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Sports cards have long been a favorite collector’s item for people everywhere. The first-ever sports cards came with tobacco products and took America by storm. Since then, sports card collecting has become a staple of popular culture worldwide.
In this article, I will be taking you through everything you need to start a collection, how to decide what to collect, and I’ll explore some important terminology and things to keep in mind as you embark on starting your card collection.
So, without further ado, let’s get into it….
How To Start a Card Collection
Before we get started, I really want to stress the importance of having a plan before you start putting a bunch of money into your newfound hobby.
Spending a little time planning ahead will help you decide what types of cards you want to buy. Your planning should involve some research into what cards are out there.
You can do this by seeing if the listing and sold items on sites like eBay, and you should also do a bit of a search for any blogs or websites that are worth keeping an eye on.
This will give you a rough idea of what’s on the market so you can see how easy (or how difficult) it may be to get the cards you have your sights set on. Like my old math teacher used to say, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”.
However, don’t expect to do all of your research at the start – otherwise, you’ll never get started. I have been in the hobby for years and I’m still constantly learning.
If you’re coming back into card collecting as an adult, the first thing that is important to know about is that things have changed a lot since you collected as a kid.
Back in the day, cards were pretty easy to get your hands on. Almost every convenience store had packs of cards on the counter – and they were cheap to buy too, so collecting was incredibly accessible. Nowadays, it is not that easy.
It’s not that cards aren’t being produced anymore – There are a lot of cards being printed every year, But they’re a lot harder to come by. Now, the prime brands are almost impossible to find in retail stores.
The limited retail release means you’ll have to do almost all of your shopping online, either directly through the manufacturers’ website, a dedicated card retailer, or on the secondary market with sites like eBay.
So, just to reiterate, make sure you have some sort of plan. It doesn’t have to be set in concrete, but it’s way better to start with something. The rest of this article will look at the different elements of card collecting that you can include in your plan.
Pick the Type of Collectable Card e.g Sports Cards
When you are choosing what sort of cards you want to collect, it is wise first to give a little thought to what theme you want to focus on.
Of course, my expertise (and the majority of my collection) is in sports cards, so that is what this article will focus on. That being said, the advice here can also be used with any other sort of collectible cards you may be interested in.
When you have chosen your theme (in this case sports cards) you can then narrow down that choice even further to the sport you want to focus on. These could be baseball cards, football cards, basketball cards, soccer, or any other type that you fancy.
Ideally, it’d be a sport you’re already interested in and know a lot about. Of course, you can also spread your collection over multiple sports if you want. For example, I have mostly soccer cards, but also a lot of basketball, and wrestling.
I just think it’s a lot easier to narrow your field of options when you’re starting out – otherwise it can get pretty overwhelming.
There are a lot of other factors to consider when choosing your sport too. For example, some sports may have cards that are much harder to come by, turning your collection into more of a challenge or a treasure hunt.
Now, for many collectors, the challenge is a part of the fun, but for others, this may be frustrating. I know I love going down the rabbit hole of finding some hidden card, but I have friends in the hobby who absolutely hate it.
On the other hand, if cards are harder to come by, they have the ‘scarcity’ factor (more on scarcity later), and end up being worth a lot more. Don’t get me wrong, this means that a lot of the time you will have to pay a lot more to purchase the card in the first place.
However, if you are an investor looking to sell your cards later on, then this could be attractive as the theory is that you will then be able to sell them for even more money in the future, making a profit.
This has its issues though, as I discuss later in the article as there are no guarantees that your collection will increase in value. Therefore, this is a gamble if you are collecting purely to sell them for a profit later on.
With all that in mind, you may be prompted to choose a type of card that is a little more common. This will make your search to collect them a little easier.
This may be because they were mass produced on a wider scale, or just because, for whatever reason, the set is not worth as much as others.
If you are not concerned with profit and investment, going with the low-cost option may be attractive to you. This is especially true of anyone looking to collect purely for the fun of it.
The fun part is choosing what sport to specialize in. Baseball cards used to be the clear number one option for collectors. However, in recent years, basketball cards (many of which feature the greats like Kobe Bryant rookie cards) have become the number one option for sports card collectors.
Alongside basketball and baseball there options for football, soccer, hockey, wrestling, and much more.
The same thought process also applies to any other type of non-sport card collecting too. Narrow your field of options down at the start and choose something that you’re interested in.
