Here’s Why The Sports Card Market Crashed In The 90’s (And Why It Might Happen Again)
I was only 9 years old when I started collecting back in 1985. I got a few packs of 1985 Topps and was hooked; as a kid that loved baseball, those little pieces of cardboard were everything to me.
I was obsessed right away and it consumed my entire being, ranging from riding my bike three miles to the nearest baseball card store and setting up tables in my basement for a ‘baseball card show’ amongst friends.
My brother soon opened a baseball card store and I was quickly thrown into battle as a high schooler peddling cards and negotiating purchases. I lived through the peak of the ‘Junk Era’ in which cards were massively overproduced, yet at the time, I didn’t grasp the realities of what was happening with the values of cards.
I returned to the hobby several years after college and slowly started getting interested in cards again –which ultimately led to the launch of ‘All Vintage Cards’.
I’ve discussed my thoughts about the current market exhibiting signs of being in bubble territory, but this time I wanted to examine the current market environment in relation to the last big card bubble from the 1990s.
While I lived through it, I sort of always chalked up the bursting card bubble to overproduction but figured there had to be more to it.
Thus, I went into the archives, did some more extensive research, and spoke to other people in the hobby.
Thus, here are the results of my exploration into the sports card bubble from the 90s’.
Note, if you lived through it and have a different perspective, or if you just want to leave your thoughts on my findings, please leave a comment!
Massive Print Runs Were Mostly Unknown By Collectors In The 80s and 90s
In the thick of the madness during the 1980s no one really had any idea that most print runs for major card sets were in the multiple millions. There was no internet--the only way to communicate with other collectors was via local card shows or stores. It wasn't until the mid 90s when eBay launched that collectors started to figure out how massive the existing supplies were.
Publications such as Beckett, Tuff-Stuff and Sport Collector's Daily kept a pulse on the hobby and provided collectors with pricing. However, those publications never discussed the actual print runs for each of the major card companies. And the card companies themselves did not disclose this information.
At the height of their popularity in the early 1990s, card manufacturers produced an estimated 81 billion baseball cards a year.
(source: “Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession")
The focus was more about who were the next big rookies to collect. This led to more of an 'investment' mindset, as collectors realized they could earn sizeable profits. Just buy a few packs and re-sell the individual cards from the boxes at a massive profit. (Sound familiar?)
One of the poster child cards of the junk era was none other than the Ken Griffey Junior 1989 Upper Deck Rookie card. At the time, Upper Deck was a brand new entrant to the scene and part of a new game-plan to increase the quality (and the costs) of new cards.
"[The Griffey card] was the first card of an Upper Deck product, and Upper Deck broke the mold on what a trading card looked like and felt like," said Tracy Hackler, publisher for Beckett Media, a leading authority on sports cards. "You had the vibrant printing, and the glossy card stock was of such better quality. It was pretty." from ESPN's "The Ken Griffey Jr Card Speaks"
Griffey's Upper Deck rookie became the must-own card, and the one that was going to facilitate early retirement for the young and old. Yet, no one quite knew the extent to which Upper Deck was hitting the printing presses.
While it was a premium product and likely produced in fewer quantities than other earlier junk era Topps issues, it is still estimated that Upper Deck produced over 1 Million copies of the card.
Thus, the greed and the huge (and unknown at the time) oversupply from the card manufacturers is one of the big reasons that the hobby burst in a big way. From Dave Jamieson who wrote the excellent book "Mint Condition":
It was greed on the part of card makers because they rolled out so much product that it diluted the power of the cards and killed the golden goose. It was greed on the part of the baseball union, because they sold a lot of rights—and made a lot of royalties on those rights—until they had too many card makers. Then you had greed on the part of dealers, surly guys who didn’t care to talk to the nine year olds who came into their shops, and were there just to sell cards.
As you can imagine this sort of wool over the eyes in regards to production run numbers led to some pretty disappointed collectors who saw their card values go up in flames....
"In the early 1990s baseball cards were better than money, better than gold, hell, they were supposed to pay for college tuitions because they were such a solid investment. As everyone knows, but few can bear to admit, nothing could have been further from the awful truth" - from the now defunct baseballcarddeath website
"On behalf of my generation, I felt tricked. Long ago, my parents had told me that I needed to keep these baseball cards safe and sound; when I was an adult, they promised, I could send my kids to college by selling them." - from Grayson Haver Currin at the Indy Star
The proliferation of card stores helped to fuel the access to cards as did the price guides such as Beckett, which helped add a sort of formal stamp of approval to the ridiculous prices that some collectors were handing over for these massively produced cards.
** Quick editor's note...some of the junk era stuff, including the Griffey Jr Upper Deck card are coming back to life, especially higher-graded copies, although I feel that collectors might again be ignoring the facts about the existing supplies of these cards.
I would also note that despite the card crash in the 90s, rarer vintage cards were mostly immune from the same sort of massive decline witnessed with many of those cards produced during the 'junk era'.
According to estimates from Sports Collector's Digest, card sales amounted to $1.2 billion in 1991, but by the end of the millennium (1999) total sales had declined to $400 million, and 2008 sales dropped all the way to $200 million. Source: Forbes
A Flood Of Non-Hobbyist's Looking To Make A Quick Buck Entered The Hobby
Today's market is being fueled in large part by investment funds pooling capital to invest in high dollar cards. Hedge funds, card breakers and fractional interest platforms (such as Collectable) are likely behind the hard to explain increases witnessed over the past few months. Back in the 80s and 90s when I was collecting, I was too young to even think about if there were big investors playing the game. I'm sure there were, but I don't think it was a hedge fund game at the time.
