Dave Rivetto said he had a customer come into his suburban Detroit sports card shop recently and ask to buy an entire case of the new Topps Pristine Baseball product that had just dropped. Then he offered to buy the entire store for seven figures.
Grand Slam Sports Shop has sat since 1989 in the elbow of an unassuming, L-shaped strip mall in Sterling Heights, Mich., about a half hour north of Detroit. It’s one of the few such shops left in the country.
No, was Rivetto’s answer, on both counts.
“I could retire and walk away right now, but I told him no,” he said.
Why turn down life-changing money — especially as faint cracks begin to appear in the overall card industry?
The answer is simple: Because the sports card market in recent years already meant a fire hose of cash coming into Rivetto’s store as longtime adult buyers line up before the store opens to get their hands on the latest products. The money is simply too good to give up, even for more than a million bucks right now. Nor does he want to sell all of the best new cards to one buyer.
“It’s not about the money for me, it’s the principle. I need product for customers, not just one person,” Rivetto said. He said he expects to make even more money when Topps gets the NFL and NBA card licenses back from Panini in a few years, because his shop gets more Topps inventory to sell.
Question is, how long will the good times last? Is the card boom starting to decline?
Not an easy question to answer because the evidence is a mix of ongoing success but also some price declines from their peak in 2020-21.
The sports card industry has been especially healthy since about 2015-16. It learned its lessons about overproduction and adopted the strategy of artificial scarcity to drive demand. The pandemic then put it into overdrive — consumer sales and resales but also deep-pocket investors putting money into card businesses — while fueling a wave of predictions that an economic bubble was inflating to impossible-to-sustain proportions.
That said, there’s no suggestion that the trading-card market faces a seismic implosion on par with the mid-1990s industry collapse that stemmed from mind-boggling over-production and a proliferation of card shops across the country. Much of the industry disappeared or was consolidated amid bankruptcy, and the nation’s estimated 10,000 card shops shrunk to maybe 1,000.
What is happening now, those within the industry told The Athletic, is that some cards are coming down in price — market corrections, mostly in resale — and the overall market is slightly cooling off of 2021’s record year for retail and resale.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, some say. Prices coming down can mean more collectors and investors can get into the hobby — especially kids, a consumer category somewhat left behind as the card industry focused on more expensive products.
The multi-billion-dollar card market isn’t a monolith. There are new retail products but also plenty of vintage cards that can range in price from a few bucks to millions of dollars. Demand can vary within those sub-markets — which is why we see major card-industry companies adding products and services, such as grading and storage, to meet the demand that remains white-hot.
The high-end products remain in demand, even more so than in the earlier boom times, said Adam Martin, co-owner of Dave & Adam’s Card World near Buffalo, N.Y. It’s said to be the world’s biggest seller of card boxes after Walmart and Target.
“(High-end demand) remains insane. It’s still the best it’s ever been. There are absolutely collectors, speculators, breakers who still have lots of money to spend, and still are looking for something better to put their money into outside of the stock market,” Martin said. “On the flip side, the more affordably priced items — unopened boxes, graded rookies that are not truly rare — the market on them is very soft right now.”
Why a softening in that segment?
“A lot of people came into the hobby when they were stuck at home,” Martin said. “The world has now improved. A lot of people who jumped in then, they’ve not continued.”
Inflation, gas prices, and other economic factors are sidelining some collectors, he added, and some people are worried about their financial future amid all that’s going on in the country and world.
“If we’re going into a recession, and a lot of experts think we are, these are the kind of collectors for whom cards aren’t a priority anymore when they have to pay their mortgage,” Martin said. “We’re seeing less spending on something that isn’t a necessity.”
Buyers who see cards as an alternative investment category like fine art, rare wine and luxury automobiles, continue to spend serious money on the hobby, he said.
For example, Panini’s National Treasures brand of baseball cards hit stores recently, one of the most expensive modern card products on the market. Each case includes four boxes and a total of 40 cards, and the case is priced at $18,000 to $20,000, Martin said.
Confirmed! The “High End Case Break” for the Prizm VIP level ticket holders at the Prizm #NFT party, Fri night at @nsccshow in AC will be a full case of NT Basketball!
Only 10 tickets remain at this level, which guarantee a spot in the break! Tickets Here https://t.co/IiW6H5YZLh pic.twitter.com/fmQvtJBaIg
— Panini America (@PaniniAmerica) July 24, 2022
And it sells, especially to case-breaking businesses (which buy cases of cards to open on live streams after having sold the chance at certain teams or players to investors).
