Major League Baseball

A fascinating look into the booming sports trading card market

February 26

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist 

I hadn’t spotted empty shelves at the store for a while — not since the earliest days of the pandemic — so seeing a swath of blank, red metal on a trip to Target this week gave cause for pause.

It was the trading card section – and there was nothing there. All gone.

"What we are seeing is unprecedented," Ken Goldin of Goldin Auctions told me via telephone this week. "The demand for trading cards -- new, recent and vintage -- is outstripping supply by 10-to-1, sometimes 1,000-to-1.

"A friend of mine distributes to some of the chain stores, and he has people following his truck around, offering money. People are buying a box for $19 at Walmart and selling it on eBay the same day for $125. It is a wild time."

Once predominantly a way for children to show off their fandom, the modern trading card world is a long way from flimsy patches of cardboard in wax packs with a stick of gum, occasionally to be stuck in the purchaser’s bicycle wheels.

Or, if you grew up in the 1990s, from gaudier but drastically overproduced offerings that weren’t worth a ton then and are valued at next to nothing now.

A new era is here, one that adheres to the fiscal principle of scarcity and has caused growing numbers of investors to view trading cards like art – something to be appreciated, sure, but also a sound investment providing both a safe landing spot and the potential for exponential growth in value.

For Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Cassius Marsh, the mega-boom in card collecting provided the opportunity to turn his hobby into a business.

With business partner Nick Nugwynne, Marsh has started Cash Cards Unlimited, a brick-and-mortar store in Westlake Village, California, to capitalize on a remarkable time in the market. 

He is hoping to reimagine the trading card shop experience, with novel features that include a studio for filming the increasingly popular "box breaks," in which where a new product is opened and inspected online.

Despite his athletic credentials, most of Marsh’s collecting history came from his love of the game "Magic: The Gathering." Having compiled a collection worth $20,000, he was devastated when it was stolen from his fiancee’s vehicle in 2016, while he was with the Seattle Seahawks.

When he posted about his plight on the internet, it generated a significant response. Magic players sent him cards to replace those lost and helped him track down others. The game’s producers – Wizards of the Coast — visited him at the Seahawks' facility with new product, and in general, there was a sense of delight that a pro athlete was putting his love of collecting on display.

"I’ve been playing 'Magic: The Gathering' since I was 11," Marsh told me. "The publicity that came from having my cards taken turned me into a kind of influencer in that market and that community.

"I always wanted to own a card store and have it as a passion project. Seeing everything that is going on in sports card trading and other collectibles makes this the perfect time. I am looking to connect the sports world and the nerd world."

The money world might be the hungriest addition to the market. Financial products specializing in collectibles have sprung up with huge funding rounds. The rarest and most sought-after cards have sold for eye-popping sums.

A one-of-a-kind Mike Trout card commanded $3.96 million in August. LeBron James’ rookie card sold for $1.845 million at an auction in July.

Years ago, card makers realized that over-proliferation was killing the industry, and they now veer toward bespoke, limited edition ranges that often include ultra-rare inserts with special features such as signatures or patches on uniforms.

Goldin Auctions’ current collection closes March 6 and 7, but there are already 36 lots for which the bidding has reached at least $100,000. The highlights are a telling microcosm of what has the most value in the market.

There is a mint condition Mickey Mantle rookie card, an ultra-rare, pristine condition Kobe Bryant item and a Giannis Antetokounmpo "Top Shot" collectible, a digital highlight backed by blockchain. Confused? Get a teenager to explain that one to you.

Athletes themselves are taking notice, and Goldin has corresponded with Kevin Durant and other big stars.

"Athletes are sophisticated and savvy investors, and investing in something that’s centered around sports makes perfect sense," Goldin added. "They are looking to me for information, asking me what is hot, what trends I am seeing, who they should be collecting."

The idea of Durant collecting, say, a James card is really quite intriguing in itself.

As the market booms, fresh opportunities have been sought. Marsh said soccer cards experienced a dramatic recent surge, and Goldin pointed out that the market – once U.S.-centric — is now truly international, with his auctions having had buyers from as far afield as Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The pandemic has actually enhanced demand, thanks to a combination of factors. The public has become more geared to nostalgia, there is increasing open-mindedness about new investment sources, and you have the simple, rather sweet fact of people spending more time at their family homes, finding their old collections and falling in love with them again.

That reminds me: Don’t I have a bunch of cards in a closet somewhere? "Might be time to check them out," Goldin said.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.


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