CHICAGO — Forget Wall Street. Jim & Steve’s Sportscards in Waukegan may have had the hottest initial public offering Wednesday: the Topps 2021 Series 1 baseball cards.
Collectors grabbed $149 boxes filled with 24 packs of 14 cards each before they hit the shelves, just the latest example of how million-dollar sales and speculative traders are turning the onetime children’s hobby into a high-stakes investment game.
“Business is probably at an all-time high,” said Steve Wilson, 52, owner of the north suburban shop since it opened in 1981. “Investors, collectors, they’re sitting at home, they’ve got nothing else to do.”
Baseball trading cards are booming during the pandemic, with record sales of vintage cards, skyrocketing prices for new cards and an influx of collectors — old and new. Some industry analysts see pandemic stay-at-home boredom as fueling a resurgence of interest, as parents rediscover the hobby and share it with their children.
Investors who saw big returns on the stock market last year also have begun to buy into trading cards as an alternative to equities, pumping up prices for the cardboard commodity.
With growing demand far outstripping supply, it may be hard for kids to get to first base in starting their own collections.
“People are waiting in line for stores to open now,” said Jason Koonce, 38, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, an influential sports memorabilia broker who has been trading cards for fun and profit since he was 10. “The unfortunate part is it’s taking it away from the kids, because you’re pricing them out.”
Koonce said new cards are immediately worth 3 to 10 times the retail price in the secondary market, if they are sold unopened, which preserves the value and holds the promise of a future Hall of Famer or a limited edition autographed card.
Recent sales should send anyone whose mom didn’t throw out their collection rummaging through the attic.
Last month, a 1952 Mickey Mantle card in mint condition sold for a record $5.2 million. That topped the August sale of an autographed 2009 Mike Trout rookie card that sold online at Goldin Auctions for a then-record $3.9 million.
Hoping to find the next Mike Trout, speculators are paying thousands of dollars for an autographed Spencer Torkelson card, even though the top draft pick by the Detroit Tigers in June has yet to play a minute in the majors.
Torkelson is one of 200 prospects from the 2020 Bowman Draft collection, a Topps product released in December. The company randomly inserts three autographed cards into a box. The collection, which has a suggested retail price of about $150 per hobby box, sold out quickly online.
Wilson said he still has a “healthy supply” of the draft prospect boxes, priced at $500 each.
“Torkelson might never make the majors. It’s a possibility,” Wilson said. “And then all these dollars that were thrown at him or spent on his cards would go for naught. Or he could be the next greatest player in Detroit history.”
The path from quirky collectible to high-priced investment traces back to the 1991 launch of Professional Sports Authenticator, a California-based company that grades the quality of trading cards. The company uses a 10-point system, with a 10 being “Gem Mint” condition.
Collectors mail in their cards, with the service ranging from $10 to $5,000 a card, depending on the valuation and desired turnaround time. Cards are returned in a sealed case with the grade and certification number displayed on a label.
The service gained widespread adoption in the late ‘90s, with high-end trading card sales bolstered by the uniform grading system, which weeds out the bubble gum-stained, rubber-banded cards from the painstakingly preserved. A top grade can ensure top dollar.
The pandemic seems to have accelerated the appreciation of trading cards.
Many sports card shows were canceled last year due to the health crisis, including the National Sports Collectors Convention in Atlantic City. The show, which rotates annually to different cities, is scheduled for late July at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont.
In 2019, the last time it was held in Rosemont, the five-day event drew a record 50,000 attendees, according to Ray Schulte, a Maryland-based spokesman for the convention. He said the pandemic has only boosted the industry since then.
“A lot of people were staying at home and going through their attics and then checking out stuff that they’ve collected over the years,” Schulte said. “That’s turned into buying and selling, and e-commerce has been through the roof.”
Trading thrived online last year, from “breaking” sessions, where customers buy an unknown card in a pack opened live on video, to online auctions fetching record prices for the rarest and most valued cards.
While baseball cards have been around for more than a century, the industry has expanded to other sports and multiple manufacturers in the modern era, with basketball, football and hockey cards fetching lofty prices last year as well.
Major NBA sales included $1.85 million paid at a July auction for an autographed 2003 LeBron James rookie card, while a 2013 Giannis Antetokounmpo signed rookie card sold for $1.81 million. A 1979 rookie card for NHL great Wayne Gretzky sold for $1.29 million at auction in December. Several other cards sold for just under $1 million last year.
The return on investment is staggering, considering the humble origin of the product.
Topps, the industry leader, started in 1938 as a chewing gum company in Brooklyn. It created its first annual set of baseball cards in 1952, with pictures of the players and team logos on the front, and statistics on the back. The original packs, which included six cards and a slab of bubble gum, sold for a nickel.
In 2021, a single pack of 14 Topps baseball cards costs about $8, if you can find them. Most serious collectors buy them by the box, or a case of 12 boxes, which would run about $1,500, Wilson said. Topps stopped including gum in 1992, after collectors complained it messed up the cards.
A limited number of cards are issued for each production run, making the secondary market robust. The Topps Series 1 cards released Wednesday were sold out on the Topps website Friday.
In 2007, Chicago-based private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners and The Tornante Company, a private investment firm headed by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, bought Topps for about $385 million and took the company private. That year, Topps generated nearly $327 million in sales.
A spokesman for Madison Dearborn declined to comment on current financial performance, and Topps did not respond to a request for comment.
Anthony Dovine, 57, of Glendale Heights, left his job as a mortgage loan officer 20 years ago to buy and sell baseball cards full time. Normally, much of his business is done at card shows.
“This is my life,” Dovine said. “I travel 100,000 miles a year in the air doing this. And I travel about 25,000 to 30,000 miles on the road doing this. This is all I do.”
Last year, his business plan took a hit as shows were canceled, forcing him to trade more online. On Thursday, he completed one large deal at the Red Apple Pancake House in Carol Stream, where Dovine does many of his closings.
Dovine, who didn’t play with baseball cards as a kid growing up in Chicago, said he’ll still invest tens of thousands of dollars on graded, high-end cards, but the rising cost of new cards makes them too expensive to buy.
“That’s too big of a gamble right now to open up a box of trading cards, hoping to hit something that’s unknown,” Dovine said. “Most people winning in this business are buying already graded cards, buying the inventory that they like.”
Koonce, who operates OTIA Sports as a brokerage for high-end collectors to buy and sell cards, turned his childhood passion into a profession. As a kid, Koonce would shovel snow all day and then go to the local card shop and give them his earnings to buy and open packs. The hobby became a business when he started attending card shows, and by high school, he was making several thousand dollars in a weekend “flipping cards,” he said.
Buying a new box of trading cards and opening them, at the current prices, is like playing the lottery, with far more busts than winners, he said. Selling a sealed box on the secondary market, is by far the safest investment.
“You could pull $10 worth of cards in a $100 box, or you could get lucky and pull a rare card worth $2,000 or $3,000,” Koonce said. “It’s fun, but generally it’s a bad investment to open them.”
He also recommends investing mostly in high-value cards such as LeBron James, Michael Jordan or Tom Brady, or older cards featuring deceased athletes, who are “not going to get into bar fights” that could diminish their value.
But more than anything, Koonce said, it’s important not to lose sight of the reason most people began to collect trading cards as children.
“I tell people, buy what you love,” Koonce said. “And if it all goes down to nothing, you really don’t care if you enjoy it.”