Sports Card Grading 101: The Definitive Tutorial

sports card grading

Understanding how to grade a sports card can be an invaluable tool for both new collectors and grizzled veterans of the hobby.

While most turn to third party card grading services (such as PSA and SGC), knowing what a raw card will earn for a grade is important for collectors.

In this piece, we discuss some of the pros and cons of the third party grading companies, while offering collectors a lesson on professional grading.

We hope this resource will provide everything you need to view cards just as the professionals do.

This knowledge will help when spotting raw cards for sale and allowing you to come up with an expected grade on the spot.

Card Grades 

The grades for cards are as follows, from best to worst.

Gem Mint, Mint, Near Mint to Mint, Near Mint, Excellent-Mint, Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, Poor

Note that this is a generic classification system that is standard throughout the industry.  As we will explore in later sections, the third party grading companies have their own guidelines, but the actual grades are consistent across the grading companies.  

Also, it’s important to note that the age of cards makes no difference in card grading!  A 1909 T206 card that is graded as Mint is held up to the same standards as a 2018 Topps card.  It’s a common misconception, but Mint is Mint and Poor is Poor, no matter the age of the card.

Key Characteristics of Grading

Centering

Centering is one of the key inputs to evaluating a card’s grade.  For some collectors, a card with near perfect centering is an absolute necessity, while some are willing to overlook centering in hopes of a card with pristine corners and little surface wear.  Whatever the case, centering is an important part of the grading process.  One can typically eyeball a cards’s overall centering.  It might be hard sometimes to tell if a card has perfect 50/50 centering, but it’s fairly easy to tell is something is quite off-center.

trout-50-50-centering

Centering is actually a mathematical process, and the professional graders are actually measuring the distance of the outside border to the edge of the card on the top and bottom and left and right.  If the distance is exactly the same for all four measurements, a card is considered to have perfect centering.  

Here’s a great little spreadsheet that someone from the Collector’s Universe built to help in calculating the actual centering percentages. 

It’s somewhat simple: measure the top and bottom borders in your preferred unit (mm, inches, whatever), add the two and then divide the top border measurement by the sum.  So here’s a Jordan Rookie with some clear centering issues (it actually received a Mint (9) rating from PSA but with an OC or off-center qualifier).  According to PSA, a card that gets a Mint (9) rating from them has to have centering of 60/40 to 65/35 on the front.  If we measure the left and right borders, we find that this Jordan card actually has 70/30 centering.  So, even though it met all of the requirements of a Mint card, it’s centering led it to receive a 9 (Mint) grade with an OC (or off-center) qualifier. 

jordan-rookie-off-center

Note that the different grading companies have slightly different standards for centering.  PSA is slightly more lenient versus SGC.  

Corners

A card that is considered “Gem Mint” must have four perfectly sharp corners and is a general standard across the grading companies.  What you and I think might be perfect corners, might not cut the grade with PSA or SGC, as the graders are looking at the card under magnification in order to get a close look at the card.  Any slight imperfection on one corner will move you down the grading scale, while multiple corner issues will move you even further down the scale.  Cards that are graded Fair or Poor typically have severely rounded corners.  

Surfaces

Most collector’s don’t normally think of a cards surface when considering a card’s grade, but this in an important factor.  A perfect card with sharp corners yet with some fingerprints or dirt on the surface will never earn a Gem-Mint rating.  As we discuss later, using a jewelers loupe and/or a blacklight can also help get your eyes on some other unidentifiable surface issues that your naked eye can’t pickup.  

Surface problems can come in all kinds of forms, but some of the more common issues that will downgrade a card’s grade are wax stains, print defects, focus imperfections, scratches, scuffing , and creases.   Some surface issues might be potentially cleaned from the card, like dirt or fingerprints, while the others are unfortunately just something you’ll have to deal with.   Lower graded cards will have these problems in increasing numbers and severity.   As we also note later, PSA has its own ‘qualifiers’ such as ‘ST’ (or stain) that will be added on to a cards typical grade.

Edges

The edges (or borders) of a card is also an important factor when considering a card’s overall grade.  A card in Gem Mint or even Mint condition should have sharp edges with no signs of chipping.  Sometimes it can be hard to see problems on a card’s borders with your naked eye, thus a loupe or other type of magnifying glass is needed in order to get a closer look at the card.   Cards in lower grades typically have significant border wear with potentially chipped edges on the card.  

The Card Grading Companies

Let's take a quick look at the card grading companies.  Here is an overview of all of the major graders you need to be concerned with:

Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA)

PSA is the largest and most highly respected card grader on the market.  They are also part of a publicly traded company called Collector's Universe.  Many might argue the point, but PSA graded cards tend to carry a better premium in the resale market versus other third party graders.

