What is the value of a 2.5 by 3.5 inch piece of cardboard? To most, it is relatively worthless. But to the rapidly expanding, previously niche market of trading card collectors, those 8.75 square inches of cardboard are practically priceless. While it seemed as if technology and sports video games had rendered trading cards invaluable, this recent spike in popularity begs to differ.

A main contributor to trading card’s resurgence was the COVID-19 pandemic. People were stuck at home and finding new ways, increasingly profitable ways to spend their time. Trading cards became one of these avenues. As world renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that collecting serves as a means of imposing order in the world, and amidst the pandemic, people longed for normalcy. Additionally, Holly Schiff, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders, explains this theory more thoroughly.

   “One element of collecting has to do with the ability to gain and exercise control, especially in uncontrollable circumstances — which the pandemic was the epitome of.”

The internet has also played a fundamental role in re popularizing trading cards. Card collectors no longer need to go to the store and buy a pack with the hopes of getting their favorite player, but ultimately only receiving a conciliatory stick of gum. Instead, trading card enthusiasts can now take to the internet and find their favorite players and rarest cards at their fingertips. This increased access to buying and selling trading cards has allowed for the market to develop and the collector’s economy to prosper. 

At the close of 2020, eBay released a report titled “State of Trading Cards” Report, detailing the rapid growth of this niche market sector. In 2020, eBay’s platform saw a 142% growth in their trading category as well as a 4,000,000 card increase in sales. In the past few months, countless records regarding trading card sales have been broken. With a 373% increase in sales, basketball cards have skyrocketed in value, allowing for LeBron James’ card to set the record for basketball cards, selling for a whopping $5.2 million. While baseball cards have always been the most popular form of athletic trading cards, their value has soared as well. Recently, a 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card sold for a record-setting $5.2 million. Additionally, cards from popular games such as Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering had an approximated 574% increase in sales.

In order for these trading cards to hold their value, they must undergo a thorough inspection and grading process. The Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) is responsible for the grading and authentication of all trading cards, before they are able to be assigned a value. Getting a card graded requires both time and money, with fees going for about 20 to 100 dollars per card and express fees ranging from 150 to 10,000 dollars. This process usually takes 5-6 months, but due to the impact of the pandemic it could take as long as a year. But if your card is graded a perfect PSA 10, it will be well worth it.   

When grading cards, in order to obtain a PSA 10, the card must exhibit sharp corners, sharp focus, and pristine gloss. The card can’t be stained, worn, torn, and the image must be perfectly centered on the front and back. The PSA inspector will study these minute details with magnifying instruments, gloves and intricate focus as they go down their laundry list of grading specifics, before passing it on to a second set of eyes to do the same. They study your card at a microscopic level in order to observe every little detail that goes unnoticed by the naked eye. Once your card is graded it can officially enter the market and be sought after by other collectors. While every collector aims for a perfect PSA 10, that state of Gem Mint condition is quite rare. Much more frequently, cards get grades of mint, near-mint, excellent, good or for the few collectors who let their cards get damaged, they might receive a poor grade, rendering their card practically valueless. 

With the increase in technology and downtime due to the COVID-19 pandemic, trading cards saw their resurgence in 2019-2020. Reaching peak popularity in the late 1980s, trading cards have come a long way since then and have become a viable investment option. With the popularization of other rival collectibles such as Non-fungible tokens (NFTs), it will be interesting to see how the collector’s market continues to develop and prosper for years to come. But regardless, hold on to those little pieces of cardboard, as their value truly might be priceless.

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