"It was completely insane": The buying and selling card trade boomed throughout the pandemic


When the last hectic moments of the eBay auction ended on April 30th, my offer of $ 104.55 was high on the bids and I became the overly excited owner of two unopened boxes of baseball cards: 1982 Fleer and 1987 Donruss .

Let us continue. The average asking price for the six similar 1982 Fleer boxes listed as “Buy Now” on eBay last week was $ 227. The average asking price for the 20 boxes listed on eBay from 1987 Donruss was $ 56.

I paid $ 105 for my two boxes. These two boxes are now around $ 283 to buy, a little less if you are using the eBay system.

So what happened between late April and early October to more than double the prices of these boxes? It's not that Cal Ripken Jr. – the award rookie card in the 1982 Fleer set (I found one!) – did anything to add significant value to those cards. And although 1987 Donruss is full of newbies – Bo Jackson, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Will Clark, and Greg Maddux – nothing particularly interesting has happened to any of these guys in the past few months.

You obviously know the answer to this question: the coronavirus pandemic has occurred. People across the country – and around the world – stayed home for days, weeks, and months looking for ways to pass the time without physically interacting with the outside world. There is only so much Netflix that a person can watch.

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Old passions were rediscovered when people rummaged through basements or attics, plunging headlong into nostalgia in search of happiness. A sizable segment of the population found their baseball / trading cards, and after sifting through and sorting old collections, the fire re-kindled – and people wanted to add something.

And with that sudden influx of interest – and money – the trading card market exploded.

"The sales are the best they have had in a decade," said Emily Kless, communications manager at Topps, who refused to provide details because Topps is a privately owned company. "It's been on an upward trend. Topps had one of its best years in the last decade (2019). As we see this rekindled interest in collecting baseball cards, we initially have an incredibly strong year."

Of course, Topps is not alone.

"It was absolutely insane," said Jason Howarth, vice president of Panini America. “We worked on it for a while and pushed in that direction, and a whole series of events have intensified and provided additional impetus that was already emerging.

"The sales that are currently being made at Walmart and Target in August and September are three times what they would be during a Christmas shopping season," he said. "It's crazy what's going on."

And if this year it's harder to find cards at your local big box dealer, there may be a reason.

"We heard stories of people just sitting there waiting for the product to be put on the shelves and it was literally wiped out as soon as they were done," Howarth said.

But this summer wasn't just a boom for the big companies that make the cards.

When I was a kid, I rode my bike to Baseball Plus, the baseball card business (plus!) In suburban St. Louis owned by Mark Schlemeier that happened to be next to a bowling alley (seriously, the "Bowl one." couple games then buy some baseball cards "childhood days were amazing). It moved years ago, but Baseball Plus is still going strong, both in person and online. In fact, Schlemeier estimated that from May to August he posted an overall increase in sales of 250 percent compared to an average year.

"EBay sales were just an all-time high," he said. "I did more in March-April-May than in some previous full years combined, in dollars, volume and variety."

The variety part – the "plus" – was key this summer. Over the years Schlemeier has collected team and stadium products such as: B. Lambeau Field puzzles or Cubs vs. Cardinals checker sets. It found that unique items were very popular with people who were stuck at home and wanted to pass the time. And when did they venture into the store during the pandemic?

“When someone came in early, they were there for three minutes and said something like, 'Well, I came in for a box of Heritage, but I don't know when I'm going to be out. So you better give me two boxes of Heritage and another box of Topps Series I. "So you wanted to spend $ 90, but because you didn't know what was going to happen every day, you bought a pair of boxes to flood them," Schlemeier said.

“As everything opened up again and people were more comfortable going out, pedestrian traffic increased steadily and sales were still there. They didn't panic buying, but they were still buying. "

Because by then they were addicted again.

"You put a pack in someone's hand and it doesn't matter if you're 4 or 40," Howarth said. "If you happen to find a player you love or a team you love, you'll be amazed. That's the power of the trading card, and the fact that people do that in this crazy time when you freak out about it. and a bit of happiness and elation. I'm glad that this is a good distraction. I think that's really cool. "

Back to the habit

So who are these people who got the market up to speed this spring / summer? I wanted to know, so I asked people on Twitter to contact me if they started collecting again (or were just starting out) during the pandemic. Not a perfect rehearsal, of course, but it's a start.

