Sports Card Hysteria: Is 2021 When The Bubble Finally Bursts?
Sports card values have been on an unworldly increase of late.
The rise has given credence to the belief that sports cards should be earmarked for collectors as a part of their overall investment portfolio.
And I certainly have advocated that cards should be thought of as an entirely distinct asset class, separate from stocks, bonds, art, etc.
Yet, the hysteria of late has me moderately concerned; I’m noticing signs that indicate we may be in the midst of another asset bubble in the sports card world.
In this piece I discuss some of my concerns regarding card prices, some of the red flags that I’ve noticed and where we might go from here.
As always if you have any thoughts on the current state of the hobby–please comment below or feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I've also lived through the sports card bubble back in the 1980's. Maybe we could consider Bitcoin, or cryptocurrencies as another speculative bubble yet with the story still unfinished in that concern.
I even wrote a piece back in April of 2019 discussing how we might possibly be in the midst of a vintage sports card bubble. Back in that piece I noted a few concerns:
1) Potential For Price Manipulation on Cards with Limited Supply
2) A Generational Gap with Vintage Cards
3) Wall Street Like Inventions in the Hobby.
So, obviously that article was not very well timed, as cards have continued to soar over the past year and eight months. Although I advised in that piece that I didn't think we were in a bubble, but "more of an over-extension in pricing at the very least".
But what now?
Are card values peaking?
Are sports cards prices representative of their true value?
These are all great questions. Let's first start by saying that I do not have a crystal ball. Collectors often ask me where prices are going next year or the year after--my answer is that I just don't know.
Remember that sports cards do not produce dividends, cash flow or income the same way that other assets such as stocks, bonds or real estate do. Thus we cannot determine what the appropriate value is for an asset that does not produce cash flows for it's owners.
With sports cards, coins, jewelry, art or other types of non-cash flowing assets the value is determined by what collectors are willing to pay for a particular asset. Recent sales prices help put a line in the sand as to an asset's value, and today we have great access to data that helps keep collectors informed to the 'true price' for an asset.
I do believe that easy access to data (PSA population reports, PSA APR (auction prices realized), card grading and the significantly improved liquidity of the market (mostly due to eBay's marketplace) have been the key reasons for the big increase in sports card prices over the last few years.
When I first started buying and selling cards in the 1980's there were some early computer exchanges starting up, but the ease of buying and selling that we have today, just did not exist. If you wanted to sell your cards, you had to physically head out to a baseball card store or a local card show. Today, you can sell a card on eBay in a matter of a few hours and have it shipped to the buyer in a few days.
And back then, there was not as huge of a focus on card grading. I mean, people paid attention to the condition of the cards, and something with a huge crease or beat up corners was worth less, but the pricing was random and no one really knew what was selling for what elsewhere.
Thus, the advent and popularity of card grading has been a big time improvement for the hobby in helping organize data and a major reason for why cards continue to rise in value. Knowing exactly what a card is graded at and what it has sold for over the past month or year is huge in helping put a floor in future values.
But the card bubble of the 1980's does feel a bit similar to the significant rise in card prices over the last few years. Remember, bubbles get started by that FOMO (or fear of missing out). Once a few collectors start flaunting their riches derived from flipping cards, it's not too long that everyone else wants to get involved.
I get bubble like feelings every time I watch Gary Vaynerchuk talk about or flaunt his latest card purchases. For those of you that don't know, Gary V, as he is more commonly known, is considered one of the gurus of social media, and an avid sports fan.
Vaynerchuk has been a big proponent of card investing over the past few years and is not shy about calling out his latest auction wins or talking about cards that he thinks can increase in value.
Vaynerchuk has a big following; over 8 million followers on Instagram and an army of loyal followers that follow his every entrepreneurial move. One recent interview caught my eye. Vaynerchuck was speaking with Barstool Sports' Dave Portnoy--mostly about the Barstool Fund (which is an amazing cause by the way) yet the discussion for a few minutes focused on sports cards. I've posted the video below (scroll through to about 35:30).
"Have you seen the sports card thing? Has that hit your radar at all?" is how Vaynerchuk introduced the topic to Portnoy. Portnoy admitted that he hasn't spent much time on it, but that Barstool as a whole has been exploring ways to enter the market (of which Vaynerhcuk was very supportive of).
Now, sure, this seems like an innocent conversation between two friends about a market that has been certainly gaining in popularity. But, Vaynerchuk is sort of mildly implying something more to the effect of 'man I've been making a killing with cards, have you put any money into this yet?".
I've said it before as well, but I do think that Vaynerchuk is very likely having an impact on the market. Not the only reason of course, but sort of only adding fuel to that fire.
So, this article isn't meant to pick on Vaynerchuk; I like the guy, but anytime you start to see people flaunting their profits--especially in a market as fragile and as easily manipulated as the sports card hobby-- it is usually a sign to me that things are ready to get really really ugly.
