The CSG Sports Card Market Report

Posted on 1/27/2023

Whether you are new to the sports card world, an advanced collector, a dealer or an investor, this report will guide you on how to grow or fine-tune your collection in 2023.

Certified Sports Guaranty® (CSG®) is extremely excited to share its inaugural CSG Sports Card Market Report. CSG’s mission is to provide collectors and dealers with expert guidance, tools and services that add confidence, protection and value to their treasured collectibles. In this report, the expert graders at CSG further that mission by identifying the latest trends in the sports card marketplace and providing unique insights on how they are affecting the hobby.

It’s a new season for sports card collecting, in which the community is growing, investor interest remains strong and technology continues to shape engagement. Whether you are new to the sports card world, an advanced collector, dealer or investor, this report will guide you on how to grow or fine-tune your collection in 2023.

Entering an exciting new season of sports card collecting

For anyone involved in sports card collecting, from the companies that make the cards to the fans who collect the cards to the experts who grade the cards, the last several years have been a wild and wonderful ride. Interest in the hobby surged, prompting new levels of competition for new and vintage cards alike. As a result, prices skyrocketed to unprecedented levels.

Those looking for an indicator of the degree to which interest in the hobby has grown can look to eBay. In 2021, the online sales platform, which has been listing cards for more than two decades, issued its first “State of Trading Cards” report. Why then? Because sales of trading cards on eBay were booming, up 142% over the prior year. Sales of basketball cards on eBay grew by 373% in 2021. Sales of soccer cards grew by 1,586%. Top cards listed on eBay, including a 2000 Playoff Contenders Tom Brady Rookie RC Auto #144 and a 1996-97 Topps Chrome Refractor Kobe Bryant Rookie RC #138, brought winning bids in the $500,000 range.

As 2022 began, the climate in the sports card collecting world began to change. What exactly was happening, however, was difficult to identify. Some reported collector interest was cooling. Sports Collectors Digest ran an article in July 2022 on a decline in sports card prices. It cited two top basketball cards — the 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan and the 2003-04 Topps Chrome Refractor LeBron James as examples of cards that had decreased in value significantly since 2021. The 2003-04 LeBron James, for example, had declined from a price tag of nearly $300,000 to below $50,000.

However, the dollar amounts being paid for top cards continued to set records. In August, a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle became the most valuable card of all time when it sold for $12.6 million. In the months that followed, another half-dozen sports cards sold for more than $1 million apiece. The sale of these cards, which included vintage classics like the 1909-11 T206 Sweet Caporal Honus Wagner and modern cards like the 2020 Panini National Treasures Platinum NFL Shield Justin Herbert, seemed to indicate that “cooling off” was not the optimal way to describe the state of the market.

In mid-December, the hobby was shown yet another example that sports cards, especially those with iconic status, still command strong prices. A 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle that was graded CSG 8 sold for $1,253,185 in SCP Auctions’ 2022 Fall Premier Auction. The sale marked the first time that a CSG-graded card realized more than $1 million, a milestone achieved less than two years after CSG launched.

1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle Type 1 card graded CSG 8. Realized: $1,253,185
Click images to enlarge.

So, what happened in 2022 and how does it affect the hobby moving forward? “Maturing” may be the best way to describe sports card collecting moving into 2023. Those who began collecting for the first time during the pandemic, when sporting events were shut down and stimulus checks fueled a boom in purchasing, are not rookies anymore. They have taken more than a few turns at bat, and they have learned how to wait for their pitch. They have not lost interest; rather, they have become more astute, more focused and more patient with their collecting.

Traditionally, the sports cards market heats up in February and March of each year. That is the time when spring training starts for MLB, the Super Bowl takes place, and the NBA and NHL drive toward the postseason. These events stir up interest in sports and, consequently, interest in sports cards. While disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted this cycle, card enthusiasts seem poised to fall back into this cycle in 2023.

Investors continue to engage

Those who assert that investing in sports cards has slowed down do not indicate that less card sales are a problem. Instead, they refer to the decline as a correction in the market. Jesse Craig, who is PWCC Marketplace’s Director of Business Development, told The Athletic in July that the shift is healthy and something his organization has expected since the collecting boom that started in 2020. The data that the PWCC Marketplace gathers on bidders and buyers in the sports card market indicates that people are still very much interested in collecting, even if prices for many categories of cards have fallen.

A variety of factors sent prices through the roof during the pandemic, including a spike in interest, a scarcity of cards with high grades and a lot of speculation. Scarcity was taken out of the equation, however, as grading caught up with demand. CSG announced in March that it had eliminated the submission backlog that had built up during the pandemic. Other grading companies made similar announcements later in the year.

With backlogs gone, collectors now had a better picture of the population of certain cards. They have also had an opportunity to see the types of cards that truly hold their values. As this evolution occurred, the prices obtained for cards in secondary sales cooled down. However, market stats showed that volume of sales did not change much. In essence, the shift in conditions created a buyer’s market which should continue into 2023.

In addition, as 2022 played out, investors set their sights on the rarest cards and continued to pay impressive amounts to obtain them. Consider the cards that top the list of highest sales in 2022. The $12.6 million Mickey Mantle was a near-flawless version of one of the hobby’s most sought-after cards. Its sale price, which was more than $10 million above another copy of the card that sold six months prior, seems well out of range of what a speculator would pay. The next three cards on the list are all 1909-11 Honus Wagner cards, which has been called the Mona Lisa of sports card collecting.