I'm not going to lie, I was a little overwhelmed by the reaction. Here are just a few examples of why people have returned to the hobby.

LB Barnett, Colorado: “Feeling nostalgic after watching '80s movies with my wife and kids for two weeks in a row, I vowed to clean up my' 80s toy collection in the basement. On the way I rediscovered the cards I had collected as a child and was (again) excited. … I never tried to add anything to my collection, but man, was I wrong? I was in set builds, making trades with people from all over the country, almost every state. But I also long for Topps' 2020 legacy. it looks like my favorite hand-me-down set from my older brother, the 1971. "

Howard Megdal, New Jersey: “I have my old cards that I had been collecting seriously since 1986 when I was 6 years old, and the first Glenn Wilson 1986 Topps stared at me until 1992, when my daughter was born in 2010, I bought also regularly her cards, but neither of us got engaged. The quarantine period has given both of us the opportunity to do just that. When we heard about Box Breaks, we watched one on YouTube on a Saturday afternoon while a game was on TV. And we quickly concluded that it would be fun to try and that we could do better between my experience with the sport and her social media expertise. It was so fun planning with her, seeing so many great cards and then sending them to others. "

Brendan Chella, New Hampshire: “I needed my exercise fix and it gave me and my newly retired father something to do. I also liked that my two big teams (Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Indians) were relatively cheap. … I built my PC very well with Bills players Devin Singletary, Zack Moss and (more recently) Gabriel Davis and this year's Indians (who mostly didn't play) Yu Chang, Logan Allen, Bobby Bradley. and Aaron Civale. As a side effect of getting back, I did a lot of work broadcasting Twitch shows of my breaks and creating clips of my reactions. So the hobby helped me learn a lot about streaming and basic video editing. "

Interest in the hobby has also benefited the needy. This great story was sent in by Eric Hecker, who lives in Pennsylvania: “In April I noticed how excited people were with pauses for reminders and how nice people were with RAKs (random friendly acts). I work for the Crohn & # 39; s & Colitis Foundation. The fundraiser is no longer available this year so I saw an opportunity. From April through May, the Hobby Family got together and raised over $ 15,000 through a 32 item break we put together, other auctions, and direct donations. "

Some jumped back into the hobby for the "hobby" aspect and only collected for the love of collecting. The joy of opening packs and buying cards from their favorite players was well worth the money spent, and interacting with fellow collectors on social media was a welcome bonus that didn't exist as kids. Others saw investment opportunities when the market boomed right before them and played out on eBay. That aspect was a little trickier.

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The arrival of waves of on-site gathering of newcomers, most with cash but many with little knowledge of what prices were "normal", confirmed the truth that the true value of an item is only determined by what someone is ready to pay for it.

As an example, let's use Inception, a premium Topps product with a 100 card checklist for beginners and superstars. A box contains a pack of seven cards: an autograph or an autograph relic and two parallel base cards and four standard cards. It costs $ 75.

"It's a beautiful product because you are guaranteed an autograph," said Schlemeier. “The parallel can range from an unnumbered green parallel to its entire litany of different colored parallels with serial numbers. It's a really thick card, a standard five card thick card. "

Here's the main part of that equation: Inception was released on March 20, eight days after the NBA ended its regular season and MLB canceled the rest of spring training. In the marketplace, the term "panic buying" quickly became a very real thing.

Ronny Drake, whose commitment to the hobby grew rapidly during the pandemic with newfound free time (including his own YouTube channel), knows this well. He bought two cases (16 boxes) of Inception on March 25 for $ 1,080 each, averaging $ 67.50 per box. The next time they were available in the same location less than a month later, the case price had risen to $ 1,600. It passed at the higher price.

"I just got my money back on the boxes I opened, I pulled a small number of Dustin May Auto / Relic," said Drake. "I benefited less than $ 100 on the total breaks … the value just wasn't there for me or for those who bought in on my breaks."