“In the world of online breaking, in high-end collecting, this is one of the most sought-after baseball cards each year,” Martin said. “This is the best of the best.”
Even with some prices returning to Earth, Martin said the card industry remains healthy. That optimism was echoed by Ryan Cracknell, an editor with venerable trading card industry magazine Beckett.
“While prices seem to be slipping on some singles (some common ones significantly) and supply seems to be increasing at the retail level, I do believe that the hobby is still in a strong place,” Cracknell said via email. “You can probably find evidence on either side to say that some segments are struggling, and others are thriving, but that’s the nature of the industry. There’s always some flux happening.”
He explained how a market adjustment is risky for some but opens the hobby to others.
“If there’s any part that’s at risk, I suspect it would be those looking to make some quick profits. Margins are shrinking and collectors seem to be getting more selective in what they buy. That’s not ideal for speculators, so some of them may move on,” Cracknell said. “What’s left, though, are a core group of collectors who are here because they enjoy it. I think that’s a good thing. When prices are too high, it limits access. If some aspects are settling down and people have an easier time finding things in their budget, that can be encouraging.
“The trajectory can’t always be going up. I think for the last while some aspects have been a little too high. A correction should make things more stable and give a true reflection of where we’re at. Again, a good thing.”
Jason Howarth, vice president of marketing at Panini America — the primary seller of licensed NFL and NBA cards until those licenses shift to Topps in coming years — acknowledged demand softness in some market segments but also laid out reasons for optimism.
“The weekly events that take place on the field, court or front office draft room have always been the driving force behind this industry,” he said. “There has been no shortage of buzz lately with the recently completed NFL and NBA Drafts and the MLB First-Year Player Draft … along with the upcoming World Cup.
“The hobby market continues to see exceptionally strong prices for wax boxes, which is all being driven by consumer demand. Single-card sales of key rookies and short-print inserts have maintained their momentum in both football and basketball.”
Panini continues to sell out top releases in not only hours but sometimes minutes, Howarth said.
“The retail market continues to be extremely strong,” he said. “We have not seen any ‘correction’ in terms of sell-through from the retail perspective as unit sales are actually up double digits over last year.”
Topps, perhaps the most iconic card maker, was bought by licensed sports apparel and merchandise giant Fanatics for $500 million in January. For several years, Topps has tried to adapt to market conditions by developing things such as its on-demand short-run Topps Now cards, digital cards, specialty cards created by artists, custom cards, pop-culture collectibles and a diversified licenses portfolio beyond sports.
The 2022 class is inducted into the Hall of Fame! Find these #ToppsNOW moments from the ceremony and many more from last nights action!https://t.co/oXMT9CBTBO pic.twitter.com/UChWvoePxg
— Topps (@Topps) July 25, 2022
The manufacturer also is adding more hobby stores to its direct-supplier program that exists outside the hobby’s longtime arrangement of middle-man suppliers, said Dave Leiner, a Topps vice president and global general manager.
“We saw a lot of healthy trends in our business accelerate,” Leiner said. “We got really strong tailwind in the back half of 2020. The growth and the strength of demand in the industry remains incredibly healthy. Day in and day out, retail remains strong. There was a time where we couldn’t keep stock on shelf.”
While the market for some retail and resale cards has softened, Topps hasn’t slashed any prices for the products it sells to retailers or middlemen.
“No prices have some down in how we’re pricing,” Leiner said, noting that Topps products range from $1 card packs to $30,000 boxes.
Jesse Craig, director of business development at major card-resale business PWCC Marketplace, said price declines are the market right-sizing — which he views as a positive for the industry.
“This is a correction PWCC has expected to see since the boom that began in 2020,” he said via email. “It is also a market condition we believe is necessary to indicate that trading cards are further establishing themselves as a viable asset class. We want to see this space behaving in ways you would expect any other alternative investment to act.”
The cards most affected by price declines are ultra-modern and high-risk offerings such as rookies or younger players who have yet to firmly establish their careers, he said.
“Cards that are viewed as ‘commodities’ — cards that lack a level of scarcity or rarity to them — are also going to be impacted. If supply is high and you know you can get the same card in a month or two, many will just wait to monitor the market,” Craig said.
PWCC also brokers card deals that run into the millions of dollars. That remains unaffected, he said.
“We’ve had a similar number of seven-figure deals at PWCC closed when compared through the same time frame of 2021. In all of 2021 we had five seven-figure sales in public auctions. Through six months of 2022, we’ve had three,” he said. “Those numbers don’t take into account PWCC’s private sales, of which we only announce ones where the buyer approves of an announcement.”