Author Dave Jamieson from his book "Mint Condition"
" By the ’80s, baseball card values were rising beyond the average hobbyist’s means. As prices continued to climb, baseball cards were touted as a legitimate investment alternative to stocks, with the Wall Street Journal referring to them as sound “inflation hedges” and “nostalgia futures.” Newspapers started running feature stories with headlines such as “Turning Cardboard Into Cash” (the Washington Post), “A Grand Slam Profit May Be in the Cards” (the New York Times), and “Cards Put Gold, Stocks to Shame as Investment” (the Orange County Register). "
Sure, I believe there were likely investors with deep pockets joining the hobby to try and buy higher-priced cards to resell for profit, but I think it was more of a retail frenzy than anything else. When I worked in my brother's card store in the early 90s, it was less driven by kids, and more about adults that were chasing packs in hopes of landing a big insert. Kind of a big-time gambler's mentality and something I think is very similar to modern packs insert chasing and or card breaks of today.
It was less about big investors and more about collectors and non-hobbyists realizing that they could buy a $1, $2 or $5 pack and more than quadruple their investment. With the lack of information available on card supply, there was typically a buyer on the other side willing to pay a higher than warranted premium.
The perception was soon coming into play that baseball cards were now a viable option for investing your money. Word of five to six figure auction sales for a T206 Wagner or the 52 Topps Mantle started to lead collectors into a false sense of hope.
Collectors (or more like speculators) were snapping up 100 card lots of rookies such as Todd Van Poppel, Brien Taylor, Sam Horn and Ellis Burks (I'm a Sox fan, had to throw in those last two) with the hope that once those guys hit it big, they would have a fortune in their hands. Little did they know that those 100 card lots basically represented about .00001% of the existing population.
I will note that many collectors were also hoarding unopened wax boxes at the time thinking that in twenty years it would be worth a fortune. Unfortunately, despite some minor exceptions, the majority of the junk wax from the 80s and 90s is worth less than the original retail value.
Higher Priced Offerings Started To Price Out Core Collectors
The frenzy in the market started to get seriously out of control by the early 1990's when according to one resource, there were as many as 80 companies producing trading cards.
The days of the 25 cent and 50 cent packs with a stick of gum were long gone by this time. It became less of a hobby and more of a platform to make a quick buck. Those 25 and 50 cent packs became $2, $5 and $10 per pack and the pure hobbyists, which were mostly younger kids were completely priced out of the hobby.
The pure greed in the hobby led to a dumpster fire of overproduction and pure blindness as to the worthlessness of the cards being produced. Insert cards started becoming more of the norm, but still with unknown production ranges. It was this mania that started to drive the pure collectors out of the hobby all together.
The Baseball Strike Added Fuel To The Fire
On August 12, 1994, Major League Baseball was put on pause and ultimately the season was cancelled, with resolution not happening until 235 days later. The World Series was cancelled, leaving many in the hobby sort of panicking as to how a cancelled baseball season might effect the hobby.
It was the fuel that the fire needed to blow up in its entirety. Casual baseball fans that started collecting were no longer interested. It wasn't long before many of the speculators also left the hobby en masse, leading to a freefall in card prices, ultimately cementing the history as one of the biggest non-stock market bubbles in history.
Are There Any Parallels Between The 90's Card Market Burst And Today's Card Market?
Yes. First, let's just say I have some concerns. Whether it's with the vintage or the modern card market--things have moved up at an unstainable rate.
There are definitely some things in common with the 1990's bubble. First, there is a lot of GREED rampant through the hobby (and elsewhere), which is evidenced by the throngs of speculators that have entered the market. As I have always noted, the entrance of private equity and investment funds into the space is a major concern to me.
How many everyday collectors are now getting priced out of some of the more iconic rookie cards in the hobby? The speculators and the big-pocketed investors are taking over.
I'm afraid that for many cards that have seen 10x fold + price increases in less than a year, there will ultimately be a lack of a buyer at a higher price on the other end. When it ends is anyone's guess, but let's just remember that things can't go up in a straight line forever. But that's my opinion.
I decided to reach out to my buddy Frank Dean who I was swapping cards with back in the 1980s and has been a blog guest here before. Frank knows vintage cards and while he isn't a modern era collector he certainly has a good feel for what's happening with the hobby.
So I asked Frank point blank--do you think today's market could burst like it did in the 1990s?
Signs Of A Bubble Brewing?
"The signs I see are the rapid influx of new people into the hobby. I question their staying power. What’s different this time around is the manufactured scarcity in modern cards. It’s worked out well for card makers and has created a huge interest but it always concerned me as a business model.
I think the new people and new money on the hobby create a lot of volatility that has been trickling back into vintage and even prewar cards. The further back you go the less worried I am about a bubble but I have deep concerns about the modern market.
I also thought prices would drop once COVID hit and the economy ground to a halt (and that didn't happen), so it would be interesting to see what happens when people ultimately go back to the office."
-vintage collector and fellow strip card enthusiast, Frank Dean