On eBay, the increase in inception is even more extreme. Several boxes have sold for more than $ 170 in the past few months. The only two cases listed on eBay are marked $ 2,900 and $ 2,639, and all 16 individual boxes are listed as $ 155 or more.

Inception returned a reasonable value of $ 75, Schlemeier told me, but at $ 170? Not so much because you pretty much got a big autograph or hit a star / rookie with a number 25 or less. And that's the problem: seasoned collectors know that a product listed on eBay for a certain price isn't really worth that much. But for those waves of people who got back into the hobby in April, May, and June, asking for prices on eBay felt like an established standard, especially because those newbies couldn't physically go to stores or card shows and see which ones other options there are.

(Ryan Fagan / SN)

Sales at baseball card stores such as Baseball Card Plus outside of St. Louis saw sales boom during the pandemic as people discovered or rediscovered the lure of the hobby.

And people like Kevin Bradley, who lives in Austin, Texas, took a very analytical, often aggressive, approach after getting back into the hobby.

Bradley fell in love with collecting as a child, with just a few magical trips to Ted's Houston baseball room. The card shop was set up like a baseball field, with green lawns and lazy poles on either side of the shop, and Ted treated the kids who came in with their allowances the same way he treated the adults with real money. It meant everything to Bradley, a sometimes shy kid with little confidence, and he even worked there for a few years before going to college.

"Almost everything I've achieved in my professional life," he said in a phone call last week. "I can fall back on this experience."

Ted Stokes died last year, which brought back memories of good days. And an extended period of traumatic, stressful events – including one terrible one when one of his daughters was diagnosed with cancer (but was declared cancer-free in January after four months of treatment) – left him looking for something to make him happy (on top of his family, of course ). He found trading cards again.

He jumped in with both feet, although admittedly he wasn't sure what he was jumping into. The excitement met with questions of discovery: Which companies are now producing cards in every sport? What is a parallel? What is a numbered card? What does PPE stand for? What are box breaks? Why does everyone have their own YouTube channel?

Bradley first bought "a ton" of cardboard boxes, first from eBay and then from dealers, when the reality of eBay's "buy now" price hit. The more he played around with his precious free moments in his hobby – he was married with five children – the more he bought individual cards, especially pressure-sensitive adhesives.

He picked his players – Luke Doncic, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in basketball, Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott and Kyler Murray in soccer, and Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis and Ronald Acuña Jr. in baseball, to name a few – and walked this one Path. For him it was like a miniature investment in the stock market.

"This is exactly the same thing, just on a smaller level, individual players swinging wildly, sometimes based on individual game performance," he said. “So there is money to be made, but I don't always have the time or patience. But in the longer term, people like Mike Trout, Luka, Michael Jordan and LeBron James are Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. So why not? It's a lot more fun. So I ask myself: "What do you want to invest and how?"

And one of the answers to that question might be: Bradley did the research and got the numbers on what it would take to open his own version of Ted's baseball room, maybe sometime in the spring of 2022 after seeing what happened with COVID and how the card market is developing.

“With what our family has been through over the past year, I don't want to go to 60, 70 or 80 and say, 'Dude, why didn't you just shoot something? Would have made you really happy? "I don't know if it's COVID or just the point where I'm at in life, looking back at what made me happy as a kid," he said regret in my life, but I want to be happy too, and this is just one of the things it does for me. There are so many small parts: the organizational aspects, the investment aspects, the nostalgia aspects, the buying and selling that are fun, all of that. "

Really, it comes down to, "I want to create the same magic for my kids that Ted created for me."

Back to the Future?

During our long talk, Howarth, Panini's vice president, referred to the 1980s and early 1990s as the "days of glory" for collecting, but said what is happening as it is unprecedented. It's also completely different from what happened back then, the era of junk wax goodness.

Back then, all baseball cards wanted so card companies met that demand by printing cards with reckless devotion and massively overproducing their one or two sets a year. In the short term, it was great – high sales and happy customers getting the players / teams they wanted out of their backpacks (which were sealed with wax, hence the name "Junk Wax") – but eventually everyone figured out that there were literally tons of cards The market was flooded and prices fell.

