Last Updated On: August 9th, 2023
In 2019, I bought several Kevin Durant PSA 10 2007 Finest RC cards as I noticed they were woefully undervalued by the market.
How does Kevin Durant, a hall of fame baller, average just $60 a pop for his Topps Finest rookie card on eBay? I figured they were cheap cards to invest in, so I purchased four at just around $250 total hoping they would go up in value over the long term.
This week (in April, 2023), I’m seeing the same card going for $200+ each on eBay.
I noticed this pattern had emerged in recent years, with countless examples of the most undervalued sports cards I had purchased that had soared in price. It can primarily be attributed to the pandemic, but regardless my investments continued to do really well even before the pandemic lit a fire under the market. By buying low-end rookies, I’m able to manage risk in the event the card market experiences a downturn as well.
In this post, I will highlight three core examples of cheap cards to invest in, and how you can leverage this information to buy sports cards — really in any sport, not just basketball — to make some good money.
Cheap Rookie Cards to Invest in
As with the Kevin Durant Finest RC example mentioned above, one of the ways I identified to get a huge return on investment is by buying the less expensive rookie cards for a given player.
I normally pick cards that have a low “population” when it comes to PSA or BGS graded examples, and also stick to Gem Mint grades (e.g. PSA 10 or BGS 9.5 or better grading). This means that the number of cards in the market of the PSA 10 Gem Mint grade or BGS 9.5 Gem Mint grade are low in quantity (population).
When a player’s key rookie card soars in demand (like Stephen Curry’s has), their most popular card — sometimes because it’s pretty, or scarce — takes off in price month over month, and collectors/investors take notice and start to buy all of that player’s rookies.
Essentially the cost of the primary rookie is eventually so high, it prices a lot of collectors out and the natural tendency is for buyers to gravitate towards the lower cost rookies. The scarcity of choosing low population cards in perfect condition keeps the supply of cards available for purchase very limited in the marketplace, and therefore the prices continue to steadily rise with all that player’s rookies as buyers pour in.
Another reason for choosing lower cost rookies with a low population is that they’re more accessible to the general market of buyers. There are a lot more people that can afford to buy a $100 card than a card that is $1,500. More buyers equals more demand, which in turn means better price appreciation for you.
One other extremely important factor in choosing what to buy is the player himself. It is best if they have a rock solid resume, usually a future or existing hall of famer with a championship or two. To name a few examples, I often talk about Lebron, Kobe, Durant, Curry, Jordan, Brady, and also names like Shaq, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and the list goes on and on.
You can also speculate by buying young stars with loads of potential, but keep in mind the risk to injury, playing on a crappy team for many years, or simply put they never measure up to their lofty expectations. Some stars with lots of potential include Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, Devin Booker, and Luka Doncic.
Check out my post on affordable Tom Brady Rookie Cards for real world examples of how I assessed Tom Brady’s affordable rookie cards and compared them against one another to decide what to buy. I’ve also been targeting many of Jordan’s early Star cards.
Buying 2nd Year Cards
The second type of card I recommend buying is what’s called a 2nd year card.
If a player’s debut season (and sports trading card) is their rookie season, it is the first year of their card entering the sports collecting hobby. A 2nd year card is literally the following year’s issue. For example, a 1996-1997 Kobe Bryant Rookie Card is his 1st year card, while a 1997-1998 card would qualify as his 2nd year card.
As investors and collectors focus on buying a key player’s rookie cards, you’ll notice a lag effect on their more affordable rookies (as covered in the section above), and also their 2nd year cards, inserts, and even future year cards which will be discussed in the section that follows.
In practice, if I’m following a player and their rookie cards are jumping in price month over month, year over year, it usually indicates a great opportunity for researching and buying 2nd year cards for that player. For example, I have been targeting Mike Trout, Aaron Rodgers, and Lebron James cards because I feel they are significantly undervalued by the market and are poised to catch up in future years.
What 2nd Year Cards to Buy
To give you a more clear example, Lebron James 2003 Topps Chrome rookie card in PSA 10 condition steadily appreciated in price from $500 to $1,000, $1,000 to $2,500, $2,500 soared beyond $40,000, and now the card sits around $7,000 after coming back down to earth. The 2004 Topps Chrome (2nd year) card in contrast is sitting at around $400 with a PSA 10 population of approx. 500 as of July 2022. The 2004 Topps Chrome Lebron James card is a low risk pickup valued at 1/15th of his chrome rookie with much less supply in circulation.
Refractors, Prizms, Inserts, and Future Years
The third type of card to consider buying is actually a couple of different ones lumped into one bucket. Inserts, die-cut cards, parallels including rare refractors and Prizms, and future year cards, such as 3rd and 4th year cards all share a common characteristic: they’re usually ignored by the market for a significant amount of time before getting noticed. Your job is to find the most undervalued sports cards before they get noticed.
Rare inserts and parallels that are just a few years away from the player’s rookie year appreciate really well as they age. Keep reading for a couple of examples of cards I tend to buy.
Topps Chrome, Bowman Chrome, and Gold Refractors
Topps Chrome, Bowman Chrome, and Finest refractors are always popular choices amongst collectors. Gold prizms and refractors especially attract a lot of attention, along with Xfractors, Black refractors, etc.
The lower the serial number (e.g. 50 made, or 199, etc.), the better. This again lends to the scarcity premium the card will fetch, given only a limited print run was issued to begin with. Here are a few real examples of what to look for (I’ve linked a few to eBay for convenience):
- Aaron Rogers 2006 Topps Chrome Refractors PSA 10 (search on eBay)
- Aaron Rogers 2007 Bowman Chrome Refractors PSA 10 (there are several types)
- Lebron James 2004 Topps Chrome Refractor PSA 10 (even in lower grades, e.g. PSA 9)
- Lebron James 2004 Topps Finest Refractor PSA 10 (search on eBay)
- Mike Trout 2014-2020 Panini Prizm Gold Prizms (search on eBay)
- Tom Brady Chrome and Finest Refractors PSA 10 from 2003 to 2010 (we’re buying these, too)
Fleer Ultra Gold and Platinum Medallions Inserts
These inserts are great pickups, beginning with the rookie year and even subsequent years. A couple that stand out:
- Kevin Durant 2007 Fleer Ultra Gold Medallion PSA 10 (search on eBay)
- Tom Brady 2003 Fleer Ultra Gold and Platinum Medallion PSA 10 (low pop)
- Tom Brady 2004 Fleer Ultra Gold and Platinum Medallion PSA 10 (search on eBay)
The tips below summarize the best way to find cheap sports cards to invest in. The primary goal is to buy the types of cards that are undervalued and won’t break the bank (low risk), but also get you a huge return on investment:
- Identify hall of fame player(s) like Tom Brady, Lebron James, Stephen Curry, etc.
- Research how much their primary rookies are worth and whether they’re trending up
- Identify more affordable rookies for the player(s) using the same link above
- Identify 2nd year, 3rd year, and 4th year cards for the player(s)
- Identify refractors, Prizms, die-cuts, and other high-end inserts
- Check population numbers of the cards you have identified for lower supply candidates
- Save eBay search listings for the cards you’d like to buy, and start bidding/buying!
In the future we will delve deeper into a detailed post to show you exactly how to search and compare low-end versus primary rookie cards for your favorite players, so be sure to subscribe to the blog in the right rail of this post.