To sports card collectors, Bob Means may have one of the coolest jobs in the hobby.
As Director of Trading Cards for eBay, the largest card seller in the world, Means has his pulse on the fastest growing segment of the sports collectibles industry. And he has witnessed first-hand the sports card boom that re-ignited the hobby in 2020-21.
Like the buyers and sellers who trade billions of cards on eBay each year, Means is a collector, too. Just not a very good one.
“I am a terrible collector,” he says with a laugh. “I am really good at buying cards because I think they look cool and finding out that they are not worth that much money.”
In truth, Means is the type of collector that drives the hobby, an industry that has enjoyed unprecedented growth the past two years. He collects not to make a quick buck or launch a new business, but to remember his childhood years following the San Francisco Giants and collecting cards of his heroes and favorite players.
“I have had a lot of fun going back and finding the cards from my youth, the Topps packs that I was opening back in the early ’80s,” he said. “The funny thing about trying to complete sets, it’s not the good players that are hard to find. Sometimes you have to go dig through the nickel boxes and the 25-cent boxes to find that shortstop who played 16 games in a season. But those have been fun to do and those hit me hard from a nostalgic perspective.”
It is that type of nostalgia that launched the latest sports card boom during the pandemic in 2000 and early 2001 as millions of trading card enthusiasts rediscovered their passion for collecting. Means has felt that same pull while presiding over the largest trading card marketplace in the industry.
“When I pull that Jeffrey Leonard card or Will Clark or Wille McCovey, who was one of my heroes growing up, all those memories being at the ballpark with my family and being at Candlestick Park freezing and eating cold hot dogs, it all comes back, and that is really powerful,” he said. “At the same time, because of all the expertise we have at eBay, I am learning more about all the high-value cards and I am starting to dabble in some of the more valuable ones as more of an investment piece or to hand to my kid or a long-term investment kind of thing.
“I would be one of those collectors who wants to hold things for a long period of time. I’m not necessarily doing it to try to make a buck, I’m doing it because I think the cards are beautiful.”
Means presides over a business that sells billions of trading cards each year. eBay sold more than 45 million trading cards 2020. It doubled that number in the first six months of 2021, approaching nearly $3 billion in sales.
As the hobby has grown, so has eBay’s trading card business, which has implemented several new programs in the past year to help consumers and protect collectors. Its new vault service provides collectors with secure storage for cards, while its Authenticity Guarantee requires high-end raw and graded cards to be graded and certified.
Means sat down with SCD’s Jeff Owens and Greg Bates at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Atlantic City to talk about eBay’s new programs and the current state of the trading card market.
What led to all the new programs you have instituted, like the Authenticity Guarantee, and how important are those to eBay’s business?
“They are all important. We kind of look at them as a suite of tools. We have the vault, which we just launched back in June. Prior to that we had the Authenticity Guarantee. … But we also have this other suite of tools, our price guidance, our collection manager, image scan listings, which we want to move out to sports trading cards. We are building a suite of tools for the collector to use how they want. And there’s different types of collectors, so we need to have tools that are flexible and usable by different people.”
A lot of companies are adding vault storage to their services. What prompted eBay to go in that direction?
“We talked to a lot of people here who say, ‘I would never want to use a vault because I want to have the cards in my hand.’ And I get that, that’s super cool. But eventually those Zion [Williamson] cases start to stack up and take up a lot of room in the back of the garage. There could be a point in time where someone starts to realize, you know what, I might be better off with these in a secure location for long-term storage. There’s the guy who might be holding a card for a short-term gain and then might want to flip it. … We have a lot of collectors where you’ve got 10 cards and you sell all of them so you can buy one very nice card, and eventually … you do it again and buy an even nicer card. It’s that consolidation and resale and rebuy and all that, so the vault is a component of a greater buy-sell-trade model that we are working toward.
“We want to get to a point where the vault, it’s zero storage fees, zero seller fees, so once you get a card in there and if you decide to sell, fulfillment is going to take care of that for you, you are not going to touch the card. Once it is in there, it’s out of your hands until you want to withdraw it and bring it back to yourself for some reason. But if it’s in the vault, the assumption is it’s staying there for a long time, or you are selling it to somebody else, then we hope someone else leaves it in the vault, but they can take it out at purchase as well.”
Some are happy with the Authenticity Guarantee, but others don’t really want that. Is there an option to bypass that and not send a card to CSG for grading or certification?
“Right now, there is not an option. … I hear it … to be fair, I hear it most on the graded cards, because there is a question as to why is my already graded card going through a second step. But we have reasons to want that. … It has to go through AG before it can go into the vault. We have to make sure before anything goes into the vault that it is the card that someone said it was. We want to make sure that the events in Dallas a year ago, where someone was doing some pretty well-done fake PSA slabs, scary stuff … we want to make sure there is no chance that anything like that could ever get into the vault, trade hands six or seven times and we finally find out that it wasn’t [what it was supposed to be]. … That can’t happen, and we won’t let it happen. That’s one of the reasons why we have everything go through AG.”
Have you caught any fake slabs or anything like that so far?
“No, which has been great. We always work diligently to look for these things. We partner with PSA and all of the grading companies and if they see something that they think is suspicious, they tell us and we take actions on those. I have my own team that is keeping their eye out at all times. The one thing that is great about the hobby is that there are a lot of people that want to see the hobby work. And so, even people that you would consider competitors, they will come to me and say, ‘Hey, I see something sketchy on your site.’ I’ll look into it and we’ll get rid of it if it’s bad.”
As the hobby has gotten bigger, there are obviously a lot of sketchy people in the hobby who are trying to pass stuff off and take advantage of collectors. How important was it to strengthen your security measures and protect customers?