"In the 1980s you thought," If I hold on to this Bo Jackson-rated rookie card, it will be worth real money one day, "Howarth said." Now while you open a pack and there are cards that are already real Are worth money. "

And yes, that "real money" is a hell of a draw. Opening most packages these days is certainly a gambling feeling. Schlemeier noted that hoping to find potential autographs / relics is akin to playing the slots in Vegas.

"In 1990 you could buy a pack for 60 cents and get a Frank Thomas newbie or a Ken Griffey Jr. out for maybe $ 2 or $ 3," he said. "But now you can buy a deck of cards for $ 5 and get a card worth thousands. And I'm talking about thousands of dollars on eBay this afternoon."

(Ryan Fagan / SN)

“Early (in the pandemic) when someone walked in the door they were there for three minutes and said something like, 'Well, I came in for a box of Heritage, but I don't know when I'm going to get out, give me I prefer two boxes of Heritage and another box of Topps Series I, ”said Mark Schlemeier, owner of Baseball Plus outside of St. Louis.

That is certainly a new element. With trading cards growing in popularity, it is fair to ask what industry reps are doing to avoid making the same mistakes – pressing the print button over and over – in order to make as much money as possible.

"I think there are a couple of different things," Howarth said. "First of all, we are obviously very aware of what was going on as a company in the 1980s and what mistakes other manufacturers made during that time."

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And knowing as 1980s staple food gathering told us is half the battle. Make no mistake, the companies still make a lot of cards but they are diversified. Instead of just one set in the 1980s, then a couple of offers per year in the 1990s, Topps has around 50 different baseball products, including exclusive hobby / exclusive retail variants. Panini has plans for 37 NFL offerings this year, 30 NBAs – Panini holds the exclusive license to both the NBA and NFL – 11 MLBPA, 11 College / Draft (six soccer, five basketball), seven soccer, and four NASCAR.

It is of course fair to ask if that is too much.

"It reminds me a little of that turning point, like 1993 or 1994 when there were so many different manufacturers and everyone was trying to make money," Bradley said. "Now you're spending so much on a box and just hoping you get your money's worth. And I understand it's fun and very lottery-free, but there are so many interesting dynamics.

"People say," Well, it doesn't happen now because PSA and Beckett are graded and parallels and cars and all that stuff. But if every other card is 1/1 and 1/10 and 1/20 and 1/30 and 1/50 and 1/70, how rare are many of these things? "

What's next?

While the industry has been booming in recent months, it has not been without its headaches. The pandemic resulted in housing orders nationwide, including Texas, where a third-party facility used by both Topps and Panini to print cards was closed for an extended period. Although development continued, production ceased.

For example, Topps' popular Allen & Ginter product was about six weeks delayed from its normal release in late July. Other products were delayed longer, some hardly.

"While the release dates have shifted and the logistics and production challenges have shifted, we're now pretty much back on the right track," said Kless.

Of course, Panini also had problems and not just printing. The company has been the NBA's exclusive trading card for a decade and is paused on the NBA schedule – for example, the NBA draft, which was originally slated for June 25 but was postponed to November 18 – threw a wrench into the plans .

"Usually our first NBA product in this rookie class comes out in October, but it doesn't," Howarth said. "It will probably be December."

One thing I wanted to ask – knowing full well that I probably wouldn't be giving any secrets – is how next year's deals would reflect the weirdness of the 2020 season, especially with baseball cards. For me, baseball cards have the ability to document a season in a way that no other product / industry can really do, and which historical season needs to be documented more than 2020? Masks, neck gaiters, players in the stands during games and a thousand or so other things.

This is a special opportunity for Topps as 2021 marks the company's 70th anniversary and it still owns the exclusive MLB license (Panini has an agreement with the MLBPA which means they can use the players but no team names or logos).

"So many people came up to us and said, 'Oh, you need a cardboard cutout subgroup' or something like that," said Kless with a laugh. “There are so many unique ideas that have sprung up from 2020 and the strange, if historic, season. Personally, I don't know exactly what the brand team is up to until they plan for 2021, but they always get very creative and 2020 is an integral part of Topps' history, so I can celebrate the 70th anniversary I'm sure 2020 will be part of it. "


Melinda Martin