Cards are graded on a 10 point scale from 1 through 10, with 10 (Gem-Mint) being the best.  Cards that are graded as 'Authentic' are known to be genuine, but because of an alteration or other defect, the grader was unable to provide a numbered grade.

PSA Grading Scale

Numerical Grade

Condition

PSA 10

Gem Mint

PSA 9

Mint

PSA 8

Near Mint to Mint

PSA 7

Near Mint

PSA 6

Excellent to Near Mint

PSA 5

Excellent

PSA 4

Very Good to Excellent

PSA 3

Very Good

PSA 2

Good

PSA 1.5

Fair

PSA 1

Poor

PSA also has ‘qualifiers’ which can be added to a numbered grade—such as OC (off-center) or ST (stain).  According to PSA, a “Qualifier” is a term used when “an item meets all of the criteria for a particular grade but may still have one significant flaw”.

List of PSA Qualifiers

OC – Off-Center
ST – Staining
PD – Print Defect
OF – Out of Focus
MK – Marks
MC – Miscut

Qualifiers tend to bring a card down on average one to two grade levels in the resale market–for example a PSA 8 card with an OC qualifier would likely sell for what a PSA 6 or PSA 7 card would go for.   Note that when submitting cards for grading, one can request a grade with ‘no-qualifiers’.

One of the reasons for PSA’s market dominance, is the well documented population reports for graded cards, along with the impressive set registry, which allows collectors to submit and track their collections on PSA’s website.

Costs for submission vary but starts at $20 for regular card grading.  Due to popularity of card grading in recent years, turnaround times on submissions has been severely impacted.  PSA is a division of Collector’s Universe (CLCT), a publicly traded company.

PSA has been on a remarkable rise since 1991, a year which marked a tumultuous time in the grading company’s early years; allegations arose that it knowingly ignored an obvious trimmed 1909 T206 Honus Wagner card.  Even ignoring that black mark on PSA’s history, I can assure you of one thing–the third party card graders are not always right!  You can read an example of this in our lengthy piece on strip cards.

t206-gretzky-wagner

Sportscard Guaranty Company (SGC)

If PSA is numero uno in the grading community, then SGC is a close second.  SGC is popular with some vintage collectors who prefer the black inserts used in the SGC card holders.  Still, PSA clearly has the edge as the hobby’s favorite and is the preferred company to use for maximizing resale value.

As for quality, SGC has always been very consistent with their grading, maybe even with a better reputation versus PSA in this regard.  But in the end, all of the grading companies are going to make mistakes; they are after all only humans.  The days of Artificial Intelligence and algorithmic grading aren’t here (YET) so we have to live with the flaws that human grading brings to the table.

sgc-100-ripken

There will always be cards that appear under or over graded, and in the former, most just chalk it up to the grader having a bad day. I WISH that there was more uniformity among third party graders, but until those bots start grading cards, it is what it is.

Side note, i saw someone in a forum i visit frequently mention this about the inconsistency with grading and I thought it was spot on.  THE ROBOTS ARE COMING (maybe?)

The grading industry is long overdue for a major overhaul. I hope that whatever technology will be used corrects some or all of the current problems. I really don’t want to hear about the subjectivity of grading. I want to hear about a system that grades cards correctly and will deliver that same grade no matter how many times a card is reviewed. I don’t want to hear stories about cards being submitted three times and getting three different grades. If it can’t be done right, then it shouldn’t be done at all.

BIG NOTE that SGC has recently moved to a new grading system!

From herein on in, they are only utilizing the 0 to 10 grading system that PSA uses.

Previously they used to include their 0 to 100 grade and the equivalent PSA 0 to 10 grade (see Ripken rookie card above for an example of this).  Now it will only be a 0 to 10 rating.  In addition, they went from their custom forest green color to new black bold lettering (see 75 Topps Ryan below).

I can tell you that personally I don’t like it, and most in the hobby don’t either.  I think the numbering grade change is a good one, but the color change just completely changes their identity.   Note that SGC is also introducing a new scanned registry which could be a game changer, but it all comes down to execution and I worry about SGC’s ability to do this effectively.

new-sgc-slab

Beckett’s Grading Services (BGS, BVG and BCCG)

I haven’t used Beckett as much as I have SGC and PSA, but in my experience the grading consistency is quite good.  The problem being that PSA and SGC tend to be more widely utilized with vintage cards, thus leading Beckett to be more of a lower tier grader in the vintage collecting world.

In addition, Beckett itself has three different grading subsidiaries: Beckett Grading Services (BGS) for cards from 1981 to present, Beckett Vintage Grading (BVG) for pre 1981 cards, and then Beckett Collectors Club Grading (BCCG) which is a lower tier grading level that Beckett uses and is generally not well regarded.