🚨Most ever paid for a Kobe card🚨
This record-setting Kobe Bryant Green PMG sold for $2 Million in a private sale!🔥 pic.twitter.com/1o7cFJA5um
— PWCC (@PWCCmarketplace) February 22, 2022
Another card market economic indicator is how many potential buyers and sellers are using services such as PWCC.
“PWCC is currently seeing about 15,000 new sign-ups on its platform each month,” Craig said. “That number has been steadily growing over the course of the year. We are also seeing a strong pickup in the number of bidders and buyers month-to-month and week-to-week across all marketplaces. This tells us that while it might not be white-hot like it has been, the desire to take part in the market is still growing.”
Craig also said PWCC believes the overall health of the market is positive based on internal key data points. PWCC’s data shows that its tracked cards have held their value amid several recent market crashes from 2018 through this spring.
“Over the three most recent market crashes, sports cards have held a stable value. While the S&P 500 fell by an average of nearly 17 percent and bonds took a small hit, sports cards actually saw overall positive returns,” he said. “During high inflation periods, sports cards have either held their value or offered an annual growth rate as high as 95 percent.
“Not only have sports cards offered stability in the midst of economic crises, but they’ve also proven lucrative when held over periods of one year or more. Over the last five years, sports cards have increased in value by 218 percent, outperforming nearly every other asset aside from cryptocurrency.”
A popular sports card industry chronicler on Twitter called Card Purchaser (he asked The Athletic not to use his name because people in his real life don’t know he runs the account), has kept a close eye on the bubble risk and noticed some trends.
“Enthusiasm for cards has slowed down and collectors and investors are now more focused,” he said. “The collectors who joined in 2020 and 2021 now have more experience and are spending their money more carefully. Card companies have increased supplies and now cards are readily available almost anywhere. The overall economy hasn’t helped either. The average collector has higher gas prices and other costs eating into their budget. There will always be deals out there, it just takes more time to find them now.”
While he’s noted that there will always be individual cards or sealed boxes that hold their value, resale prices on some products lately have noticeably dropped — partly as buyers have caught onto sellers over-hyping products.
“WWE Prizm hobby boxes were $800 or so at release … $408 (recently) at auction on eBay with free shipping,” he said. “The resale groups that flip and set prices are leaving collectors holding the bag. A lot of hobby influencers involved in hyping up products that don’t have any value. It’s hard for stores to compare, inventory was much harder to find last year. Are sales the same or higher because there are way more products available now? People went back to in-store from online buying.”
Prizm WWE hobby boxes are now under $400 with Buy It Now on eBay https://t.co/KtZfV8cdE1
— Card Purchaser (@CardPurchaser) July 25, 2022
Over at eBay, which has become the world’s largest card resale site, sales continue to move at an enormous pace even if it’s moderately slowed compared to 2021’s banner year, said Bob Means, eBay’s director of trading cards.
“We’re dealing with seven (consecutive) years’ worth of growth,” Means said.
Without divulging specifics, eBay said the platform moved 4 million more cards in 2020 than it did in pre-pandemic 2019. Last year, cards sold every 2 seconds on the site (some of which were non-sports such as Pokémon and “Magic: The Gathering” game cards).
Ebay did $2 billion in trading card sales in 2020, and matched that in the first half of 2021, Means said. That pace has slowed, and Means said he cannot disclose current sales volume projections, but reiterated that cards remain a healthy business for the company.
“A lot of it is values of cards coming down,” Means said. “There are some corrections happening there. The overarching business is fine. We’ll be very happy with where trading cards land by the end of the year. There’s nothing that’s happening that is worrisome from a long-term perspective.”
He called eBay’s card sales volume a “ski-ramp type of growth” that’s still positive.
“We sell a ton of $10 cards like we sell a ton of $5,000 cards,” Means said. “Velocity is still super strong.”
Means isn’t being Pollyanna-ish about the card market.
“We’re obviously paying attention to it; inflation is hurting the consumer at this point. You feel it, that’s a very real thing. It’s got to be having some impact,” Means said. “I think people are a little more aware of their dollar bills. It could lead to people looking for more value out of their cards.”
Outside of the U.S. major leagues and popular card games, there are niche products seeing good sales numbers, he added.
“We’re seeing interesting growth in secondary sports,” Means said. That includes soccer, tennis and golf. And eBay expects soccer card sales to pick up during the U.S.-co-hosted World Cup in 2026, with a plan to increase international card listings of products from Japan, Australia and elsewhere.