Types of Cards
When looking at sports cards, there are a few different types of cards to look at.
Most of the time, a player’s rookie card is their most sight after card.
Rookie cards are cool because they are the first cards depicting a player in their first year of being included in a major set.
Think of someone like LeBron James who plays over fifteen seasons in the NBA. However, he’ll only ever be a rookie once.
That already gives a layer of scarcity to his rookie card; it’s not a card from any year, it’s their first year.
Back in the day when there were fewer sets produced, players might have only had one rookie card – this made collecting players’ rookie cards pretty straight forward.
These days there are multiple sets produced, so a player can have well over a dozen different cards produced in their rookie year when you consider all the different inserts and parallels (more on that later).
In recent years, a lot of rookie cards will have a special emblem, commonly known as an “RC logo” printed on them. This logo to give collectors the heads up that it’s a card from the player’s first season.
The more time you spend in the hobby, you’ll see some debate over what’s a “true” rookie card for particular players – But I wouldn’t worry about that too much now.
If you’re just starting out, use the RC logo as a rule of thumb with recent cards to differentiate which card is from a player’s rookie season.
For older cards, you’ll have to do some research in finding a player’s debut season and go from there.
Base, Inserts, Subsets, and Parallels
I briefly mentioned “inserts” above.
Here we’ll look at base cards, inserts, subsets, and parallels in a little more detail – they’re phrases you’ll almost certainly come across when collecting.
To do that, it’s probably best to use examples.
Here is the regular (also called “base”) Luka Doncic card from the Panini Prizm set.
The base cards are the backbone of every set – and the regular cards that make up any collection.
A parallel is a serial-numbered version of a base card. So that means that there’s a set number of each card printed every year. For example, this red/white/blue parallel of the Luka Doncic Prizm was only printed 299 times.
As you can see, the card itself kinda resembles the base card – but with a slightly different design around the edges. Think of parallels like the ‘shiny’ cards we used to like as kids.
A subset is a different set that’s put into the regular packs. They’re usually numbered, and look completely different to the regular base cards. An insert is a card within a subset.
For example, here’s a Luka Doncic insert from the “Freshman Phenoms” subset that was included in Panini Prizm’s 2018-19 release.
As you can see, the card looks completely different from the base card, even though it was in the same packs.
Sometimes these inserts and parallels can be distinguishable by a foil serial number somewhere on the card. For example, if there’s a card that is printed 50 times, yours might have a foil “14/50” printed on it – showing it’s the 14th card out of the 50 produced.
However, the number won’t always be printed – but you can always learn more with the set checklist.
Many collectors find success in purchasing or collecting complete sets. These are sets that come ready completed, usually dating back to before the 1980s.
Most of the time, it is far easier to find completed older sets than it is to find completed newer sets (such as those dating after 1981).
This is good news if you are a vintage collector, but if you collect newer sets, it could turn out to be very expensive.
Of course, a lot of this depends on the cards in the set. If the set has an incredibly valuable rookie card in it, the set will obviously cost more than one that doesn’t.
Buying complete sets can also be a sneaky way to get a good deal. If you’re looking for a particular card or two from a set, sometimes it might be cheaper to buy the entire set!
A little different to cards but in the same ballpark (pardon the pun), there are more and more people collecting tickets from key matches.
I like tickets because they’re almost a little piece of history.
Match tickets can be a lot harder to come by compared to cards and stickers, so a lot of the joy comes from the treasure hunt around finally finding a ticket after months of trying.
You can even get tickets graded too – here’s what a ticket looks like once it’s been graded and slabbed up.
Unopened Packs and Sealed Wax
Unopened packs have that air of mystery that many collectors enjoy. It is, perhaps, the ultimate nostalgia.
New, unopened packs vary greatly in price, from just a few dollars to thousands of dollars, depending on the age of the pack and the cards that could be in it.
Those packs dating back to the pre-1950s are by far the hardest to find and will come with a premium price tag. Likewise, if there’s a desirable card included in the set.
Sealed Wax refers to an unopened box that’s still in its plastic wrapping. Usually, these boxes have dozens of individual packs inside.
People collect unopened packs and boxes in a similar way to how they collect cards. Some will keep them sealed, and others will rip them open on the hunt for a rare card.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means. In fact, there are some other types of sports cards that you should also keep your eyes peeled for. These other types of sports cards include:
- Digital cards
- Relic cards
- Autographed cards
- Memorabilia cards
- …and much more
One of the biggest factors in the worth of a card is the player that features on the front of it. Sure, having a rare card immediately boosts the value, but it is no secret that some players are just far more highly sought after than others.