These sales support what Certified Collectibles Group Founder Mark Salzberg stated at the beginning of 2021: Collectibles like sports cards have become an asset class. The Wall Street Journal echoed Salzberg’s statement in a September 1, 2022, article that ran under a headline that read, “The Most In-Demand Investment Might Be Your Baseball Card Collection.” The Wall Street Journal article went on to proclaim that the market for baseball cards “is on fire.”

Technology continues to evolve

Technology has played a central role in the recent collecting boom. Tools like eBay and PWCC Marketplace made it possible for collectors to buy, sell and track the value of the cards they were after. In addition, the merging of physical sports collectibles and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) with the introduction of products like NBA Top Shots and NFL All Day opened the door for digital natives to join the collecting craze.

For the most part, tech innovations increased collector engagement in the sports card market. However, it also showed how trends in the tech world can influence the behavior of collectors. This was evident as the NFT market chilled in 2022, a development that affected sports card collecting due to the customer overlap.

As the hobby moves into 2023, technology seems poised to play an even more important role in empowering collectors. The Vault, for example, is a service offered by PWCC that assists collectors in obtaining, storing and selling sports cards. It draws upon a wide range of technical innovations to support its state-of-the-art storage facility and online buying and selling platform. The result is a system that allows collectors to confidently secure cards while accessing them at the same time through an online portfolio. Through a partnership with CSG, PWCC also offers grading as a part of its vaulting services.

Some companies offering vaulting have begun adding lending to the list of services they provide. These services allow collectors to borrow money against the value of the cards that they have archived in a vault in a manner similar to how banks provide home equity loans. Vault lending is designed to empower collectors to grow their collections. As PWCC explains on its PWCC Capital webpage, “The market has proven that trading cards are a tangible asset class and the mandate of PWCC Capital is to leverage these assets to better monetize trading card investing.”

Artificial intelligence (AI) also promises to continue to play a role in sports card collecting, from the rising number of platforms that help collectors search the internet for desired cards to the tools that grading services use to assist in their efforts. At CSG, AI is used to automate many of the time-consuming aspects of grading, such as attributing a card and measuring its centering. CSG also uses forensic tech to reveal alterations and hidden details in the cards that it grades.

The collecting community continues to grow

Consumer demand for new cards is one of the factors that points to a promising 2023 for sports cards. Retail cards, which provide a product with a low entry point for those trying out the hobby, continue to sell well. In a recent interview with The Athletic, Jason Howarth, VP of Marketing for Panini America, described the retail market as “extremely strong,” citing double-digit growth in units of retail products.

Howarth also noted a high demand for wax boxes in the hobby market. Panini’s 2022 Absolute Football box provides an example of the strong demand for hobby cards. It was released on December 2, 2022, and sold out within two days.

The growing number of participants on online auction sites is also an indicator that the community of collectors is expanding. PWCC recently reported that it is seeing 15,000 new sign-ups to its auction platform monthly. In addition, the number of people bidding and buying on PWCC is also on the rise.

The ongoing growth in the number of cards being certified and graded is yet another indicator of the depth of the hobby. Most of the major grading services saw higher volumes in 2022 than in 2021 and were able to maintain these volumes consistently throughout the year even as prices started to fall.

Finally, while demand has slowed down in certain segments, it has gained momentum in others. Prewar vintage cards are one example of this. The demand for these cards continues to see steady growth, in large part because speculation is not part of the equation. The rarity of prewar cards is already determined and the careers of the players they represent are already established. When these cards come on the market, which is rare, collectors are willing to pay a premium to secure them.

CSG saw several examples of the growing popularity of prewar cards in the closing months of 2022, including the submission for grading of a group of 26 remarkable cards from the 1910 E98 Set of 30 cards. Ten of the cards graded CSG 9 or higher, including a Ty Cobb with a red background that graded CSG 9.5. The collection shows that examples of prewar cards of remarkable scarcity and exceptional quality continue to appear.

Click images to enlarge.

Appreciation for sports cards remains strong

When Anthony Giordano sold his 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle for $12.6 million in August 2022, smashing the previous record for most expensive card by more than $5 million, it provided a crystal-clear indicator that the market for sports cards remains strong. However, perhaps the biggest indicator of just how healthy the hobby is found in the comments that Giordano made after the sale.

When asked how he felt about the sale of his Mickey Mantle, the 75-year-old Giordano reported that he did not feel good about it because, “I don’t have my card anymore.” Giordano’s story illustrates that the heart of collecting, no matter how high or low prices go, will always be love for the cards, the heroes they represent and the sports they celebrate. CSG shares that love and stands ready to support collectors in authenticating, grading and preserving their treasures in 2023 and beyond.

To make sure that you never miss the latest news on sports card collecting, subscribe today to the CSG Score eNewsletter. You will receive regular updates on sales and other activity, as well as in-depth analysis of the latest trends and upcoming events, where you can meet and mingle with fellow collectors. In what is often a game of inches, the CSG Score will help you go the extra yard.

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