“For the vault, security is the very first thing. By security we mean, the temperature is going to be perfect, the humidity is going to be perfect, the security of the card once it’s in there has to be the absolute most important thing we do. Then we have to build out. Is the tool easy to use? Can people enroll easily? Do we have the appropriate two-factor authentication to protect the account, etc., etc.? But it starts with, is the card safe?
“But broader, outside of the vault, trust is incredibly important to us. And you are right, as things become bigger and people start seeing news stories about how big the hobby is getting, that brings in a different element of people as well. And we know that there are people out there that would try to take advantage of rules that are put out there to create the best positive environment. One of the examples is last year we changed the return policy because we were at 30 days, and 30 days is just too long with a trading card, especially with the way the market was last year where [Steph] Curry hits 60 points in a game and his cards go up 20 percent in value overnight.
“That was unfair to both sides, because on one side you could have people who wouldn’t sell a card because it suddenly popped in value, even though somebody tried to buy it. On the flip side, you have someone holding a card and on Day 29 sending it back and saying they don’t want it anymore, which we know those were not appropriate for the hobby. So we changed that; we are allowing all of our sellers to remain top-rated stores without having free returns. For every other category out there at eBay, if you are selling vacuums, you have to offer returns to be a top-rated store. We needed a different policy that was specific to trading cards, so we built one. That is an example of us constantly working on the trust initiatives that we need to do. We have got more work to do. We are going to really start unlocking buyer vetting, we are going to really continue to work on UPI (unpaid items) reductions. Really frustrating for the sellers to have a sale occur and the person just disappears into the ether. All those things are important to us to continue to work on.”
Obviously, you can’t completely avoid bad transactions. How frustrating is it when something does go wrong?
“The hard thing is … at eBay we do millions of transactions every day and we do millions of successful transactions every day, but the one or two that go south, they punch well above their weight. They are frustrating for everybody. They are frustrating for eBay, they are frustrating for the seller. And then it spreads. And if you have a bad buying experience, that spreads as well. If you buy a who cares and a whatever shows up, that doesn’t feel good, and then suddenly the seller disappears. We can’t have those kind of things. Consistent trust policies are going to be important for us to continue adapt specific to the hobby.
“Trading cards are like the tip of the spear. The entire collectible category, everything, vinyl records, stamps, coins, comics, toys, all them behave very similar to trading cards, trading cards is just the biggest one. We have to have the appropriate policies for all of them, for sports memorabilia. If you buy a game-used jersey and it turns out not to be a game-used jersey, what’s the policy that is appropriate for that category. So we are really using trading cards as the, let’s get this right and then let’s expand outward. And that includes the vault. We see down the road the vault being something that a jersey could be sitting in, maybe some art could be sitting in there.”
Was there a point in the last few years where you were seeing a rash of fakes and sketchy stuff and maybe things like that were getting out of hand and you said, we have to clean this up?
“I wouldn’t say it was a rash. As a percentage of our business, it is very, very small where we have caught weird things that happen. But even on a small percentage, when you get on a scale of our trading card business, from an absolute perspective, it actually starts to become a very big number. There’s a bunch of stuff that has happened and we have embarked on a thing at eBay called verticalization. … Ten years ago, eBay thought of itself as very much a horizontal organization, and what I mean by that is a phone case is a trading card is a comic book is a train set. It was a platform that was sort of agnostic to what is was selling. What we are trying to do here is actually think about what is right for this particular category. We are doing the same thing with sneakers, we are doing the same things with watches. We just did Authenticity Guarantee for jewelry. There are categories that there are additional steps that are necessary to protect the integrity of those businesses. That’s what our eBay customers are starting to see, whether they are into sports trading cards or they happen to be into sneakers. They are seeing us take those extra steps to make sure that it is great for the sellers and it’s great for the buyer.”
You had an issue about a year ago with shill bidding and you banned one of your largest sports card sellers from eBay. Are some of these programs you have put into place preventing that now or reducing the possibility of that happening again?
“Yes, there are things happening behind the scenes to help us identify when these things are happening. The way we think about it, there are sort of two kinds of events that happen out there. One is the self-serving event where someone might be using their kid’s account or a second account to bid on their own thing just to try to drive that price up, and we know how to look for that. And the other one is the person who is trying to keep the prices high, just throwing bids on stuff. And this is where I talk about unpaid items because that gameplan is to throw enough bids out that takes the price to $1,000 or something, and then that person will never buy. And the market right now is trying to pull some prices back down and the analogy for me is, if I buy some Apple stock and it goes down, I either eat that loss or I hold it. In some ways, trading cards are the same thing and we’ve got tools to sniff out the people that are doing either one of those kind of events.”
What are you seeing from a market perspective?
“We are definitely seeing some downward pressure of the top cards, and top cards could be anything from a $25 card to a $25,000 card a year ago. The market is trying to pull some of those things back down. We are also seeing some of the new, innovative things come out and still create that sort of crazy energy and hype. But you have a couple of things that happened. All the graders got through all the backlogs, so here comes all this inventory. Supply and demand 101. There are now a lot of Luka [Doncic] cards out there and there are now a lot of Trae Young cards out there and they are highly graded because they are getting ripped and shipped and then graded right away. … Now all these cards are all coming back fairly highly graded because they are going from packs to PSA or SGC or to whoever.
“I think there is demand, [but] I think there is supply that is pushing price down, I don’t think it’s a demand issue. We still have tons of traffic, we still have tons of buyers, we still do tons of velocity, so we are pretty comfortable with the health of our over-arching business right now.”