Is the Single Sports Cards Market Dying?

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Walk into any sports card shop and you will be mesmerized by glass cases, many three or four shelves high and full of single cards. These cards are often in penny sleeves and top loaders, and are usually arranged by section — baseball, football, and so forth. Occasionally you will also see a case catering specifically to local teams and, being a Yankees fan stuck in New England, I have even seen a separate shelf dedicated to singles that feature players from the Boston professional sports teams.

While these cards can be fun to look at, and often quite a few will be unique enough to perk my attention, the sticker price of these cards is often far too inflated. While I acknowledge that we all have different incomes and prioritize our spending differently, I can’t help but feel that the market for singles in card stores is dying.

Opening a small business and successfully running it is a huge undertaking, and card shops need to meet their overhead and operating expenses — I understand and respect that.  It can’t just be me who has never actually seen a person purchase a single from under a glass case. For that matter, I’ve never seen emptied slots indicated cards once filled them.

In the last decade of collecting and going to card shops, I have rarely seen people ask to see a single card be brought out of the case for further inspection. The phenomenon does not, however, extend to sales of TCGs and “Magic: The Gathering” cards — I have, in fact seen a market for those in shops.

The intent is not to bash the relatively small local card shops I frequent, and it certainly isn’t to belittle the industry in the slightest. My intent is only to question the efficacy and plausibility of selling single cards in a market that has to compete with the Internet.

However, I was blown away by a dual relic jersey card of Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio I saw at the card shop in Maine. The $400 price tag of that card is more than my textbooks costs for a semester.

Single sales of sports cards at shops seem to be waning, but why? I think part of it is value-related. I know a lot of people, myself included, buy sports cards partially for their future value, hoping they can be re-sold for a higher price at some point down the road. While the market is beyond anyone’s control, why spend $20 on one card that has been sitting in a case for months when that same $20 can buy three or four hobby packs, which are usually loaded with inserts, refractors, numbered cards, and hits (autographed or relic cards). While there is no guarantee of a hit in a pack of cards (at least the more economically-friendly ones), collectors enjoy the thrill of the hunt and that moment of gambling as you open a pack.

If you get five cards per pack and buy four packs for $20, the only value you need is to get an average of $1 per card.  Would you want to buy 20 cards for $20 taking a shot at getting some worthwhile, or buy a single card for the same price? If you were lucky enough to pull a hit or low numbered card that you could resell for $5 or better, you have made 500% profit from that one card and recovered ¼ of your investment from the sale of one card more or less.

There are also grab bags to consider. The lottery-like system of grabbing a brown bag or envelope with a guaranteed hit inside, unsure of the result other than the sport, is also a fun, cheap thrill. These are usually only $5 or so, and I would argue carry more value (if nothing more, at least in the entertainment value).

Card shops rely on Beckett book value and price guide when asking for singles. While these are great for determining the value of cards, this can create a problem for collectors. Haggling and negotiating on price is strong in the markets, but I have had my fair share of collectors who refuse to do  business or trade unless they end up on top or profiting. Furthermore, if you were to try and sell a card to a dealer or card shop, the Beckett book value of that card is usually what the dealer/ shop will ask for.  Through my experience, they will usually offer between 25% – 40% of the book value — and even that may be a generous estimate. Ironically, this creates a catch-22 in the market. If you have a seller willing to accept such a low percentage from the book value of the card, you are devaluing the card and defeating the purpose of selling it at book value. Why would any buyer pay full book price if there are sellers willing to accept a fraction of that value for the same exact card? Much like Kelley’s Blue Book doesn’t purchase cars, Beckett rarely buys cards, especially at the prices their guides list.

I have seen this happen in at least two different shops, where they have half a case dedicated to cards that have two numbers on the price tag sticker. The first number is what the card shop is selling it for, while the second is supposedly the Beckett book value. This raises a red flag for me. It makes me believe that these card shops have been sitting on these cards for a long time and are offering it at a discount. The card has proven difficult to sell, considering they are offering $10-$15 off the retail price to move it. While it might appear as a good deal for the buyer, it feels more like a siren to attract sailors.

The problem is that card shops are professional sports card dealers and sellers. Even if they are struggling to sell these specific single cards, why would I believe this is a good deal as a buyer? Certainly it is worth more than what I am paying for it, because Beckett’s value for the card is higher than the selling price. But even if I had my own card store where I could display it and ask full Beckett price, the demand for this card is likely not to increase and allow me to make a profit. Instead, I would experience the same woes as the previous seller, feeling lucky to break even and make back what I originally invested.

It is impossible to talk about single sports cards without discussing the market of eBay. eBay allows sellers and buyers to reach a global market, search for extremely specific items, and shop from the comfort of their homes 24/7. However, eBay sellers rarely rely on Beckett’s book value; instead they rely on other eBay sales of similar or like products. For buyers, it allows them to find a specific player or team without having to buy several packs in hopes of getting lucky, while picking up some good deals in the process. Of course as is the case in any collecting market, there are winners and losers, and eBay isn’t an exception.

As a buyer and seller on eBay, I have had cards sell for far less than I was hoping for. Conversely, I’ve also been pleasantly surprised as some cards ended up selling for much higher than I was asking. But again, for the single sports card market, why would a buyer shell out full book value when they can get it for half the price on eBay without having to leave the house? If there is a seller that is asking full Beckett book value on eBay and a buyer had their heart set on that card, I know personally I would go spend the money at the card shop. I save on shipping, get instant gratification, and support local business. Buyers may also enjoy the thrill of the auction and outbidding others. Competition is universal, and eBay knows this.

I have purchased a few singles in my career from card shops, the last being a 1992 Bowman rookie of Mariano Rivera. My friend and I checked out our local Goodwill next to our college and discovered a box of cards for $20. We spent $10 each on it, and when we got home we were shocked. Inside was 157 different autographed and/or game used cards, plus countless numbered rookies and inserts of baseball, football, basketball, golf, NASCAR, and hockey. Probably still floating on cloud-9 from our lifetime discovery, we sped off to our local card shop. They offered us $200 for it, which we took — admittedly it was not the best move of my career.

Using my share I purchased that Rivera. The sticker price was $60 and, as a Yankees fan and it being Mo’s final season, I thought it was a fair deal. I sent it off to Beckett for grading after. However, if you were to look for the same card on eBay right now, you could find an ungraded example ranging from the high $30-$50.

The moral of the story is that I overpaid for something I could have bought for almost 50% cheaper on eBay, which goes back to my original point: singles in card shops are dying. Their prices are usually too high for the savvy collector.

Card shops cannot compete with eBay and other online markets. That said, single cards seem to be a small portion of income for card shops. Of course the concept must work for them enough for them to keep displaying them and trying to sell them or they wouldn’t bother with the hard work. Most collectors, at least from my personal experience and observations, will go to card shops to buy their own packs and cases, not for a single individual card.

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photo credit: Rick Scully via photopin cc