What are my baseball cards worth?

Posted on January 25, 2015 by Collect TheHobby | 0 Comments

Sportscard valuation in the 21st century

We often get questions and comments around the pricing of sportscards in the current market.  It certainly can be very confusing at times these days. Most cards used to exclusively follow the prices guides or “book values”, today that is often not the case. Why do some sell for huge amounts and others sell for almost nothing? What impacts values today? What are my cards worth? How can I figure out a fair price for my collection? Are baseball cards or football cards worth more?  If you have these types of questions read on…

Our goal is to help put our experiences out there regarding valuation and pricing in today’s market. If you are new to collecting or haven’t been collecting for a long time, this blog post should be especially helpful to you to get a general sense.

Historically speaking

We aren’t going to cover all the details for this post, but you should have a general history as it does impact today’s values. Here we are 15% of the way through the 21st century and sportscard valuation today has been most significantly impacted by a bubble and technology in the past quarter of a century. It’s been 25 years. As you may know the height of sportscard collecting popularity was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sportscards first appeared in the late 19th century and have been collected since then to the present day. It was largely a simple hobby, mainly for children for decades until the 1970s. In the late 1970s many who collected started to make things more formal, documenting more and more sets, inviting more to collectors to catch the bug.

As the hobby began to mature and get more organized in the late 1970s and early 1980s more formal card shows, hobby stores, and manufacturers continued to appear. Subsequently more and more people began collecting cards than ever before. Nothing seemed to change the industry more overall at the time than the emergence of a price guide and hobby publication called Beckett Monthly. There were several price guides at the time, especially by the late 1980s, but Beckett was always the leader in our area, so most dealers and subsequently collectors bought, sold, and traded cards based on these values. The “book value” was synonymous with Beckett price guides.

Once values began to have more importance to everyone beyond collecting, a wave of “investors” flooded the hobby. Passing over the details, financial publications touted sportscards as viable investments for all. A very long story short, it became a bubble like many “investments” do. The hobby had turned into much more than a hobby for thousands of people by the late 1980s. Consequently, sportscards were produced in incredible numbers between 1987 and 1994. Some of the mainstream sets are still available by the case for very short money today. Even some of the sports most prominent superstars sell for very little today and were a bust as an “investment”.  

As baseball cards continued to be the lion’s share of the sportscard market, a major problem arose in 1994, the ugly baseball strike occurred. As with any bubble, events like this provide the spark for the crash, and everyone runs for the exits. The industry suffered tremendous losses after the strike. Large discounts to “book value” became popular for the first time. Values began to sink quickly, although some key vintage cards held up well considering. For many the mid-1990s was the end of their involvement with sportscards. Collectors who genuinely loved it, continued on, but the pure investors who had no interest left. A good portion of dealers survived, but the majority folded during the mid-1990s. Values plummeted for almost everything for a while. By 1998 the infamous McGwire and Sosa homerun chase brought some interest back, but it is unlikely to ever reach that level of popularity again. By the late 1990s technology started making its impact.

Technology changes the playing field

In 1995 with all kinds of new internet based sites being launched in the early days of another crash known as the dot-com bubble, an idea to create a platform for anyone to buy and sell from anyone else emerged into eBay. Even though there were many established ways to buy and sell cards, by the late 1990s eBay was really embraced by collectors. Collectors were suddenly given a 24/7 sportscard shop that would allow them easy access to cards all over the world.   Even more importantly, collectors could quickly sell their own sportscards and no longer needed a dealer to sell them. These changes, along with numerous other websites, changed the industry forever.

The supply and demand curves were completely upended and redrawn. Suddenly a card you used to call 4 local shops looking for to no avail was available all day online. You didn’t need to rummage bins looking for a couple singles at a show to complete your sets. You could just get on eBay and order them that day.   Some of the most valuable cards in the mid-1990s were serial numbered. A lower production such as 5,000 made them tougher to locate at your local store. Prior to eBay these cards had more demand than supply locally. The value changed really quickly as you may guess however, if suddenly there was 140 of them on eBay to choose from.   Now the supply was getting larger than the demand overall.  

