A Beginner’s Guide to Sports Cards

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Sports are a huge staple of American culture and society today. From overly proud parents who brag about their little athletes, colleges settling old rivalries and proving dominance, to four major professional sports programs in the United States and Canada, sports are here to stay. I know personally, I almost do a double take when I encounter a person who seems to be completely apathetic towards sports of any kind. Like them or not there is no denying sports have an impact on life today.

A Beginner’s Guide to Sports Cards

Playing in the big leagues is a dream shared by millions and yet only a select few get to make it a reality (I’m still waiting for my draft contract to be the next pitcher for the Yankees). Those fortunate enough to make the big leagues get treated like royalty. Realistically speaking most of us will not get the luxury of playing sports professionally or be in the personal entourage of superstars like Derek Jeter or LeBron James. However, there is another way we can get connected to the games we love and the players we idolize. Collecting sports cards and memorabilia can be a great opportunity and a unique experience to relive our childhood dreams of going pro.

The following is not meant to be an authoritative guide to collecting. Instead this is personal advice I would give anyone who is interested in starting a collection based on my personal experience. For those questioning my credentials I have been collecting or participating in “the hobby” for over a decade. I started when I was 11 when I went to my first card show as a birthday present. I have ran a successful side project of buying and selling cards on eBay with 100% feedback and over 150 transactions. While that may seem low it is also important to note that is within one year and as a full time college student my money is unfortunately needed elsewhere.

I have read several books and guides on the subject and constantly check online websites dedicated to collecting run by experts in the field.

Step 1. Ask yourself is this a hobby you want commit to.

Collecting sports cards and memorabilia can be very rewarding and lucrative, depending on your goals and a little bit of luck. Before starting a collection ask yourself: do I want to collect to make money or just for the love of the game? Now I know you are all thinking who wouldn’t want to make money on something they love, but the fact of the matter is that most cards are hardly worth the stock they are printed on. From a financial standpoint let’s say you buy a pack of cards for $4 and there were 4 cards per pack, thus each card in theory you paid $1 for. Hypothetically if you sell one card for $2, you made 100% profit on that one card. However, if you can’t sell the other 3 cards, you have lost $2 on the pack. While the markets are always subject to change based on player performance, potential, and other factors such as condition, rarity, attributes, etc. Beckett writes the most accepted price guide on the market. They set the prices for almost every card that is produced, at least those from companies that have licenses with the respective professional leagues and players associations.

Collecting just for the fun of it can be exciting as you chase cards in packs and scan secondary markets such as eBay for that unique card to give your collection that edge.

Step 2. Determine a focus for collecting and try and stick to it.

You have decided to start collecting sports cards and memorabilia which is great, but why? Is there a specific player you wish to focus on, a certain team, or are you looking for conversation pieces? With hundreds of thousands of cards if not millions from dozens of manufactures spanning up to over 100 years for things like baseball cards it may be hard to pick a starting point.  Very rarely have I seen or met a collector who is very well-rounded. Personally I started with baseball and ten years later it is still my favorite and biggest focus. However, I have also broken into hockey and it is growing faster than my baseball collection. But narrowing down to a sport or two as a whole is still broad and vague.

Let’s say you want to focus on baseball cards. Since the earliest baseball cards were made before 1900, saying you want to collect baseball cards is about as clear as saying you want to collect cars or dolls. Certain people love collecting vintage and old baseball cards from the 1950s or earlier. Certainly these cards are hard to find compared to modern day cards, as they haven’t been produced in over 60 years nor where they meant to be collected when they came out. I know countless people who are kicking themselves for sticking cards in their bike spokes when they were growing up or their mom who just threw out their old shoe box full of cards. While better condition means better value for everything, this destruction of the cards helped fuel the hobby today by limiting the supply. So it may be the thrill of owning a piece of rare sports history or the belief that these cards can only grow in value as time goes on but no matter how you look at it, the demand is much higher than the supply.

Other collectors like focusing on rookie and prospect cards. That these players will live up to the hype and demand for their rookie cards will soar as their careers take off. If we look at Mike Trout, whose rookie cards will run you around $20 a piece, not many knew he would be as good as he was, especially when all eyes were on Bryce Harper as the games’ most hyped prospect.

Cards today can come autographed by the player, with a piece of game used jersey, bat, button, stick, shoe, and numbered, which means the company printed a very limited amount (they will print a fraction on the card usually in foil lettering, and the bottom number is how many were printed and exist in the world. For example 21/99 means only 99 were made and you have number 21 of those 99) and there are collectors who enjoy basing their collections around those types of cards.

Whatever your interest is whether it be classic Americana of vintage baseball cards, a jersey Tom Brady wore in an NFL game, or to own cards that feature a players autograph on it, pick a focus that would make you happy and seems reasonable for your budget.

 

Step 3. Do some research and educate yourself

You have decided to start collecting, but where do you start? Instead of rushing out to your local card shop or box store and dropping $50 on packs, do some homework. While purchasing a pack of football cards doesn’t require as much thought and research as a new 70” TV or a car, it wouldn’t make much sense to buy a pack of football cards from 2011 if you’re trying to focus on the rookies from 2014. A great place to read about all the various sets of modern sports cards and what comes in those sets can be found at cardboardconnection.com. They offer set checklists, tell you what is common, what is rare, and offer user reviews and ratings. For a new collector just starting out, this could tell you what veteran collectors think and how satisfied they were with their purchases.

What pack best suits your needs, if any? If you’re a collector who is interested in cards from the past, it is very unlikely you will find an unopened pack from the 40s. Instead, you may want to search online or look in a card shop for vintage cards.

A quick google search can help you find more advanced guides on the subject or ones written specifically for what you wish to collect. Know what the good companies are. Topps is synonymous with baseball cards, but they also have impressive sets of football cards. Panini and Upper Deck compete and focus with hockey but also produce other sports.

As for memorabilia, look up authentication companies, to see who are reliable and reputable. Ask to see the LOA/COA (Letters of Authenticity/ Certificate of Authenticity). Common sense should apply too. If someone is claiming to have a game used bat from Babe Ruth and asking only a couple of hundred dollars for it with a LOA that looks hand written, instinct should tell you it’s too good to be true.

If you open one pack of cards and don’t get that one card you were looking for don’t let it discourage you. It was a long shot to begin with.  But that’s the fun with packs of cards, is you never know what you are going to get. I enjoy the gamble of opening a new pack.

Odds are if you want a very specific card, your best bet would be a place like eBay. Just remember that these things take time and involve luck. You will get back what you put into it. Buying the cheapest things you can find will yield similar results. These things will take time to build. Be realistic regarding collecting. The card companies ship their products internationally. This is meant to point you in the right direction and encourage anyone who is considering starting a collection. Just pick a focus that reflects you and your ability to collect and good luck.

 

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