It should be no surprise that a rookie Tom Brady base card is worth more than a reserve Quarterback’s rookie rare parallel card.
And it’s not just the best players that gather higher prices. In most sports, offensive players seem to attract more interest than defensive players, so bear this in mind too.
It really just comes to supply and demand. A well known and popular player will likely have more people searching for their cards, increasing the price with it. And in a lot of sports, defenders aren’t given the same love in the media as forwards.
Vintage vs Modern Cards
The definition of “vintage” wholly depends on the person. However, in general, vintage is a reference to any cards that were made prior to the 1970s.
The definition of vintage can really depend on the sport too. For example, soccer cards only became really popular after the 2018 World Cup, so you could argue that the 90s and early 2000s could be classified as vintage in soccer.
When comparing the prices of vintage and modern cards, it makes sense that vintage cards are, on the whole, more highly valued than that of modern cards. This comes down to scarcity – A card from the 1940s (or earlier) will most likely have been damaged or lost over the years.
For example, there are even some 1950s soccer cards featuring Pele that are worth tens of thousands of dollars these days that were originally a redemption token at supermarkets – so shoppers would collect the cards and exchange them for groceries.
The vast majority of these cards were handed into supermarkets for bread and milk, so only a few are still around today.
The most iconic sports card of all time is vintage and has its own story of scarcity. The 1909 T206 Honus Wagner card was sold with tobacco products.
This card was actually withdrawn from trade as Honus Wagner was against the sale of tobacco products and of the promotion of smoking to kids. Well, that’s the story that Wagner’s family told, anyway… Others believe it was a licensing issue and Wagner wanted more money.
Regardless of the reason, the cease in sale and production of this card meant the value of it went up as the amount of them in circulation dwindled. To this day it remains one of the most expensive sports cards with value well into the millions.
That being said though. Again, it comes down to supply/demand. There are usually more people looking to buy modern cards compared to vintage.
With that higher demand, comes inflated prices. There are certainly some modern cards out there that will cost a lot more than anything vintage.
It should also be noted that, with the more modern cards, prices and value are less predictable especially if that player is still playing. If they start to have a few bad games, their value can decrease.
On the other hand, if they win a title, or have a run of incredibly good games, their prices will increase.
The condition of your card is something that can have a massive effect on the value of your collection (more about this when we talk about grading below).
Ultimately, there are three main things to look for when checking the condition of a card.
Any defects to the card when it was printed
This refers to any issues with the card that happened when it was originally printed. These could include the printing of print lines, anything that prints off-color, or any other faults that happened during the printing process.
Any defects to the card when it was cut
When manufactured, dozens of cards are printed onto large printing sheets and then cut down to make the individual cards.
This could often lead to faults during the cutting process.
To most people, these faults would be pretty unnoticeable – such as jagged edges, or edges that were not straight leaving the card off-centre – but to experts, they can drastically reduce the value of the card.
Any defects to the card after it left the pack
The most common type of damage to a card is done after it’s opened and out of the pack. This can include rips and tears, jagged edges, creases, water damage, and discoloration.
All of these factors play a major role in deciding the condition of a card. However, any damage that occurs when the card has left its pack is avoidable.
It is for this reason that people handle their cards with the utmost care, often using plastic sleeves and top-loaders to keep them safe straight after opening.
Professional Grading: Is Professional Grading Worth It?
Professional grading is a process where you send off a card (or whole collection) to an independent auditing company who will then give you a card rating or grade based on the condition of the card.
These professional graders tend to give ratings out of ten, with 1 being the lowest (Poor Condition), and 10 being the highest (Gem Mint Condition).
Basically, an expert looks at your card and assesses it based on a grading scale, giving it a grade out of ten. Your card is then encased in a thick plastic holder which preserves the card in its condition.
It’s also given a special label that shows the card, the grade, and a serial number that you can use to look up the card in a grader’s database. This gives added peace of mind when buying online.
Here’s what a card looks like after it’s been graded.
One interesting thing that many of these professional graders offer is a popularity report. This is where the grading company will tell you how many of that particular type of card out there has that same rating as yours.