The impact as you may expect, carried into sportscards throughout. Once you had a real challenge to find all the high numbers to many of the classic 1950s and 1960s Topps sets. You might do ok at a large regional show, but at your local show and sportscard outlet, it was very challenging to find some of these cards at times. When eBay got rolling in the late 1990s, these cards in low to mid-grades plummeted in price as they became so easy to locate anytime you wanted. Mass produced rookie cards of the late 1980s and early 1990s also collapsed in price. You can purchase Hall of Famers and likely future Hall of Famers today for a lot less than you could in 1989. Many sportscards worth hundreds back then can be had for less than $5 now. The “crash” was slow for some who ignored the Internet in the early years. In 2001 you could still find a shop charging old-fashioned values based on a “book value”, but today you cannot ignore how technology has permanently changed valuation.

Market size and product changes

As mentioned above the height of the crazy days in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, “investors” drove prices up at unrealistic rates, creating the bubble. The overall market was at its peak in those years. Part of why the sportscard industry is smaller today is because of these price gains… they carried into new products being released. By the early 1990s, leading with the famous 1989 Upper Deck set, packs moved into the $1 and up range. Prior to that new releases were inexpensive and targeted to children. Older packs began to become more expensive as investors continued to speculate.

As prices increased it swung to being more like the adult hobby it is today. By the late 1990s, children could no longer afford to join in for the most part. Manufacturers did try to make some lower cost products, but when the industry is focused on valuation, those sets couldn’t compete.   The most basic sets today will set you back several dollars per pack. That seems ok, but like many hobbies people will seek the “best” and those packs don’t usually feature the in demand cards in today’s industry.

Today’s industry features many products that are in the $100s per pack on release and that has frustrated many enough to move on.   Many of these products focus on people who love to gamble by providing chances to locate cards that may be worth thousands right out of the pack. It’s become more like the lottery. This situation also impacts values on all cards today, regardless of their original price point. With the global economy of recent years, many of these highly desirable products were out of many budgets. That has given way to the latest industry trend of “breaking” in case breaks and group breaks. This allows collectors to pool their money to break the more expensive products and get a chance at acquiring these expensive singles.  Breaking probably deserves another post explaining the mechanics, but for now it has to be mentioned as it has significant impact on the valuations of sportscards.

The other significant innovation has been sportscard grading. Several companies offer grading services today that will both authenticate your sportscards and rate them on a scale, assigning a number describing its condition. Once a card is graded it will be sealed in a tamper evident case to preserve the condition for years to come. You can easily see how a card rated a 7 is much nicer than a card with a grade of 2 when you have them side-by-side. Subsequently a 7 will sell for a lot more than a 2 of the same card. The older the set is, the more grades have skewed lower over the years.   With modern cards, many more have been well preserved compared to cards than are more than 50 years old. There are three established leaders in grading trading cards including PSA, BGS, and SGC. They are the most trusted for valuation purposes when sold. Numerous other grading companies exist, but they still do not see the same pricing premium as the big three.

Grading has had a tremendous impact on sportscard values as well. It has driven down values of off grade cards by bringing to light how common some can be, but the opposite has been true for high grade cards. The values of high grade cards are increased. This is especially in situations where a given card in a high grade is very challenging to locate. The impact of grading has also spread into modern cards as collectors seek to buy the nicest card they can find. It has really been felt in the world of complete set building. In many sets now you will at times see common cards outsell historically more expensive and more popular players. That is especially true in the top grades of historically condition sensitive cards.

So given that brief history, what determines value today?

