Collage of trading cards
From Pivot Magazine

Why sports trading cards are making an epic comeback  

How the pandemic breathed life into the billion-dollar world of sports-cards collecting 

Collage of trading cardsThe buzz around cardboard-backed images of pitchers, quarterbacks and shooting guards has been a truly surprising hallmark of the pandemic

If you were a 10-year-old in 1979 and somehow managed to lay hands on an O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky rookie card, you would have been wise to stash it away somewhere for a decade or four. 

Sure, it’s a good-looking piece of cardboard, showing Gretzky in Oilers blue-and-orange, aslant on his skates, gazing up at the scoreboard. But, for all the youthful pleasure you’d have derived from freely handling it, just knowing that in 41 years time a well-preserved Gretzky of this same vintage would find a buyer at auction willing to pay US$1.2 million (a record price for a hockey card) might have been enough to stop you from playing around with it. 

No one really predicted the boom that has taken hold of the North American market for sports cards and collectibles. Say what you want about sourdough and sea shanties, the buzz around cardboard-backed images of pitchers, quarterbacks and shooting guards has been a truly surprising hallmark of the pandemic. 

Marc Juteau has watched it all explode firsthand. As founder and president of Classic Auctions, Canada’s premier purveyor of sports memorabilia, he’s been seeing interest in sports cards intensify in real time over the course of an otherwise fraught year. “People say that it used to be a hobby,” he says. “Now it’s an industry.”

Prior to March of last year, the highest price accruing to a sports card was the US$3.3 million paid in 2016 for a medium-grade baseball card from 1909 depicting Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner. Over the past year, that sale price has been topped four times, including a record US$5.2-million deal in January involving a 1952 Mickey Mantle card. Three months later, a 2003 LeBron James rookie card became the most expensive basketball card ever sold, matching the $5.2 million Mantle figure. As of April, the Wagner sale is the oldest transaction among the top ten. The rest all happened in the past 15 months.

The last time the market for cardboard keepsakes was so dynamic was in the early 1990s, though the money on the move then was nothing compared to today. The landscape has shifted in other ways, too. Grading—the strict independent determination of their physical condition—is paramount now to the value of a card. That million-dollar Gretzky rookie card was deemed a perfect 10—“gem mint” in the parlance of the assessor, Professional Sports Authenticator, and thereby super rare. (In a 2021 sale, Classic Auctions sold the same card, graded a six—meaning it shows some wear—for $7,872.) 

Attaching a valuation to the sports card market as a whole isn’t easy. Pre-pandemic, one estimate pegged the money flowing in and around sports memorabilia (cards included) on eBay and at independent auction houses and retailers at around US$5.4 billion annually. Now? Anyone bold enough to venture a guess at the growth the last year has seen might say that number has doubled, or even tripled. 

Yet when the pandemic hit, the collectible sector looked to be heading for an abrupt halt. “I felt that the industry was going to be in big trouble,” says Chris Carlin, head of customer experience for the industry-leading manufacturer Upper Deck, headquartered in Carlsbad, Calif. “Usually, the collectibles market goes very similarly as the economy. But we realized pretty quickly that this wasn’t slowing down,” he says. “This was going to get bigger and crazier.”

Suddenly, more people were grounded at home, looking out at the world through a laptop—and with more disposable income. “There was a snowball effect,” says Juteau. “Once people see that the prices are rising, more people want to invest.”

Some, like Sportsnet television host Ken Reid, say the brief void in sports being played at the onset of the pandemic helped breathe new life into the collectibles market. “If you still wanted to have sports in your life, you almost had to manufacture that—and collecting was an easy way to do it.”

Reid, who has authored two books on hockey cards, describes his stockpile of vintage Gretzkys, Orrs and Espositos as a relatively modest one: a mere 60,000 cards or so. “I’m a collector at heart,” he says, tapping into what is still, for many, the key attraction of cards: the stories and history they harbour, and the emotional strands that link collectors to childhood memories and their own sports heroes. 

Views differ on how long the present boom might be expected to last, or whether it is simply a bubble, fixing to burst at any moment.   

“High-quality, high-end stuff will always have a strong market,” says Chris Thompson, a wealth manager based in London, Ont., who views cards through an investment lens and offers services on how to craft a sports-card portfolio, based on his readings of the market. “My view is that the market softens between now and late fall, as we transition as a society back to work. We’re going to remove probably two or three of the factors that kind of pushed this market in the last year.” 

Thompson has been advising clients to monitor what he calls the “key cards”—household names like Gretzky, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. “They’re the Apples, the Microsofts, the Amazons—the five or six stocks that drive the market.”


Learn why the sales of binoculars are suddenly skyrocketing and how old-fashioned pastimes and non-electronic games are making a major comeback during the pandemic.