So, for example, if you gave them a 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan #57 basketball card and it got a rating of 9 out of 10, you can find how many of that same card had that exact rating. This gives you an even more in depth understanding of the scarcity of it.
As well as this, the higher the grading of a card, the higher the price. It’s not uncommon for a card graded a perfect 10 to get almost double the price of a 9!
With that in mind, if you are collecting cards for investment purposes, then I think that it is definitely worth seeking out a great professional grader if your card is in great condition.
There are also some auction houses that will only sell graded cards – again, going back to that peace of mind I spoke about before. Buyers can look up the serial number of a graded card and double check that they’re bidding for the card in the photo online.
That being said, if you are collecting cards for the fun of it, as a hobby that you are passionate about, then there is no real reason for you to get your cards professionally graded (unless of course, you are curious).
Professional grading is not a must-have, but it may be helpful if you plan to sell your collection in the future in order to make a profit.
As much as I may try to tell you about the beauty of collecting cards for the pure joy and nostalgia, I understand that for many people, this is an investment opportunity, and honestly, there is no problem with that (provided you are wise in your purchases and don’t spend anything you’re not willing to lose).
But no matter if you want to collect for fun, profit, or both – you still don’t want to overpay and get ripped off so learning how to price your cards is vital in the hobby.
The easiest way to price cards is to use recent sales history.
Note, this does not include looking at what a card is listed for on sites like eBay – often sellers will inflate the listed price on eBay a little with the expectation that buyers usually submit offers to try and buy the card for a better price.
To find actual sales prices, you can look through the ‘sold listings’ on any marketplace. This will give you an idea of what cards like yours have recently sold for. This is great for most sites.
When checking eBay in particular, I use tools like Sell the Peak, and Card Ladder to find exact sale prices. For some reason, in eBay, if a seller accepts a low offer on a card, eBay will show the listed price as the “sale price” – not what the card actually sold for.
Storing and Protecting Cards
When looking at storing your card collection, there are a few things to consider. First, how to protect individual cards so they don’t get damaged. And second, how to store entire collections to save space while ensuring they don’t get damaged.
When looking at individual cards, there are a few items you might need for protection:
- Penny sleeves: A single-card clear plastic sleeve that cards are put in to keep from getting scratched. Almost like a small plastic pocket you used to use at high school. These are usually pretty flimsy by nature, but good enough for most cards.
- Toploaders: A toploader is a single card sleeve made of a thicker plastic. They’re far more rigid than a penny sleeve. Most will put the card in a penny sleeve then into a top loader to keep the card safe.
- “One Touch” cases: For your most valuable cards, you might want to try a one-touch case. These are far more sturdy than toploaders and are usually magnetic, meaning you can get cards in and out of the case easily without damage.
These items might seem like an unnecessary expense at the start – but as we mentioned before, some damage to a card can take thousands of dollars off the resale value. So spending a few cents on a toploader is a no brainer.
Storing your collection can be a bit of a nightmare at times. While storing one or two cards is easy, when your collection beefs up after a few months or years, it can be hard to find the space.
Here are some ways that you can store your collection at home:
- Folders: Folders are a great way to store a lot of cards. I store a lot of my low-end base cards in folders as they don’t have a lot of resale value and are more for my own collection.
- Card boxes: You can find cardboard boxes that are designed for storing lots of cards. Usually, it’s a bigger box with two or three compartments where you can stack your cards in rows. If you decide to use these, make sure the compartments are big enough to store your cards in toploaders.
- Safety Deposit Boxes: I haven’t paid tens of thousands of dollars for a card before – but if I ever do, it will 100% be kept in a safety deposit box.
- Display cabinets and cases: These days, there are a bunch of cool cabinets and cases designed to display sports cards in a living room like a piece of art.
- A Third Party: There are some businesses that will let you store your cards with them. Some are high-end auction houses. Storing your cards here means that you won’t be able to get it out and hold it in your hand – but if you do decide to sell down the line it’ll be a lot easier.
Honestly, there is no right or wrong way to store your collection, but bear in mind the time and money you have spent acquiring your cards, and ensure you adequately protect them from wear and tear (and even theft if they are worth a small fortune).
The Top 5 Tips for Building a Card Collection
Do Your Homework
As you’ve probably picked up from this article, there’s a lot to know when it comes to collecting sports cards. Make sure you do your homework.
