By: Alexander Wildes  | 

Sports Cards and COVID-19

When I was younger, I was fascinated with basketball cards and spent many Shabbat afternoons over the years trading cards with other kids from my community. When talking to my father about my cards, he would reminisce and tell me all about the basketball cards he had when he was a kid (including his favorite player, Julius “Dr. J” Erving). Yet, my father would never let me see them, as he was always protective of his cards — they were stored in my grandparents’ house in a “climate-controlled” area, and he was afraid that they would get damaged by being handled.

So, when my father decided to show me the boxes of sports cards a few months ago, I was pleasantly surprised. While looking through them, I found many basketball Hall of Fame players, such as Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Clearly, these cards had a lot of sentimental value to my father, and, out of curiosity, I sent a picture of the cards to my friend who buys and sells sports cards in order to see if they had any real value. While I always thought the cards were just collectibles and fun to trade, I had no idea just how high-priced my father’s cards could be.

On the outside, the sports card industry seems to be a very niche market; only people who enjoy a particular sport would be willing to buy cards of that sport, and a vast majority of sports fans do not care about cards. However, the sports card and memorabilia industry is valued at around $5.4 billion, and that number continues to rise. The question is: Why is the market so large? Who cares about a flimsy piece of cardboard?

Why would someone shell out $3 million for the ball that Mark McGuire hit for his record-breaking 70th home run of the season, or $11,000 for the hockey stick from Wayne Gretzky’s final game? It is the same reason why millions of other sports items are sold; sports memorabilia is the perfect way for fans of a sport to grasp a piece of history. 

This concept also has applications outside of sports, as pieces of the Berlin Wall, coins from the Roman era and newspapers from 9/11 are sold, simply because people want to own a piece of history. Those who have a connection to a certain time period or a specific topic, such as sports, buy items like this in order to feel as if they are a part of a greater event, tragedy or triumph. As nostalgia marketing continues to dominate the current advertising market, the sports paraphernalia market is an embodiment of what nostalgia marketing aims to achieve. 

After I sent my friend pictures of some of my father’s cards, he quickly video-chatted me back with a gaping mouth and wide eyes, and then told me exactly how much some of the cards were worth. Many of the cards, such as the Kareem Abdul Jabbar, were recently sold for a few hundred dollars, although one card in particular stood out; Dr. J, my father’s favorite player. At the very least, the card was selling for $500, and graded cards (cards that have been inspected for quality, rated out of 10) that were graded a 10/10 were sold for as much as $25,000. It turns out that the Topps 1972 Dr. J card (of which my father has two) is widely considered to be his rookie card (a card made for a player’s first season), which is typically worth much more than other years’ cards because it is the first type of memorabilia depicting the player.

Interestingly, though, the cards that my dad had seemed to all be selling at higher prices than what grading agencies listed as the average prices. Why were they selling for more than the stated values?

A possible explanation is that COVID-19 was the best thing to happen to the sports card industry. Since COVID-19 hit, people have spent more time in their homes, and many chose to spend that time doing deep house cleans and going through old boxes and spaces, stumbling upon their old sports cards in the process and bringing back waves of nostalgia. During this time, sports fans may also have gotten bored with the lack of sports on television (just about every major sports league shut down) and decided to look through their old sports cards to get their dose of athletic entertainment. Whatever the reason, people looked through their old cards, and their love for their memorabilia was reinvigorated. 

As a result, many famous, expensive and rare cards were found and subsequently put on the market. This allowed card collectors access to many of these forgotten gems. On the flip side, other people decided that they wanted to buy cards, whether to supplement their collections with older legends, to relive their childhood by opening packs featuring newer stars or to buy packs and boxes to keep unopened for a long time, expecting a high return on investment.

Thus, we see the most basic economic principle in action: supply and demand. While the supply of older cards and newer cards may have slightly gone up, the demand has jumped up exponentially to the point that a box of 88 cards from this year sells for close to $200, while a few years ago I could buy that year’s 88-card box for around $20. 

I am now going to keep my cards that I collected over the years in “climate-controlled” areas because if the value of sports cards keeps going up, my financial future will be a lot brighter.

Photo Caption: Alexander’s basketball cards
Photo Credit: Alexander Wildes