BGS uses a different system that help differentiate it from other grading services.  Cards are provided four different sub-grades based on the following criteria:

Centering
Corners
Edges
Surface

BGS then uses a ‘black box’ algorithm to take the subgrade scores to arrive an overall grade.  While the algorithm has never been revealed some have tried to crack the code.

“In summary: Corners is punished hardest, Centering next, Surface/Edges the least. How much the overall grade is better than the worst subgrade depends on which subgrade is the worst, and also depends on how much the other three subgrades are better than the worst subgrade, measured by diff (or the differential in subgrades)”

The scoring for BGS is mostly similar to industry grading (1-10) scales with one exception.  A BGS 9.5 is known as a Gem Mint, which would be similar to a PSA 10 or SGC 10.   BGS also has a 10 score, which they call ‘Pristine’, meaning that a card has scored a 10 in all four of the sub-grades.  BGS now actually labels the card with a black label, calling it ‘BGS Black’.

bgs-pristine

I think this whole Pristine thing is a bit confusing and I think many collectors are sort of put off by the whole thing.  Nevertheless a Pristine graded card does often hold a premium.  Just remember that a BGS 9.5 is equivalent to a PSA 10 or SGC 10.  Note that BVG or BCCG do not evaluate a card using sub-grades and thus do not have a similar ‘Pristine’ rating.

For vintage collectors, I wouldn’t really bother with any of the Beckett grading services.  I know some that use BVG for vintage card grading, but typically PSA or SGC will generate better returns.  In addition, I know someone who just waited over a year to receive some card submissions back from Beckett.  No thanks.

What Is The Best Card Grading Service?

Most collectors will agree that the three best card grading companies are Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), Sportscard Guaranty (SGS) and Beckett Grading Services (BGS and BVG).   PSA is the biggest and probably the most well-known grader in the hobby.  While, no concrete evidence exists, anecdotally speaking PSA graded cards tend to sell for a slightly higher premium versus comparable SGC, BGS or BVG graded cards.

As to who is the best grader, it’s mostly subjective, as each collector has their own different experiences.  For vintage cards, collectors tend to gravitate to PSA, SGC with BVG a distant third.  There have been some issues of trust recently in regards to third party graders due to several trimming related scandals.  A lot of these issues surrounded PSA, thus I know some collectors that will only grade through SGC now.

PSA VS SGC Centering Differences

PSA Grade
PSA Guidelines
SGC Grade
SGC Guidelines
Gem-Mint (10)
55/45 to 60/40 percent on the front, 75/25 on back
Gem-Mint (10)
55/45 or Better
Mint (9)
60/40 to 65/35 percent on the front, 90/10 on back
Mint (9)
60/40 or Better
Near Mint-Mint (8)
65/35 to 70/30 to percent on the front, 90/10 on back
Near Mint-Mint (8)
65/35 or Better
Near Mint (7)
70/30 to 75/25 to percent on the front, 90/10 on back
Near Mint (7)
70/30 or Better
Excellent-Mint (6)
80/20 percent on the front, 90/10 on back
Excellent-Mint (6)
75/25 or Better
Excellent (5)
85/15 percent on the front, 90/10 on back
Excellent (5)
80/20 or Better
Very Good-Excellent (4)
85/15 percent on the front, 90/10 on back
Very Good-Excellent (4)
85/15 or Better
Very Good (3)
90/10 percent on the front, 90/10 on back
Very Good (3)
90/10 or Better
Good (2)
90/10 percent on the front, 90/10 on back
Good (2)
90/10 or Better
Poor (1)
Any centering is allowed
Poor (1)
Any centering is allowed

A Visual Representation of Card Grades

  • Gem Mt (PSA 10, sgg 98)
  • MINT (PSA 9, SGC 96)
  • Nm-mt (PSA 8, sGC 88)
  • NM (PSA 7, SGC 84)
  • Ex-mt (PSA 6, SGC 80)
  • EX (PSA 5, SGC 60)
  • VG-EX (PSA 4, SGC 50)
  • VG (PSA 3, SGC 40)
  • GOOD (PSA 2, SGC 30)
  • FAIR (PSA 1.5, SGC 20)
  • POOR (PSA 1, SGC 10)

According to PSA, in order to earn a pristine PSA 10 (or Gem-Mint) rating, the card must be a ‘virtually perfect card’.  The corners must be sharp, with no staining and original focus in tact.  Note that PSA does allow cards that are slightly off-center to earn a PSA 10 grade, but not to exceed 55/45 to 60/40 in the front or 75/25 on the reverse.  Below, is a PSA 10 graded Ken Griffey Jr 1989 Upper Deck rookie card.  You can see that the corners are pristine and the card overall is in remarkable condition.

