But a day after my visit, trading card popularity turned into mania when four people allegedly attacked a man over cards in a Wisconsin Target parking lot; at one point a gun was wielded. A week later, the retailer pulled packs from its shelves nationwide and now offers only online purchases. (A spokesperson for Target said they made the change “out of an abundance of caution.”)
Trading cards, hot in the 1980s and early ’90s before yielding to countless technological advancements, have again become especially coveted, and somewhat surprisingly so. Sure, trends are cyclical — out: skinny jeans; in: mom jeans — but collecting cards seemed like a hobby most of society had moved on from for good. Sports fans could instead control their favorite players in video games or debate the merits of their teams on Twitter. Dynamic technology defeated static paper. It was a blowout.
Humans, though, are collectors at heart. And ironically, technology has contributed to the hobby’s rebirth. Much of the buying and selling today happens on eBay, StockX and Amazon (whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post). In February, eBay introduced its first “State of Trading Cards” report, announcing a 142 percent gain in domestic sales — 4 million more cards sold on its website in 2020 than in 2019. That includes the major sports as well as Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering, which were both originally released in the ’90s.
The good times have trickled down to small businesses, too. At House of Cards in Silver Spring, Md. — where seven decades of sports cards are neatly displayed along with bobbleheads, pennants and other memorabilia — business is booming. Asked if sales were up, House of Cards president Bill Huggins responded, “Is a duck’s ass waterproof?”The shop opened in 1979 (in a different, smaller location) and has endured the whims of an industry that subsisted on a core group of regulars in the recent past.
“Now, I see new customers every single week, and I’m also seeing a much younger group of people coming in here,” says Bryan Theis, who runs the shop day-to-day. “Even high-schoolers, teenagers ... they’re buying all these retail boxes and they’re flipping them. They’re making really good money.”
Several high-profile purchases of cards have offered inspiration to average collectors. In January, a 1952 card of New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle sold at auction for $5.2 million — a record for sports cards. In February, a signed rookie card of Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic went for $4.6 million. You won’t find those in a $9.99 pack from a big-box store, but dreamers read headlines about seven-figure sales and get ideas.
In explaining the growth of the industry, eBay cited an emerging investor class — millionaires diversifying their portfolios with rare memorabilia — as well as “people staying home and finding new ways to spend their time.” Indeed, the pandemic has almost certainly contributed to the trading card renaissance. 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,” Holly Schiff, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder, told me via email. Sigmund Freud, a prolific collector of art, believed collecting served to impose order in the world.
But the trading card resurgence had been bubbling before the pandemic. At Topps, the standard-bearer for baseball cards since the 1950s, when they were sold with bubble gum, there had been “steady upward growth over the past decade” before the pandemic rush, according to Emily Kless, a communications manager at the company. She attributed the upswing to rekindled interest from people who collected as kids (like me) and the Internet helping products become more accessible — specifically with “case breaks,” which have exploded in popularity.
Here’s how a case break works: A host buys an expensive box, or several boxes, and rounds up a group of buyers to split the cost. The buyers are then assigned teams (Person A gets all the Yankees, Person B all the Orioles and so forth) and they’re sent any corresponding cards pulled by the host. The whole thing is live-streamed so buyers and rubbernecks can watch as some lucky collector takes home a prized “chase” card, which might feature a player’s autograph or even a small piece of their jersey.
Case breaks are just one example of how technology is now providing a communal aspect that keeps the hobby fresh. Reddit forums feature collectors bragging about their bounties. The popular Ringer Podcast Network has a show in which the hosts discuss cards like stocks. YouTube and Instagram streamers unveil their hauls for hundreds.
“With the Internet, it’s entirely possible for people to find connections and links with others who might share what would have been thought of as very obscure or isolated interests,” says Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor of information who has researched collecting in general. “And it turns out, well, there is a community of people who share those interests, and now you can actually talk to them. Now you can discuss, share and ultimately trade with them.”
While technology contributed to card collecting becoming cool again, the next frontier is where the cards are the tech. Topps went public in April in a deal valuing the company at $1.3 billion; a week later it launched its first series of digital NFTs, marketing it as “a new era of baseball card collecting.” NFTs, which stands for non-fungible tokens, are digital assets — in this case photos or GIFs of baseball stars.
Dapper Labs— a Canadian company with the tagline “Fun and games on the blockchain” — is the early leader in the sports-card-meets-NFT movement, debuting the online marketplace NBA Top Shot in October 2020 and touting $500 million in sales in its first five months, including a $210,000 purchase of a dunk by LeBron James. Top Shot refers to its products as “moments” rather than cards, and it has gamified the hobby, creating challenges for collectors to achieve.
But unlike in the past, these digital developments may be a complement to America’s cardboard pastime, and many don’t see the physical cards going away anytime soon. “There is really no stopping the trading card industry right now,” Kless says, “and the advancements in technology are a huge part of driving that growth.”
Mark Selig is an editor in the Sports section of The Washington Post.