How 2020 Changed the Sports Card Market Forever | Year in Review

by Bryan Roberts

How and why did the sports card market change in 2020? And what will stick long-term?

Those are questions I will attempt to answer, but I would be lying to you if I were to say I am 100% certain. In fact, I would tell you that no one is certain, and you should be cautious of anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.    

So, let us look at the 2020 year in review for the sports card market

1. Record prices in 2020 set a new normal for the sports card market

Did you predict a Mike Trout baseball card would sell for close to $4,000,000 in 2020?

I know I did not and was as surprised as Joe Maddon when I saw that headline:

Mike Trout was not the only player making headlines in the sports card industry in 2020.

At least six different cards sold for $400,00 or more in 2020 with three selling for more than $1,800,000.

Top six most expensive sports cards in 2020 including most expensive baseball cards and basketball cards

The top three cards on this list ranked among the top five most expensive sports cards ever sold at the end of 2020, though this has already changed in 2021.

What do 2020 record prices mean for sports cards long-term?  

The immediate implication is that a new price ceiling has been set and there are at least two second-order implications: (1) new collectors and investors will enter the market (2) prices for sports cards across the market will continue to increase.

Both second-order implications played-out in 2020 and will likely continue to accelerate in 2021.

2. The sports card market expanded to new collectors & investors in 2020

Price in a collectibles market, such as sports cards, is dependent on supply and demand.

Prices will increase if supply decreases, demand increases, or both occur simultaneously.

In 2020, prices on sports cards increased drastically, while supply also increased in the form of another year of player’s cards. We can therefore conclude that demand must have increased significantly.

Where did this surge in demand come from?

It is hard to know for sure without doing consumer research, but at least three explanations feel probable:

  1. The Collectible-Sneaker crowd moved into sports card. Not only does this intuitively make sense, but my analysis of the PWCC market indices indicates that basketball card prices have increased the most in the last five years, likely driven by demand from this consumer segment.  
  • Millennials are rediscovering a long-dormant passion for sports cards and the pandemic served as a catalyst to revive this passion. I fit into this group. I collected sports cards as a kid and have been drawn back into the hobby in 2020.
  • Greed. A market is driven by two basic instincts: fear and greed. The sports cards market is booming, prices are increasing, and people are making money. New buyers (and speculators) see dollar-signs and are entering the market driven by the hope of making money.   

What does this mean for sports cards moving forward?  

It is impossible to know for sure, but I believe the implication is different depending on the time horizon you consider.

In the short term, I believe demand for sports cards will remain strong for at least the next 2-3 years, building off the momentum created in 2020.

Longer-term, I believe prices for sports cards will decrease relative to today’s levels because (1) supply is perpetually increasing, each year brings a new set of cards, and (2) the number of buyers (demand) will eventually decrease because the sports cards market has historically been cyclical, and we are currently in a bull (increasing) market.

The point remains, many new sports cards and investors engaged with the hobby in 2020 and at least a portion of them will likely remain for many years to come.  

3. Innovation in the sports card market continued in 2020

It is no secret that the sports card market lags many others regarding innovation and maturity.

As of February 2021, the sports card market is comprised of a core value-chain, from manufacturers to consumers and ancillary sub-markets comprised of grading, news & insights, and several more.

Sports card market ecosystem including value-chain and ancillary sub-markets

The core value-chain of the sports card industry has remained unchanged for years and consists of manufacturers, retailers, P2P platforms, and consumers.

The rest of the ecosystem consists of ancillary sub-markets including Grading, New & Insights, Data & Analytics, Breakers, and Investment Platforms / Funds. Most of the innovation in the sports card market is in the sub-markets.

Do you have a favorite innovation in the sports card market?

My favorite is data & analytics. Sports Card Investor and Card Ladder have developed strong MVPs, but I think there is a still a long road ahead for those companies. Specifically, I expect companies will begin to use data and predictive algorithms to help investors make more informed purchase decisions.

Beyond data and analytics, Investment Platforms / Funds and P2P Platforms are other key areas of investment and innovation within the sports card market.

And then of course there is the News & Insights sub-market, which this website is a part of. I expect many will enter this market, but few will remain. It has the lowest barriers to entry, but also offers the lowest returns in terms of monetization.

What do new innovations mean for sports cards long-term?

It means consumers will have access to more information, better tools, and improved analytics. These innovations will in turn contribute to increased enjoyment for a broader group of consumers.

Conclusion: 2020 sports card market year in review

I shared three primary trends we observed in the sports card market in 2020. Here is a recap of those three trends:

1. Record prices in 2020 set a new normal

Implication(s): (1)New sports card collectors and investors will enter the market, and (2) Prices throughout the sports card market will increase

2. Expansion to new collectors & investors

Implication(s): In the short-term, prices will increase because of the increase in demand, but in the long-term, prices may depreciate given the cyclical nature of the sports card market

3. Innovation continued in 2020

Implication(s): More information, better tools, and improved analytics for consumers in the sports card market.  

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