An equivalent grade of PSA 10 (or Gem Mint) for SGC would be SGC 98.  Note that a SGC 100 is what they refer to as ‘PRISTINE’ and does not allow for any off centering.  Thus a PSA 10 could technically crossover to an SGC 100 and vice versa.  Confusing, right?

psa-10-griffey-ud

How To Submit Cards for Grading

Each company has their own requests for submitting cards to be graded.  I highly suggest reading all of the guidelines before submitting to each respective grader.  We will provide some more tips and advice on this at a later date.

PSA Grading Submissions

SGC Grading Submissions

BVG Grading Submissions

Costs of Card Grading

Sports card grading prices are based on a few key factors – card value, desired turnaround time and the type of card being graded.  If you haven’t submitted a card for grading before, the pricing schedule can get very confusing.

PSA Card Grading Prices

PSA’s cheapest card grading service – ‘Economy’ – starts at $20, for a card with a maximum declared value (*) of $499.  This $20 fee is based on PSA’s standard turnaround time of 50 days.  Note that the 50 days is an estimate and can vary based on grading submission demand.  If the declared value is up to $999 then this becomes a ‘Regular’ priced submission for $50.

PSA also has an expedited grading service – ‘Express’, which allows for a declared value of up to $2499 and has an estimated turnaround of 8 days. You can also go for a ‘Super Express’ turnaround of 2 days for $200 or a 1-day ‘Walk Through’ for $500.

Upping the declared value will also raise the costs, all the way up to $5000 for a ‘Premium Elite’ submission which has a max declared value of $100,000 and a 1 day turnaround—this will set you back $5000.

*Note, the ‘declared value’ is what you estimate your card will be worth after PSA grades it.  This is not an exact science, and is mostly used for insurance purposes.  Assuming that you don’t abuse the system, PSA won’t upcharge you if you are slighly off on value expectations, but it can happen.

Note that PSA has a Collector’s Club which often offers quarterly grading bulk specials where cards can be submitted at a discount. In fact one special offers a 25 vintage card submission for just $8 per card.  Well worth the $60 annual fee in my mind.

SGC Card Grading Prices

SGC’s base card grading service is a bit cheaper than PSA and starts at $10 for cards worth less than $250. Like PSA, they also offer higher priced submissions based on turnaround time and declared value. They offer an Express ($15 with 15 business day turnaround), Priority ($35 with 5 business day turnaround), Next Day ($85 and 2 days) and Same Day ($250) grading service. This goes all the way up to their Super Premium service for cards worth over $100,000; this service has a base fee of $3,750.

Beckett Card Grading Prices

This table below details Beckett’s standard pricing across various turnaround times.  Note that they also offer discounts on bulk submissions. 

beckett-grading-prices

If you look at Beckett’s submission form, you’ll see that there is a declared value column.  Note that this declared value number is determined automatically based on the various service levels for PSA and SGC, yet with Beckett you’ll need to calculate grading costs based on the insurance value table below:

Insurance Fees:
Declared Value    Fee
$1-$1000            $11.00
$1001-$2000    $22.00
$2001-$3000   $33.00

Add $11.00 for each additional $1000 in
declared value (or portion thereof)

Thus, let’s say we are submitting the following card:

1952 Mickey Mantle Topps – Value $100,000  —  we want the standard turnaround.

This would start at $15 + $1,100 (for insurance)  = $1,115   + ground shipping of ~$22 – or $1137

Tools Needed To Become An Expert Card Grader

Grademaster Centering Tool (or just a Ruler)

First, you don’t NEED this, as I noted previously, you can just measure the borders and use this spreadsheet to help calculate the percentages.  But I have heard good things about this Grademaster tool so it seems really helpful and thought I would give it a plug here.  I’ve also heard of some people that use a sewer’s Omnigrid, which is basically a plastic measuring grid.  So either one is totally not necessary, as a ruler might be everything you need.

Jewelers Magnifying Loupe

I bought one of these from eBay and its just like what jewelers use and its only $5–it has an LED light and magnifies things up to 60x their size.  Good thing is that it’s portable, so if you’re going to a store or your local card show you can bring it along for the ride.

Microfiber Cloth

Surfaces are one of the key inputs to evaluating a card grade, so if the surface of the card is dirty or has fingerprints, it will receive a lower grade.  Carefully wiping the card clean with a microfiber cloth such as these can help avoid an unnecessary low grade due to a dirty surface.

Blacklight

Note that I also really liked this discussion on the Beckett forum about doing your own card grading.  They also discuss getting a blacklight, which can be very helpful in looking at surface issues along with helping identify if you might have a reprint/fake card on your hands. 

blacklight
I bought this blacklight off eBay and this is all you really need in order to tell if your card is printed on newer or older vintage paper.

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