For example, there’s no guarantee that the eBay listing’s title is completely accurate. If a card is listed as a “rookie”, don’t take it at face value. Make sure you know when a player’s rookie card is – these days information like that is literally only a ten-second Google search away.
On the other side of that, if you know what a player’s rookie card is, you can search for that card without the word “rookie”. This might help you find the same card at a much better price.
It’s also a good idea to do your homework regarding pricing – knowing the recent sales prices will help you get the best deals and make sure you’re not overpaying.
Check the Condition
Checking the condition of your collectible cards is very important especially if you want to make a profit on them.
Now, at first glance, it can be difficult to properly assess the condition, especially if you are buying online or if the dealer keeps them behind glass or is reluctant to hand them over for inspection.
However, to the best of your ability, I thoroughly recommend that you spend at least a little bit of time trying to get a feel for the condition of your cards.
Look for any signs of wear and tear. Of course, older collections such as 1930s originals will definitely have at least small signs of wear over time. That is to be expected given their age.
However, what you can do is research into what conditions are seen as acceptable by other buyers, and make a judgment based on that. The more damaged an item is, the less value it has, and so you should not be paying over the odds for it.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t buy a damaged card. Indeed, if you are buying for the pure joy and nostalgia of collecting then this may not be an issue for you. Assess the situation based on your personal plans for the collection.
Find and Buy from a Reputable Seller
Most sports card buying and selling is done online. Sometimes you might not know who you’re buying from.
This is all a part of the game these days. However, there are a few things you can do to be as safe as possible.
- While people might complain about the fees related to eBay, they offer great support for buyers
- Avoid purchasing with PayPal ‘Friends and Family’ with people you don’t know. A lot of sellers will encourage you to use the Friends and Family feature on PayPal to avoid fees – I’d avoid doing that because it basically means you lose all of your rights as a buyer and there’s no way to get your money back
- Be careful with open marketplaces like Facebook. I have used the Facebook marketplace to buy cards plenty of times before, but it can be sketchy from time to time and there’s basically zero buyer support through the platform.
- Buy from hobby shops. These days most card stores will have an online storefront. These are usually a safe option
- There are platforms like StarStock and ComC that allow you to buy and sell cards without ever getting them shipped to you. It’s almost like a buying and storage solution combined.
Consider How To Store Them
I already mentioned storage a little earlier in the article.
However, as someone who had a massive, ugly cardboard box full of cards in the spare room (and a partner who was equally angry with it), I thought it’s worth mentioning again.
Follow the earlier advice and really give some thought to how you want to display your card collection.
If you don’t want to display it, preferring to keep them safe until the time comes to sell them, then think about a safety deposit box that may be suitable, ensuring it protects the collection from damp, pests, and dust.
If you’re really dealing with high-end cards, you might even want to consider having some sort of humidity gauge in your safe to guarantee that the cards are kept in mint condition.
Keep Collecting Fun
There is a huge temptation to begin collecting sports cards because of the money that cards and sets can attract.
However, if card buying and collecting isn’t something you enjoy in the first place – it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be consistent with it.
Make sure you actually enjoy card collecting! Going down the internet rabbit holes finding obscure card sets from decades ago, and the thrill of the chase when you’re looking for these cards can be a whole lot of fun.
And there are so many great people out there in the hobby. You can connect with other collectors through social media, blogs, podcasts, and pretty much every other platform you can think of. I’ve made a bunch of great friends through the hobby from all over the world.
While I’ve sold cards for considerably more than I’ve paid for them, I still get a little uneasy when I talk to people who are “investing” lots of cash into sports cards without even knowing if they like collecting as a hobby.
This isn’t the stock market and cards aren’t revenue generating assets. They’re worth something because people in the hobby deem them to be worth something.
There is no real way of telling whether the price of your cards will rise in the future. So you could be spending hundreds, or even thousands now, only to find that they plummet in price, or at best, stay the same.
My theory is to not spend anything that I wouldn’t want to lose, and not buy anything that I wouldn’t want to keep.
However, that is a completely personal opinion, and if you are looking at cards purely as an investment opportunity, that’s completely fine – But there’s nothing wrong with adding a little more fun into a hobby along the way.
A card collection is more than a trip down memory lane these days. While there’s that nostalgia hit of looking at the cards of your favorite players growing up, there’s a lot more to it.
This article should have given you enough information to get started with your collection – bookmark the page so you can come back to it later on.