It’s an interesting time to be a card collector, that’s for sure.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States and started shutting down states and companies in March, workers were forced to adhere to stay-at-home guidelines. Card collectors who were working from home had more time on their hands, possibly had more money in their pockets from not going out, and had a computer at their disposal 24 hours a day.
Naturally, collectors started doing a little more surfing online for cards, and eBay quickly became one of the big businesses that benefitted.
Trading card sales increased more than 50 percent on eBay from March to May, according Nicole Colombo, eBay’s General Manager of Focus Verticals, a division that includes trading cards.
“There’s been a consistently upward trajectory in terms of sports trading cards popularity on eBay over the past decade, but since shelter-in-place began in March, collecting has only continued to grow,” Colombo told Sports Collectors Digest. “It really was the coalescing of many factors, including the delay in MLB and NBA seasons, and people spending more time at home, in need of ways to spend their time and celebrate their passion for sports.”
Having trading card sales up in 2020 follows a steady trend for eBay. Over the last 15 years, sales have risen by 97 percent in the marketplace. Even just five years ago, trading cards are 75 percent more popular amongst eBay shoppers, noted Colombo.
The same heavy traffic for cards can be said for PWCC, which has sold through eBay since 1998.
“Business has been pretty wild,” said Jesse Craig, PWCC’s director, business development. “Nobody knew what to expect once everything started shutting down, but this is the opposite what the majority of us thought would happen. Record numbers for auctions, and our vault volume has more than tripled.”
Basketball cards have above and beyond become the most popular trading cards on eBay since the fourth quarter of 2019. Sales have spiked by 130 percent for basketball in just under one year.
When ESPN started airing its 10-part docuseries in mid-April on the Chicago Bulls and its dynasty, Michael Jordan trading cards shot up 285 percent on eBay over the same week the previous month. From March to May, MJ card sales went up by 370 percent.
“Cultural moments like ‘The Last Dance’ are absolutely contributing factors to growth in the category,” noted Colombo.
Colombo said a memorable moment for the Trading Cards Division at eBay happened in February 2019. That’s when a 1997 Metal Universe Precious Metal Gems (Green) Michael Jordan sold for $350,100. That is still the record for the most expensive basketball trading card to ever sell on eBay.
“The growth can also likely be attributed to the lack of regularly scheduled official sports and fans looking for new ways to get their fix,” Colombo said. “For example, ahead of the NBA season and new rookies hitting the court, collectors increased their investments in cards for players like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, whose sales have increased 115 percent and 200 percent, respectively, since March.”
Colombo wasn’t entirely surprised when the pandemic hit and traffic on eBay started rapidly increasing.
“We were interested and excited to see what was appealing to our shoppers,” Colombo said. “Even now, people view trading cards as investments and are willing to spend large amounts of money on items that are not only important to them personally but to the trading card community as a whole.”
PWCC has certainly felt the basketball card craze during the pandemic. Craig said it started to cool off as the season wrapped up.
“Each sport typically dips 10-15 percent in the offseason but picks up when the season starts up again,” Craig said. “Soccer has also been on a drastic rise. The economics behind soccer make complete sense -- low supply, high demand as the most popular sport in the world.”
Baseball and football cards have also been hot on eBay. Since 2019, baseball sales are up 50 percent and football up 47 percent.
Every sport is witnessing record prices on eBay and through the biggest auction houses. A 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan PSA 10 sold for $96,000 through Heritage Auctions on May 7. Just 19 days earlier, the same card and grade went for $51,600. In August, a 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan SGC Pristine 10 went for a record $420,000 at Heritage Auctions. On July 18, a LeBron James 2003-04 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection Patch Parallel numbered 14/23, graded BGS 9.5 and 10 autograph, sold through Goldin Auctions for $1.8 million. Since Kobe Bryant’s unexpected death in January, card prices for his rare finds have been exponentially higher.
“Fans pay tribute to sports stars, like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, as well as their own fandom by purchasing merch and trading cards,” Colombo said. “People are willing to pay high prices to own something special.”
As for baseball, card investor Dave Oancea turned his Mike Trout 2009 Bowman Chrome autographed Superfractor into a big-time return on investment (ROI). After purchasing the 1/1 card for $400,000 two years earlier, Oancea sold it through Goldin Auctions for a record-breaking $3.936 million on Aug. 23.
“EBay is truly a cultural barometer -- what’s trending in culture almost always translates in some way to traffic on our platform,” Colombo said. “We see this especially after a major trading card sale, which often sparks more interest from other collectors. I already mentioned the Michael Jordan example, but another one that comes to mind was a recent sale of a collectible, non-sports trading card. One eBay seller sold two ‘Magic: The Gathering Alpha Black Lotus’ cards for $200,00 and $250,000, respectively, and the sales garnered global attention. Of course, this applies to sports, too. Searches and sales for Tom Brady, LeBron James and other popular players often spike after one of their high-priced cards sell on the marketplace.”
When vintage cards were once king, modern-day cards have certainly taken a step forward, especially this year. It is cards produced in the last 35 years that are hitting new heights.
“This is the prospecting/gambling aspect of our market, which has become very prevalent and really been the catalyst over the past six months that has helped push our industry as a whole,” Craig said. “More people are coming in and anticipating the new ‘GOAT’ for each respective sport, hoping to cash in on the future demand for their cards. Big potential ROI with these active players, but you can also take it in the teeth if you are wrong. The risk is injury or some sort of off-the-field incident which will have a significantly negative affect on their cards. We look at vintage or guys that are retired as much more blue-chip pieces. Their career is over and (their) legacy fairly cemented, investing is based on simple economics at that point and not prospecting.”
Although Colombo can’t share exact numbers in the trading card category, she said for eBay as a whole, annual active buyers grew by 5 percent in the second quarter of 2020. That’s an addition of approximately 8 million customers in one quarter alone to give eBay a total of 182 million active buyers globally.
“Given the resurgence of trading cards at the beginning of the pandemic, it’s safe to assume there are new customers contributing to the trading card vertical, whether they are buying or selling from novice to seasoned collectors,” Colombo said.
Colombo also can’t shell out specifics on eBay’s total sales this year and where trading cards rank within the company’s other divisions, but she can say trading cards are a big portion of company.
“Trading cards are consistently one of our top categories and most passionate communities,” Colombo said. “From sports trading cards, collectible card games to non-sports trading cards, we see different customers from flippers to hobbyist shopping our wide selection on the hunt to score exactly what they want.”
Since eBay continues to have solid traffic online for trading cards, Colombo doesn’t foresee the craziness in the industry to drop off anytime soon.
“Speaking for our marketplace, there is no sign of the trading card community slowing down and our hope is that fans will continue to turn to eBay to build their collections,” Colombo said. “As daily life continues to evolve and people start thinking about the holidays and gifts for themselves and others, we anticipate sales and investment purchases to remain strong.”
Craig is quick to second Colombo’s opinion. He doesn’t see the hobby slowing down because of all the new players in the market.
“I was on the fence for a little while, but the metrics we are seeing from a new buyer perspective are staggering,” Craig said. “That said, whenever anything goes up as significant as cards have the past six months, there is almost always a correction. What this does do, though, is reset the baseline. A card that was $1,000 might go up to $7,000 or $8,000 as a peak and then settle down at $4,000-$5,000. That is what I am seeing for cards that are more commodities. The truly rare cards that don’t change hands very often seem to be an exception to this. When you see one available, typically you have to pay up because you know you won’t see it for a while. These rare pieces are getting gobbled up by investors and collectors that are plenty wealthy and don’t need to sell, hence keeping demand extremely high.”