Okay enough on Gary V---let's talk about the Michael Jordan rookie card for a minute, which has basically been the poster child for the irrational exuberance witnessed in the card market over the last few years.
A PSA 10 Michael Jordan rookie card sold for $208,000 on December 21, 2020, while another PSA 10 Jordan sold only eight days prior to that for $200,000. So, the market has been set for a Gem Mint Jordan rookie I guess?
There are 317 Gem Mint (PSA 10) Michael Jordan Rookie Cards in existence.
317! Let me repeat this. There are 317 Gem Mint Michael Jordan rookie cards (as per graded by PSA). This does not include gem mint cards as graded by SGC or Beckett. Thus this is not by any means in the traditional sense--a rare card.
First, who is spending $200K on that card, and why can they afford it?
Well, here's one guess.
Excesses in any market can be supported by asset price increases in other asset classes. Thus, collectors that have seen major profits on stocks over the past few years or on their bitcoin investment, now have more disposable funds to invest in cards.
But I don't think that's the major reason here. I think many of the riches that have been made in the hobby are just going right back into cards to help keep the values inflated. Flipping is a big thing in the hobby now. The Michael Jordan PSA 10 Rookie card that sold at Goldin Auctions back on 12/21/2020 for $208K was purchased only seven months prior for $90,000.
Is it normal for the value of a basketball card to increase by 131% in only seven months?
In my opinion, NO. This is 100% not sustainable.
What's next, $300K in April 2021, and to $500K by the end of the year?
Sure, anything is possible, but at some point, there will not be another buyer on the other end, and prices will flat line and start to decline. When that happens is anyone's guess, but I just can't believe that this sort of price irrationality is sustainable. The seller that initially might have re-invested those proceeds back into other cards would certainly think twice if card prices started to drop precipitously.
Now it isn't just the Jordan rookie card; there is plenty more excess in the market elsewhere. But what happens when you have these sort of FOMO asset bubbles is that other ancillary assets start to follow the leader by shooting up significantly in price.
The Jordan has been the poster child for the insanity of late, but we could also say the the T206 Cobbs, or the 52 Topps Mantle or other vintage cards are also in their own little asset bubbles of sorts.
I'm also getting concerned by some of the discussions I observe in Facebook groups I belong to. Something along the lines of -- 'ain't seen nothing yet with the Jordan rookie--time to get in on the 87 Fleer, or the PSA 10 stickers'. Kind of like the cult leader telling their minions it's time to take action. Sort of the same grimy feeling when I leave the wallstreetbets Reddit forum. It then becomes a revolving door as to speculation on what the next target card is for magnificent increases.
And this isn't the stock market. There is no regulatory agency monitoring the buying and selling of baseball cards. If Gary V or anyone else wants to tell their followers to buy a card and then promptly sell it following any price bump they are allowed to do so. (PS - not saying Gary V is doing this, just using him as an example, since he is the most prominent social media figure advertising his purchases).
But ultimately, this is when speculation runs rampant and things just get completely out of control. Rational thinking is overtaken by greed and the desire to make more and more money. I'm seeing it in the stock market right now. If you bought Zoom Video at the peak back in October, you've lost 40% of your initial investment.
I wasn't ready to call out the sports card market as a bubble back in April 2019, but I'm leaning more that way right now. The Jordan rookie card market scares me a bit, although I could still see lower grade Jordan rookies continue to catch up to the Gem Mint rookie card. This is only natural. Collectors that can't spend $200K on a Jordan rookie, are more than happy to fork over $5K to secure a lower to mid grade Jordan. And in all likelihood, even with a market dip, they won't sell...that's the card they've wanted for a while and it is now one of their treasures.
Still, the flippers and speculators are dominating the market right now, so I'd say the buy and hold collectors, which normally help bring stability to the market, are not enough to protect from a fairly significant downturn.
So, while I am not advising to avoid Jordan rookie cards or any of the other hot cards that have been seen crazy price increases in recent months, I would be careful. The red flags are rising by the minute in my opinion and in the end, I feel like the true collectors could get hurt by chasing the 'hot dots'.
If it were my money, I'd be leaning into the vintage cards that are in short supply.
The one thing I haven't touched on and the thing that I had warned of in my last 'bubble' piece was the rise of 'Wall Street' like developments in the hobby. I've seen some smaller ventures announced, but I have to believe that there are some big whale like hedge funds involved in the hobby in a very big way. It's the only way to help explain some of the massive auction results over the past few months.
So, conclusion--be careful out there folks. I do think that 2021 could be the year that we start to see some of the excesses removed from the hobby.
This doesn't mean to dump all of your cards, but it means to be more cautious with your purchases and to be wary of chasing cards which have already experienced massive price appreciation.
Have any thoughts on the state of the hobby?
Feel free to leave your thoughts below!