In today's market there are several variables to consider that will impact the value of sportscards.  Here is a good list of the main ones and their typical impact to values.  There are always exception, but these are they keys:

  • Condition – this variable typically supersedes all else on most trading cards. Much like many other areas like classic cars, vintage instruments, or other fine art, the condition is a huge factor in value. Items with a certified rating of condition typically sell very well, and values exponentially rise as the condition gets better. Generally, buyers will pay more for better condition items if they have the option with more easily found items.
  • Scarcity – the rarity of a card is plays an important role and at times can trump condition if the rarity is extreme enough. When a sportscard is rare based on known examples historically or in today’s market limited production (commonly serial numbered), condition plays less of a role because the buyer is more flexible when it’s tough to locate. Mass produced cards tend to lose value for the most part, unless the player is exceptional.
  • Licensing – there have been numerous examples of black market and/or unlicensed sets that have been produced over the years. These usually hold a lot less value to buyers. Officially licensed sets tend to be more mainstream in distribution and acceptance. In today’s trading card markets some sets have some licenses, but not all and those are typically worth less than similar cards that are officially licensed.
  • Performance/Market – In current sportscards, recent performance is a big variable. Popularity can drive prices up quickly. In sports a player can break some records or have a stellar season and his values will tend to rise. On the other hand a bust season or series of poor play can crash values of newer cards. Vintage cards tend to have a more steady pricing trend and over the long run it has been increasing, especially with regards to very popular, rare, or higher grade condition.  The local market can determine valuations. Many great players in smaller markets will sell for less than bench player or prospects in the bigger markets. Some franchises in every sport have massive followings and their cards tend to have higher values for comparable players to smaller markets. The markets with large following have more stable pricing overall than smaller markets.  Basketball cards have the largest international audience and hockey cards are strongest in Canada.
  • Set – The price point of boxes and packs will influence prices and that typically varies from set to set. Singles from more expensive products tend to sell for more both because sellers will ask for more and buyers will be expecting to pay more for higher end sets. The sets with packs in the hundreds as we mentioned earlier, will be the cards that bring the biggest premiums when selling.
  • Attributes – Cards in today’s market can come out of packs autographed or feature game used memorabilia. Those cards will sell for more than traditional cards that do not feature those attributes. Refractors came to the market in 1993 and have become very popular. Today the refractors will come in colors as well. Many cards may be serial numbered to a certain print run.   The lower the run, the higher the value tends to be as that increases rarity in the market.

Final notes to value your cards

So given a little history and the main variables impacting values today, what steps do you need to take to value your cards? It’s not a black and white science anymore where you just find your card in a price guide and go with that value.

  • Identification – you need to know what cards you have. The common questions are: What player is it, what year were they made, who manufactured it, what set are they from? Most sets feature numerical order, card 1, card 2, card 3 and so on where each card is a different player or event or picture in a set. This is where price guides will still give you the most help such a Beckett monthly. They are great as checklists to help you identify what cards you have. In most sets the last year of stats on the reverse of the card are looking at the prior season. If it ends with 1982, it’s typically going to be a set from 1983. If it is 2001, it’s likely a 2002 card and so on. Many sets will have the year on them somewhere as well, on the front or the back, or both. Once you figure out which card(s) you have, you can value them.  The Standard Catalogs for each sport are the most comprehensive you can use as checklists.
  • Actual sales – while there are some still going with the “book values” we have discussed, most buyers and sellers today use actual sales history. This is typically using the popular venues like eBay or an auction houses and analyzing the ending sales prices on their previously sold cards. If you learn you have a 1975 (year) Topps (set) George Brett (player) you can use that data to value it roughly with eBay for example. If you search the closed auctions for prices and try to match the condition as best as you can, you can get a general idea of the actual value.  
  • Lastly - If you have a feeling that you may have some cards with a value in the hundreds or more, it makes a lot of sense to have a knowledgeable dealer or collector take another look at identification and assist you with condition if possible. This is highly recommended for a novice. It’s fairly painless now to take a few pictures with your smartphone and email them to someone who can help. You can easily attend a regional card show or visit your local hobby store with your cards.

Need more information?

We hope this post gives you a good general idea of how sportscards are valued.  If you still need help with looking at your sportscards, feel free to contact us. We would also welcome some comments below if you have any other questions or thoughts on this post.  For more information, like us on facebook, follow us on twitter, instagram, or pinterest!

Posted in Buying and Selling, Collecting Tips, Welcome!


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