Last Updated On: October 26th, 2023
The sports card market has changed a lot in the last couple of decades, with ever more terminology, products, parallels, and patch cards. It’s overwhelming knowing where to begin if you’re new to the game.
Below, you will learn how to invest in sports cards with actionable steps to get started. The goal of this post is not an all-encompassing guide to flip or profit from cards in a given moment or season. Instead, it’s investing in sports cards 101 and will take five minutes to read, while our primer on collecting basketball cards is more like a 30-minute read if that’s your shtick.
With the expectations set, let’s get rolling!
Table of Contents
Step by Step: How to Invest in Sports Cards
The steps below have been condensed by eliminating the more advanced aspects of collecting, such as flipping or selling cards, and grading. Instead, let’s focus on picking the right players, research, purchasing your first card, storage and safety.
1. Pick your favorite sport and players
The connection to your favorite team or player will give you momentum on your card journey and through the remaining steps of this guide.
To give you an idea of how I started, I was a huge Jordan fan as a kid growing up in the ’90s. I started collecting game tickets, newspapers celebrating the Bulls as champions (there were a lot of them), and made my way to early year Jordan cards such as 1991 and 1992 Upper Deck, and other base cards. This infatuation of basketball and the Chicago Bulls dynasty fed into multiple decades of collecting.
That said, I was super lucky to have lived in Chicago, and began collecting the greatest player of all time without knowing it at the time. Like Jordan, cards of legends such as Tom Brady, or Kobe Bryant, will have a better shot at appreciating in value over time. So, on one hand, choose your favorite player(s), but on the other hand be sure to choose carefully.
Of course, you can still collect up-and-coming stars that haven’t completely broken out as superstars, but be sure to minimize risk if you’re going in this direction. Some players in this area include Anthony Edwards, and Justin Fields (although Anthony Edwards is well on his way to stardom).
2. Identify some cards (preferably rookies)
In hindsight, I wish I had known the importance of rookie cards instead of targeting Jordan base cards of the ’90s. That’s because rookie cards are a great investment especially of the best players in a given sport.
As you learn to identify cards below, prioritize rookie cards if they’re within your spending budget. An alternative — and less costly — approach is to target 2nd year or 3rd year sports cards instead. For example, if the player’s cards debuted in the year 2000, you can look at cards from the year 2001, or 2002. These still remain highly collectible early-year cards which should steadily grow in value.
Here are a few examples of the types of searches you can perform on eBay:
- Tom Brady RC SGC 10
- Tom Brady 2000 Upper Deck PSA 10
- Zion Williamson RC PSA 10
- Lebron James 2003 Topps PSA 10
- Michael Jordan 1986 Fleer Sticker PSA 9
- Shaquille O’Neal 1992 Topps PSA 10
Notice in the above examples, we used RC in our search to designate “rookie card”. You can alternatively try searching “rookie” or simply enter the year of the player’s rookie if you know it. Since Tom Brady’s rookie cards debuted in the year 2000, we can include “2000” in our search to see all of the cards available to bid on or buy. It’s also possible to use advanced search shortcuts to eliminate results, if necessary.
Once you’ve isolated your favorite cards, it’s time to research prices next.
3. Research current pricing
Before you buy your first sports card, you’ll need to understand how much it’s worth in the current market so you don’t overpay.
Keep in mind the sports card market can be extremely volatile, especially in the last couple of years with the larger-than-usual increase in card values due to the pandemic. Even if you’re buying a card at its current market price, there’s really no guarantee it will go up from here.
The reason why I recommended buying your favorite players’ sports cards earlier is because even though they may go down in price from time to time, you’ll still have an emotional connection to your collection and have the patience to hang tight.
There are multiple free ways to gauge current card prices so that you can get a clear picture of sales trends over time (e.g. most recent sales price vs. 90 days vs. one year ago). Or you can track your collection using CardLadder, although it’ll cost a little over $100 annually.
