The sports card and collectibles market has seen major changes from 2020 into 2021. Prices of collectibles have gone from super-hot to cold in 2021. Many factors that helped the surge in prices have been changing. Some of the price declines of sports collectibles as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down should not be that shocking if traditional asset class analysis is being employed. It is understandable that collectors and dealers alike may have some concerns and grievances that the top players need to consider.
As the launch of Collectors Dashboard kicks off, I wanted to share some insights about the sports cards and collectibles market regionally and as a whole as summer of 2021 is here. This view is immediately after attending the TRISTAR Houston Collectors Show on June 5 and June 6, 2021.
There are some serious issues facing the collectibles and memorabilia markets at the present time. Even though sports card prices have softened considerably, it is still undeniable that the collectibles industry has matured into an alternative asset class. Some prices will continue to rise. Some prices will continue to fall.
Collectors Dashboard uses many traditional Wall Street analytical tools to evaluate the alternative asset class of collectibles. After all, as an asset class, collectibles are frequently competing head to head for the some money that might otherwise be invested into stocks, bonds or real estate.
Some trends may seem similar to prior years. The reopening of the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing some unique circumstances. These will bring their own risks and opportunities alike that may last well into 2022.
It is important to understand that these specific trends are observations of the collectors and dealers from the Houston show only. There may be some exact parallels to other regional or national trends, but these were specific to this show in particular. The order of interest was baseball first, followed by basketball and then football. After that, non-sports, hockey, soccer and miscellaneous memorabilia were down the line.
Here are 12 observations that need to be considered by collectors and investors who plan to attend collectibles conventions or who plan to buy and sell collectibles online or in stores during the rest of 2021. These are not in any order as creating a ranking of importance would be very subjective or would be biased.
1) Many collectors and dealers are too loaded up in new hot rookies!
Chasing new hot rookies and emerging stars in sports cards is nothing new. That said, chasing “The Next Babe Ruth” brings risks such as player injury, underperformance, and social aspects surrounding these cards. At the Houston show in particular, Shohei Ohtani rookie cards were still in strong demand with high prices. Players like LeBron James, Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Deshaun Watson cards were just not as hot as they have been.
This is not at all meant to imply that dealers should only focus on vintage cards, but the risks of buying vintage cards have always seemed to be less than in new emerging stars who still have to prove themselves over the coming decade.
You can even read our own piece – The Dangers of Chasing Rookie of the Year.
2) Non-fungible tokens (NFT) are a joke!
This seemed to be a universal view from card dealers and buyers alike at the TRISTAR Houston Collectors Show. After walking the convention floor, there was not a single table seen with digital offerings of NFTs. That certainly does not mean that there were not any NFTs that could have been purchased.
Admittedly it seems likely that some dealers have dabbled in the NFT market even if it has just been as a test. That aside, no digital offerings were visible at all. And after asking more than 20 modern sports card dealers, not a single positive comment from the dealer community was offered up about NFTs.
3) Dealers are more critical of auction houses.
One issue that collectors and modern day investors need to know is that all facets of buyers in the collectibles market are competing for the same assets. That crunch helped to drive prices higher from 2020 into 2021, but a softening interest and general herd mentality are also contributing to downward prices in auctions.
The one common complaint against auction houses by on-site dealers at the Houston show was universal — too many exact (pick your player) cards of the same years and same grades are having their auctions end seconds apart. This is not exactly a new issue, but dealers at the Houston show were much more vocal about this post-pandemic than they had been pre-pandemic.
4) There is a growing resentment against the grading companies.
There is also no major solution for the rest of 2021. It is no secret that some of the top grading companies have been shut down in 2021. The problems of grading backlog were already evident in 2020, particularly for the grading companies which had to shut down their in-office grading operations. The grading backlog that started in 2020 currently has no real end in sight for most collectors and dealers in the second half of 2021. That said, collectors and investors should not expect that ungraded cards in top condition will fetch the same prices as if they were slabbed in 10 and 9.5 grades from PSA, SGC, or BGS.
New and emerging grading companies were at the Houston show, as were supplemental grading services. The backlog and extreme wait times are likely to keep a lid on many of the newly issued cards from coming on the market. The current issues with the top three grading firms is leaving the door open for CGC and other grading companies to rise. The Houston show featured Dallas Card Investors for pre-grading, JSA for autographs, and two new entrants of CardScore.com from Grand Rapids, Michigan and Golden Grading from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
5) The card production companies are (selectively) making too many cards again.
It may sound strange to hear that too many cards are being made if you cannot find any packs to buy off the shelves anywhere. What has happened is that there are now so many variations of cards that it has started to create confusion for dealers, collectors and investors alike. It is not new to hear about multiple releases of rookie cards if you remember the “Junk Wax Era.” What does feel new is that it has become very difficult for even the industry’s top dealers to keep up with what rookie cards are best. Here are two fresh examples:
- The monthly SMR magazine from PSA in March 2021 showed 18 variations of Justin Herbert rookies from Panini in the 2020 issues alone.
- Fernando Tatis, Jr. was shown to have 37 variations of 2019 rookies issued under Bowman, Finest, Panini and Topps variations in the top rookie collection registered with PSA (and that “set” was only 73% complete. There are also pre-rookie Tatis cards to contend with.
There is a stark difference between the low-population prices and high population “base card” prices. An endless flood of rookie cards and confusion over what rookies are better or worse than others should weigh on long-term prices in the more high population graded cards.
