much. But here's a bit of context: That same box originally retailed for $19.99 in December (and sold out instantly) and was selling at card shops for just $59.95 in late February. That's more than a 1,400 percent increase in eight months over the original price and 400 percent increase in six months over the premium price.

Or take Bol Bol. Before the 7'2" Nuggets rookie had 16 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks on July 22 in a win over the Wizards, he was making little noise in the trading card world. After the stat-stuffing exhibition, though, people couldn't get enough of him. In a matter of hours, eBay prices for his rookie cards went from laughable to "Honey, look at what this guy just paid for a 2019-20 Mosaic Pink Camo Prizm!"

It all goes to illustrate where the hobby is today. High prices in the hoops market. Unprecedented interest in football cards, too. Lots of product being moved in baseball and soccer.

Honestly, the best way to describe it is it's like the stock market and FanDuel going out for drinks, one thing leads to another and, well, here we are.

But exactly why is this market so ablaze?

There's a host of theories. Some experts say it's because sneaker flippers have moved from Off-White Sails to online card sales. (StockX, one of the biggest sneaker reselling platforms, has in fact gotten into the card exchange.) Others say it's the multitude of charismatic talents, like Luka Doncic and Trae Young, simply drawing folks in. Still others insist we're merely in a time when nostalgic collectors in their 30s and 40s are circling back to the hobby they loved as children.

And, of course, there's the COVID-19 effect. With an absence of actual games to watch and wager on for so long, people were forced to get their competitive fix in other ways.

"The moment that sports paused in the middle of March, my first thought was, 'Oh, damn. The sports card market is going to drop, and this is going to be bad,'" says Geoff Wilson, a tech entrepreneur and the founder of Sports Card Investor. "And it did go down for about two weeks. Right after sports paused in the second half of March, the prices of sports cards dipped about 30-40 percent across the board.

"Then April came and everything changed. It was the busiest month in the history of the sports card hobby. … And that goes back to the '80s and the '90s, when things were crazy. Every dealer I talked to was having a record month. I talked to dealers that had been open for 30 years, and in April they were twice as busy as they had been in any other month in the history of their 30-year sports card operation."

It gets to the point where the demand—and the money—doesn't even make sense. Johnson says in the case of the $1.8 million LeBron-autographed treasure, for example, the price didn't line up with the value.

(Some terminology to know: BGS is Beckett Grading Services, the authority along with PSA in card grading. When a card is graded, it's "slabbed" in a sturdy, tamper-proof plastic holder and can potentially earn a PSA 10, BGS 10 or BGS 9.5 for its sharp corners, centering and overall condition—and its value increases exponentially over an ungraded, or "raw," card. Serial-numbered cards are those with limited print runs, with the number after the slash being how many there are total in distribution—e.g., 23 for the LeBron card.)

"It was graded a BGS 9.5," Johnson explains. "Also, it was serial numbered 14/23, which is not the best card to get. The best card would be a 23/23, because it's [LeBron's] jersey number. I'm not really sure if $1.8 million was a good price. I think the buyer got in a bidding battle and just had a lot of money to burn."

Even if the circumstance behind a sale is somewhat flukish, though, the result is real.

"When a big card of a player goes for a record price, it often trickles down to other cards of that player," Wilson says. "LeBron's 2003 Topps Chrome rookie cards graded PSA 10 have reached $15,000. They were $6,000 only a couple months ago."

As the rush ensues, the grading can't even keep up with the demand.

According to its website, PSA says it rated fewer than 1.5 million collectibles in 2015. Through July, that number was already approaching 3 million items in 2020. The company says completed online grading submissions were up 188 percent in May from a monthly high earlier in the year.

As a result of the volume, PSA's already-slow turnaround time has gotten even more sloth-like. But to be fair, the whole collecting world seems to be playing catch-up. Things are happening so quickly that by the time Johnson has uploaded a new "Top 10 Basketball Cards to Buy Right Now" video, five other cards are vying for a spot on the same list.

It's no wonder players like Giannis Antetokounmpo are showcasing their own collections on social media or that influencers like Gary Vaynerchuk are getting in on the financial fun.

In fact, by the time you read this story, Vaynerchuk probably will have posted another video and taped at least two new podcast episodes on the topic. That's how passionate the savvy businessman has been about the hobby for the past year or so.

"I went out to dinner with Gary," says Adam Lefkoe, a Bleacher Report personality and reinvigorated collector, "and the first thing he said to me, he got right in my face and goes, 'I'm sure that we're going to have a great evening. You guys seem great. But I need you to know that you need to get into sports cards right now.'"