4. Buy your first sports card
It’s safer to go after a professionally graded card (e.g. by PSA, BGS, or SGC) as it will have been authenticated, and secured in a tamperproof holder. That extra security will come with more cost, but it’s worth the peace of mind at higher price points.
Whether you buy graded or ungraded cards, be sure to review the overall condition in areas such as the card surface, centering, corners, and overall eye appeal. This way you’re not just relying on what sellers disclose, or what graders catch in their assessment of a card — you do your own due diligence.
The same should be said about buying cards in person, where community is important within the hobby.
5. Attend a sports card show or convention
It’s not uncommon to see many collectors come together at local card shows or annual sports cards conventions. It’s a neat way to meet new people in the industry and just see the full scope of collecting in one room.
One of the funnest conventions in the nation is the National Sports Card Convention. It consists of hundreds of tables of dealers, and collectors, showing off their stuff (mostly for sale). You’ll see every sport, old and new cards, all kinds of memorabilia, even famous players stop by for signings!
Aside from the national convention, you can also attend a local show nearby. Beckett (the professional grading company) has a neat venue search to find a show, or simply try googling ‘sports card show near me.’ You can also try Sports Card Investor’s show search.
6. Buy your first sealed wax box
So far, this entire post has talked about researching and buying your first sports card(s), although for most collectors one of the more natural ways to get into the hobby is by buying wax packs/boxes and cracking them open. The fun of opening a sealed wax pack and scoring a popular card cannot be understated. It’s like a mini-lottery you get to play with every pack you open.
Searching for sealed wax boxes online is no different than looking for cards. Let’s say you’re a fan of Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Trae Young. You can do a search for “2018 panini sealed basketball box” to find the different products available, and what they’re going for in price.
Want to sit this part out and live vicariously through others? You can watch sports card “box breaks” on YouTube to see what you’re getting into (and it’s far cheaper to watch).
7. Learn the best way to store your cards
As soon as you’ve bought some cards, or your first wax box, you’re going to have a ton laying around in no time. One of the next steps in sports card collecting is ensuring your cards are protected, as the better the condition, the higher the value.
In the event you open a sealed wax box, it will only yield a handful of cards seriously worth protecting. For example, you may have 200 or more cards laying around, with 10-20 worthy of protecting in sleeves or plastic casing. The rest of the cards (of lower value) can simply sit in a cardboard box.
If you decided to buy graded cards instead, no rush in buying storage cases since your cards come encased by the professional grading company.
8. Keep your collection safe
Whether you collect or invest in sports cards, you’re going to need to safeguard your cards as the value of your collection increases.
I didn’t start thinking about this until my collection ballooned to around $50,000 in value, but I’d recommend considering insurance for your cards as soon as you get to $5,000 in value or more, or even a home safe if you keep them at home. Fortunately, there are multiple vault services offered nowadays where companies like eBay, PWCC, and Goldin, store your cards in their vault, on site, and insured. Check out eBay’s vault for a deeper dive into how it works.
In this post, we’ve boiled down the process to invest in sports cards to eight key steps. There’s no reason you can’t purchase your first card today if you’re new to the hobby. Heck, the first four steps of this post will get you there!
Choosing your favorite sport and player will form a foundation and connection to your collection. Rookie cards (especially of star players) are often a smart choice for investment, but it’s important to consider your budget. And before you pull the trigger, be sure to research the current prices of your target cards to avoid overpaying.
Steps five through eight are a great way to evolve your collecting experience. Attending sports card shows and conventions can be a fun way to meet other collectors and get entrenched into the hobby. Also consider buying sealed wax boxes to enjoy the excitement that comes with opening packs of cards. As your collection grows in value, make sure to protect and store your cards properly.
That’s a wrap! If you have any questions or need help in picking some cards, I’d love to hear from you! Be sure to subscribe to the blog in the right rail of this article to see our future posts.