One of the beneficiaries of the wider card industry boom is Ken Goldin, who sold his popular card and collectibles auction site last summer to Collectors Universe that’s co-owned by billionaire New York Mets owner Steve Cohen.
Goldin, who still oversees the auction site, sees what others are seeing: price corrections, with the high-end cards mostly unaffected because they’ve become a popular asset class for the wealthy.
“I’ve seen all the ups and downs. I think the high-grade true vintage market has really become a mainstay in our society,” Goldin said. “To those people, they’re not trading commodities and gambling. It’s like modern art. Maybe the early tobacco cards are your van Goghs, early Topps cards are like Picassos. I see no impact on that.”
Prior to 2019, his auction house hadn’t sold a modern card for $500,000, let alone $1 million or more. Since then, there have been several such auctions at seven figures. He predicted it could be as many as 10 by the end of 2022. The auction house sold a $3.2 million LeBron James card and a $4.4 million Mickey Mantle card this year, he said.
“I think a lot of the high-end card market has gone private and shifted toward vintage,” Goldin said. “The ultra-high-end card market had cooled a little bit.”
Goldin explained how he assesses the economic health of the overall card market: “I’ve always felt it’s not the unemployment rate that affects us, it’s not inflation. Really, the S&P 500 is more of a telltale sign,” Goldin said. “It’s a lot easier to sell a $500,000 card when the S&P is at 4,000 instead of at 3,000.”
For the uninitiated, the Standard and Poor’s 500 tracks the stock prices of the 500 largest publicly traded U.S. companies by market capitalization on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq. In March 2020, when the pandemic hit, it fell to 2,300 in a month. Today, it’s near 4,000 again.
“That’s why (early in the pandemic) the modern market went up so dramatically. Modern card buyers tend to be young, with less trust in assets, have less money,” Goldin said.
Sales last year hit $335 million for Goldin Auctions, which also sells non-sports cards and various collectibles. He expects to rocket past that in 2022.
“Goldin as a company is doing more business in 2022 than we did in 2021,” Goldin said. “We’ll pass that by the end of our third quarter.”
Another factor, which Goldin said was more of a blip, was people putting money into non-fungible token projects such as NBA Top Shot. NFTs have since cooled, too.
“You could see a correlation in those cards starting to go down and money going into NBA Top Shot,” Goldin said. “People thought they found a new lottery with no chance of failure. It was not reality. It was very alluring to a lot of people. That started the decline of some of the modern cards and wiped out a portion of the wealth people had accumulated in the trading-card business. It was pissed away on NBA Top Shot and similar products. Today, I don’t think NFTs have any impact on the trading-card market.”
Supply chain issues that became acute across many parts of the economy affected the card industry more than NFTs.
Already struggling to meet demand, companies like Topps, Panini and Upper Deck for a time had to shut down production early in the pandemic, and then raced to find the staff and infrastructure to meet market pressures. The card-grading companies, overwhelmed with submissions and enormous backlogs, paused their services while hiring and training new graders.
For example, Topps said a national paper shortage and lag time on getting additional machinery to print and cut cards fed into delays getting cards to shops and big-box retailers.
“We’re still having supply chain constraints,” Leiner said.
At the worst of it in 2020-21, buyers couldn’t find cards on store shelves. There were reports of fist fights over cards at retailers, who began sharply limiting how many cards anyone could buy.
Cards are generally back on hobby and retail store shelves, with occasional hiccups — or speculators gobbling up as much as they can. How long the good times last remains to be seen, but it looks like a healthy near-term outlook even if it’s not quite the Scrooge McDuck-swimming-in-gold of 2021.
460,000 sf of show floor is a good reason to recommend comfortable shoes. pic.twitter.com/Pgu89Z7Y9X
— The National (@nsccshow) July 24, 2022
The status of the card industry’s boom likely will be on the minds of the thousands of people attending the annual four-day National Sports Collectors Convention that kicks off Wednesday in Atlantic City. It draws trading card collectors, investors, retailers and manufacturers, as well as athletes and celebs signing autographs.
Last year’s event drew an estimated 100,000 attendees — making it one of the biggest such shows since they began in 1980 — another era of economic malaise, high energy prices, and global unrest.
“Yes, the market is in a correction, but we believe the market remains healthy and is proving its long-term strength during yet another difficult economic environment,” PWCC’s Craig said.
(Photo: Hunter Martin / Getty Images)