Card collecting might feel like something from a bygone era. The memories of strolling down to the corner store, buying a pack of cheap cards, and breaking a tooth on the piece of gum inside inspire great feelings of nostalgia.
People spent hours flipping through Becket magazines, salivating at the possibility that maybe their ship would come in, and they'd find one of those cards worth thousands of dollars hiding in a shoebox at a garage sale. Better yet, maybe their next trip to the corner store would yield a rookie card worthy of the retirement fund.
But by the early 2000s, interest in card collecting had waned significantly from its peak in the late 1980s and '90s. It seemed that all of those collections gathering dust in an attic had almost no use at all. Investing all that money and time into sports cards seemed for naught.
But in the last decade or so, things have swung back. The surprising new interest in card collecting stems from a fundamental shift in how card collectors have acquired, appreciated, and traded their cards.
Breaks of the Game
At its root, the new interest in card collecting has a lot to do with — what else — the internet. Specifically, a particular type of streaming video has gained tremendous popularity among old enthusiasts and ushered in a new generation of collectors.
Break videos have revolutionized the world of card collecting. Break videos consist of the slow, deliberate opening of trading card packs via streaming video. These videos bring all of the excitement of a new pack of cards, but none of the price tag that comes with actually buying a deck.
Not only do break videos generate significant interest just for the experience of seeing new cards, but they have revolutionized the way people can buy their cards. Video makers can put the decks up for sale, and prospective buyers can say they'll take, say, every card from a specific team.
Break videos tap psychological areas of the brain that have kept many would-be collectors from getting into the hobby. But break videos allow people greater freedom to get more specific in how they're investing in trading cards. No longer subject to the random draw of an unopened pack, thousands of new collectors have joined the ranks thanks to break videos.
Why Invest Now?
Investing in card collecting now has a definite appeal. The returns get all the headlines when it comes to card investing, and with good reason. The right card can generate an absolutely shocking ROI. Of course, like any other asset, the wrong cards won't have much worth — but they probably won't cost much either.
Collectors also don't need to buy a bunch of decks and hope for the best. Buying already-valuable cards has become a legitimate alternative investment strategy for serious investors. Take, for example, the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card. In 2006, the card sold for $282,000, and today has a value closer to $3 million.
Strange as it may sound, cards have shown some resilience against the peaks and valleys of more traditional markets. During the economic downturn of 2008, cards increased their value. The inherent scarcity of cards — especially mint condition cards — gives them more in common with a piece of art than a stock share.
Advancements in the Industry
Two prongs of advancement have further enhanced the interest and investment value of card collecting. A more formalized grading structure has enabled traders to make better-informed purchases and sales on the trading end. On the production end, the card industry has played into the "intentional scarcity" angle by adding elements to make each card unique.
Cards have a formalized, 10-point grading system with each point on the scale having very specific parameters. At the high end, a "gem mint" card has no imperfections, sharp focus, sharp corners, a full gloss, a perfectly centered image, etc.
In the middle of the scale, a 5-point "excellent" card will have a little bit of wear and tear. The edges may have some nicks, the corners may have some rounding, or other minor defects may appear upon close inspection.
At the bottom of the scale, a 1-point "poor" card has the whole spectrum of issues. Warping, creasing, printing errors, dirtiness, or missing pieces can all contribute to a 1-point rating.
On top of the point system, grading also includes an array of qualifiers. "PD," or print defects might have misspellings or coloring errors. Qualifiers like "MC," or miscut mean part of the subject has been cut off. Qualifiers will generally reduce a card's rating, but ancient cards may have some leniency on an official grading.
In recent years, card makers have keyed in on what made card collecting so popular in the first place. During the 1980s and '90s, producers responded to increased demand by printing more cards, thus tanking their value.
The move made sense for the original card makers but hurt the cards themselves' long-term value. Mint condition cards from the "junk wax" era still have a lot of value, but by and large, the overproduction meant the cards had nothing special about them.
Today, card makers have recognized that people want unique cards. They have added elements like serial numbers and autographs to ensure that cards have limited availability. Some have even gone so far as adding "patches" from real game-worn jerseys to make each card legitimately one-of-a-kind.
The surprising new interest in card collecting has a few unsurprising causes. People are budgeting their money better and have more disposable income. The internet has revolutionized the buying game and stimulated a whole new interest in the genre. The right cards have shown real viability as a long-term investing strategy. Cardmakers have figured out how to balance their sales with unique designs that entice buyers.
But ultimately, card collecting taps into the same thing it did when the first baseball cards came on the scene in the 1860s. Each pack brings a childlike sense of anticipation. The cards themselves are just plain fun to look at. Last but not least, there's simply no better expression of fandom than having the card of a favorite player that one keeps forever, no matter what it's worth.