6) Pack-breakers and pack-chasing…
Multiple card dealers opined that there are now too many pack-break and pack-chasing collectors expecting to turn $5 into $500. Maybe this is just resenting more competition, but this has changed the hobby and climate of sports and non-sports cards. The craze for buying up packs and boxes of any sort is not a new game at all. The card shortages of 2021 have been widely reported. Dealers have said that there are too many parties chasing the same assets, and there were fewer boxes and packs in June of 2021 at dealer tables than in prior years.
Many dealers and industry insiders have also been debunking the myth of “getting rich off new packs,” and it will become discouraging when buyers spend $5 and $10 (or more) for certain packs and walking away with no real value. Now imagine that even if a solid rookie or limited edition is pulled from a pack that the grading costs are currently prohibitive and the massive backlog and delays will weigh on the values and demand for those assets potentially for a months or longer.
7) Some individual card sellers were overbearing.
Dealers are allowing some card sellers to take over their tables enough that it has to hurt their sales. Dealers rely on individual card sellers as one of the means for bringing in new inventory, but some dealers are allowing sellers to take over their tables enough that it drives away interested card buyers. There were several groups of show attendees in the Houston show who took up the front of an entire dealer booth.
One group of four people was going table to table trying to sell the same rookie Durant and Hardin cards, and they simply wanted too much money and they were blocking interested buyers from even being able to see in the cases of what was for sale. Card dealers should consider posting their policy for a priority of buyers versus sellers, assuming that selling is their top priority. A single seller should not need an entourage blocking an entire dealer table off. If dealers want higher revenues, they should clearly post their rules and allow their for-sale merchandise to be accessible.
A suggestion for dealers – allow one person at a time in front of a booth who is a seller, and allow the dealer’s cards or merchandise for sale in cases to be visible so that buyers can have a shot without walking away. Think about it.
8) Worries about scams are becoming more common.
The fears of fakes and alterations are high again now that there is so much money involved in collectibles. The sports memorabilia market goes through its share of scandals over time. There have been card pressing and cutting scandals and fake grading holders popping up.
Dealers and buyers alike are now being more obvious about closely inspecting each graded slab for evidence of tampering. They are also doing more live serial number look-ups to double-check that the encapsulated card is also the same card that was graded.
Depending upon how a transaction occurs, there may be no recourse and a dealer (or collector) that gets suckered may pause on their collecting or investing if the loss of money is too great. This is not a new issue, but several card dealers this year complained that some sellers on eBay and other online venues have been less than reputable.
9) Alternative venues are being given mixed grades.
The rise of alternative venues is having a mixed effect for buying and selling cards and other collectibles. Without naming these services, there are multiple online venues for buyers and sellers to instantly execute Buy/Sell orders with no intention of taking possession of the asset.
There are also multiple fractional ownership platforms that allow investors to buy and sell the asset in shares via registered securities offerings. Some dealers have sold or transacted through these platforms, but a general consensus from the Houston sports collectibles show was that these venues have at least had some partial role in the run-up in 2020 and early 2021 and in the major price corrections that have been seen since February and March.
10) Too many buyers expect to sell their cards for an instant profit.
This observation does not pertain to brokers or dealers who help collectors find specific cards at shows because that is a service that definitely offers value when handled properly. Arbitrage in stocks and traditional asset classes is hard enough, but in collectibles an ability to buy and resell instantly for a profit is partly due to a lack of transparency. Unlike the stock or bond markets, the collectibles marketplace frequently has willing buyers and willing sellers who do not know how to easily find each other.
Buyers (including investors) often forget that there is never a guarantee for a profit. Think about this — with commissions, taxes and the bid/ask metrics should imply that any buyer is “out of the money” instantly on a new purchase.
Please read this lesson in history – Why You Should Never Bank on the Last Sale Price!
11) All eyes are looking forward to the National Sports Collectors Convention.
Now that it looks like the 41st National Sports Convention is a go for July 28 to August 1, dealers are hoping that the convention rekindles some of the animal spirits that were seen in late 2020 and the start of 2021. What happens with card prices between now and then is of course anyone’s guess. That said, the established professional sports dealers were looking forward to the national convention in Chicago as a post-pandemic venue that will act as the barometer for sports collectibles for the rest of 2021.
The information is still coming together for the national convention, but as of this time it has been telegraphed that on-site grading services are going to be present at the show. There are already 40 baseball players who are listed in the preliminary autograph listing for 2021, as well as 27 football players, 15 basketball players, and 3 hockey players.
12) Masking up is now history!
There may be a recovery period for those who live in states that have been much slower to reopen their economies. Texas was among the first of the states to reopen for business during the pandemic. As the COVID-19 vaccination rate rose, Governor Abbott lifted the mandatory masking order early in March in the State of Texas. This was very controversial at the time, but the mask-lifting order surprisingly did not lead to widespread increases in coronavirus cases. The vaccination rates have climbed and the state’s daily case count has continued to decline.
Visitors from other states such as New York, California and elsewhere may understandably be less comfortable seeing very few people wearing masks at the convention. Many people are still adapting to the mask-on versus no-mask.
Most people seemed to not be shaking hands yet, although it was not by an overwhelming majority at all. Fist bumps and elbow bumps were still common to see.
Again, these trends and observations are just what stood out the most after the June 4 to June 6 TRISTAR Productions show in Houston. Other conventions are coming, and the COVID-19 pandemic still seems to be less and less front-and-center by the day.
Here are just some of the photos that were taken.