When Vaynerchuk, Lefkoe and others were younger, back in, say, the early '90s, there was a love for cards, but it wasn't very lucrative. There was no quick flipping for a dollar. If the Beckett Basketball Card Monthly said your '93 Upper Deck Michael Jordan was worth $8, you felt like a million bucks—even though your local card shop was the only place you could even get $4 for it. It was more about the hunt or trading with your friends.

Then came the reality that Upper Deck, Topps, Donruss and other imprints had flooded the card market with too much product, creating what's been infamously labeled the Junk Wax Era. Basically, your '90s collection wasn't worth the plastic box it was stored in.

But companies wised up. In the late 1990s, they began to embed game-used and event-worn material in some cards—like the patch of LeBron's jersey from his rookie year that was included in the $1.8 million card. In the 2000s, they leaned into limited-print colored and textured parallel versions of their base cards, which were rarer and thus more valuable. Today, the trading card behemoth Panini releases stained-glass variations, double-negatives and disco ball gems that leave collectors salivating.

Of course, not everyone can dole out $250 for a blaster or $1,100 for a 24-pack Prizm box. What's called a "group break" is a more affordable way in. With these, you pay a fee to be randomly assigned a team (or division, depending on the rules), and then a "breaker" opens the pack on Instagram Live or YouTube. You're shipped any card featuring a player from your team. Prices range from $30 to well into the hundreds, depending on the box's potential value. Some days, you luck into a $3,500 Zion Williamson. Others, you pull a $1 JJ Redick—or nothing.

"When you jump into a break room on YouTube, it opens up a whole new community for you," says Steve Rose, an online breaker for Steel City Collectibles. "You can just react at the same time [to the cards being revealed]. In our break room, whenever a customer hits a big card, everybody else is congratulating them in the chatroom. It just goes crazy. You hear congratulations for weeks."

An example? "I remember, with the first box [I opened], saying, 'OK, guys. We're going to pull a big Zion today,'" Rose continues. "In the first box, I pulled a Zion auto (autographed card) out of 10. Everybody was going nuts. The guy who hit it lives in North Carolina. We're in Pittsburgh. That's a distance, but he drove up the next day."

A similar autographed Zion card sold for more than $14,000 on eBay in early August. You'd gas it to the card shop for your prize, too.

Closer to home, Nick Yokoyama, Bleacher Report's director of content programming, has his own group-break success story. "I've actually hit a few good cards from group breaks in the last two months," Yokoyama says. "The best one was in a Sports Card Investor's Discord chat. The same day I joined the Discord, I saw there was a chat room for people doing group breaks. Even though I had no reason to trust these people at all, I found myself paying $150 to enter a 10-person group break of 2018 NBA Prizm Retail. Each person got three random teams, and I happened to hit the Mavericks.

"The [breaker] ended up pulling a Red, White and Blue [parallel] Luka Doncic rookie card, which is going for $2,000 in a PSA 10. Not bad for my first group break in a random Discord."

And then there are times when the breaker surprises himself with an impressive pull. The YouTuber known to his 46,000 channel followers as "Packman" generally has a calm tone when he's breaking on camera, but in mid-August, when he opened a hobby box of 2019-20 Panini Chronicles Basketball and scored a Flux Zion Williamson auto (reselling for nearly $1,200 on eBay), he couldn't contain himself.

"While I was too shocked to even process the pull during the video, I know my viewers were going crazy," Packman says. "When it finally hit shortly after I finished recording, the excitement was overwhelming. I don’t think I put the card down for the rest of the day. What's even crazier is that we pulled another Zion auto from the same product in our next group break."

With the NBA season restarting, interest in breaks and everything else surrounding the hobby might only grow. Think back to the Bol Bol outing and its instant impact on card sales. Now picture Michael Porter Jr. averaging 30 and 15 in a series, T.J. Warren dropping another 50 in a nationally televised game or, hell, even a new Jason Kidd documentary coming out. The possibilities for market triggers are seemingly endless.

So, too, are the potential pitfalls for this changing industry.

"I am very worried about a number of things," Lefkoe says. "I am worried about young people sending money over the internet and not getting the cards they asked for. I'm worried about the cards being altered. I'm worried about there being people already figuring out how to copy a PSA or BGS slab. I worry about trimming. I worry about coloring. Because, for me, we all want this to be pure. But when money is involved and greed takes over [things get messy]."

With so much profiting potential, though, the rewards may outweigh the risks.

"I think it's going to stay," says Rose of the hype surrounding hoops cards. "Proof of that is Kawhi Leonard. His stuff is high. It's just going to keep going as more and more players [become popular]. As they become stars, their stuff takes over. But it's going to be kinda weird in [the 2020-21 NBA season's] rookie chase, if there's no college basketball. Maybe a lot of guys won't play right away."

Or, maybe LaMelo Ball comes in, dominates and forces us to write all new headlines in the hobby.