Sports fans of a certain age might have fond memories of opening up a cheap pack of cards hoping to find an image of their favorite player.
Now, that humble hobby has evolved into a part-gambling, part-investment-based business that can fetch up to $3.1 million for a single card. That shift has put money in the pockets of people like Mike Becker, who owns Play Ball Sports Cards & Memorabilia in Arlington.
“It is legalized gambling,” Becker said. “I mean, you buy a box of cards, and you spend $250 for that box, and you pull a $1,000 to $5,000 card out of that box – and next thing you know, you buy another box, and you buy another box.”
The 72-year-old store owner has over 6 million sports cards, and those are just the ones back in storage. Becker’s nearly 6,000-square-foot store is, according to Becker, the largest in the state of Texas. It houses millions of cards and hundreds of pieces of memorabilia.
The business is booming right now – coming to life after decades of oversaturation caused the value of cards to drop in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
“The people that collected in the 80s and 90s, those were a lot of disgruntled people,” Becker said. “They spent a lot of money on cards that have turned into little or nothing and so they gave up on it.”
The pandemic helped give old collectors the time to reexamine their cards.
“So suddenly, they find some cards that have some value to them and they find out ‘Well man, this card’s $20? last I knew was 10 cents, and I bet if I can get it graded to 10, I can get $100 out of it,’ “ Becker said. “So it kind of grew like that – real quick.”
The popularity of sports card trading, also known as “The Hobby,” has increased during the pandemic. Becker has attributed the increased interest to distrust in the stock market leading people toward alternative investments.
“A lot of people are doing it because they’re making it part of their portfolios,” Becker said “It used to be stocks, bonds, silver, gold, wine and art. Now it’s sportscards.”
There isn’t any paperwork associated with cards either, so people can retain them – as an asset – and then sell them back onto the market without paying any taxes.
“Our businesses and (card) shows – there’s no paperwork required by anybody, and there’s a lot of cash that gets flown in through there,” Becker said. A card show that took place in Allen had a half-dozen million-dollar sales, he said.
“Guess what? The state of Texas never saw a dime of it and the IRS never saw a dime of it,” he added.
Also, people having more time and money on their hands during the pandemic may have contributed to the boom. Gage Otte, who helps run SMP Sports Cards in Grapevine, said demand has risen so high, it’s getting harder and harder to keep the shop stocked to meet demand.
“Everyone’s trying to get a slice of that pie,” Otte said.
“Every week, we get anywhere from three to five customers we’ve never seen before,” Becker said. “And it amazes me that that’s still happening.”
Spectacular sports card sales
These cards were “pulled” from mystery boxes at the shop all in the last few months
Khabib Nurmagomedov Auto Panini 2021 UFC Prizm Champion Signatures MOJO Prizm 25:
Sold for $18,959.95
2020 Panini Flawless Justin Herbert Rookie Booklet Rc Patch Auto /10 Chargers
Sold for $18,000
More time at home also allowed older collectors, who perhaps hadn’t touched their cards in years, to go through their collection. After discovering a high-value card, the next step is to get it graded.
According to cardboardconnection.com, “cards are graded based on these factors: Centering, Corners, Edges, and Surface. They give each attribute a grade of 1-10, then combine those to give the card a final grade of 1-10.”
A grading of 9 or above is considered mint, and a high grading can vastly increase the value of a card.
“All of those are backed up, with stuff over a year in a lot of their stores,” he said.
That means the current prices of cards could be inflated. High-value cards waiting to be graded could tank in price once they get back onto the market and increase the number of cards circulating.
There are other threats to the sports card industry and its future. As investors search for high-value cards in low-cost mystery boxes, they push out the people who were once trading cards’ biggest customer base – kids.
Even though kids are the future of the hobby, it can be hard to sell cards cheap enough for them to afford them, Otte said.
“That aspect of it has definitely been a lot more difficult… We’ve been trying to cater to kids a lot more often.”
Otte and Becker cater to kids by stocking lower-cost boxes, but retail stores like Target and Walmart are typically kids’ best bet for getting their hands on cards. But a fight over sports cards that took place in Wisconsin has prompted Target to take sports cards off the shelves, limiting options for young collectors.
Some people make it work. Becker mentioned a customer who comes into his store every Christmas to buy two boxes of cards for her kids. But Becker’s favorite customers are pure collectors, who chase after cards with no intention of turning a profit.
“It’s tough on the sports fans because they do it for the love of the sport, they do it for the love of collecting,” Becker said. “Matter of fact, there are several people my age that have no interest in even grading cards.”
The Hobby’s Future
Becker was one of those collectors. He has been in the business for decades and first started collecting cards in 1958 when the Dodgers moved to his home state of California.
Becker opened his first hobby shop in the 80s in Indianapolis, before his day job moved him down to North Texas. After the move, he discovered his business partner in Indianapolis was stealing from him, he closed down and moved all his cards and memorabilia into storage.
In Arlington, he joined one card shop and started his own. But it wasn’t until 2019 that he found his way to 2833 Galleria Drive in Arlington where he now houses his extensive collection. The store is meticulously organized by section.
Every card and piece of memorabilia is displayed to make it easy for customers to find the exact card they’re looking for.Becker attributes the organization to his wife, Rita, who runs the store with him. Becker hasn’t added to his collection in many years. Now, he prefers to focus on memorabilia.
“I really fell in love with memorabilia,” Becker said. “Because it’s to me that’s more personable and it’s easier to share.”
Right now, signed memorabilia could fetch a lower price than a signed card, but Becker expects that to change if the prices of cards continue to climb.
“I’m excited about that because we’ve got more people buying memorabilia than we’ve had in the past,” Becker said.
Becker hopes companies like Topps and Panini won’t flood the market with cards, causing them to drop in value like they did decades ago. But he’s looking forward to seeing what the future of his business and many others will be.
“I think that every year, they seem to come up with something a little bit different, a little bit new to excite people – and that’s always good.”
Rachel Behrndt is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.