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Inside the basketball card boom

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  • Ronnie Holloway of Elite Sports Cards & comics holds a jewel from his collection, a graded, near-mint 1986 Fleer rookie sticker of Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan. The card is worth around $10,000.
  • Matthew Sigur

Much like a player on a scoring streak in NBA Jam, basketball cards are on fire.

On eBay, Michael Jordan’s 1986 Fleer rookie card is priced at $1 million. In January, a rookie card for the New Orleans Pelicans’ Zion Williamson was expected to be auctioned for $750,000. In late February, a rookie card of Dallas Mavericks’ superstar Luka Dončić sold for $4.6 million, the most expensive basketball card to date.

Seeing those figures might make you yell “boomshakalaka.” Basketball cards are indeed having a moment. And according to Ronnie Holloway, the current sports card hype started last year as the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Holloway is the owner of Elite Sports Cards & Comics on Montrose Avenue. He remembers the boom’s beginnings last February. As residents were in lockdown, Holloway says, “everyone started digging through their closets” and reassessing collections of sports memorabilia. Increased activity and interest continued in Chicago with the April premiere of The Last Dance, ESPN’s ten-part miniseries about Michael Jordan and the Bulls’ championship seasons.

“When The Last Dance came out, that just brought everything to this outrageous level,” Holloway says. “[The amount of sales] hasn’t stopped since.”

Not only are more people buying basketball cards, they are also willing to spend more money. Demand has left shelves empty at one-time reliable retail stores like Walmart and Target. Some Target locations have posted signage near card racks, limiting customers to three items per purchase. At these bigger stores, a box of 32 2019-2020 NBA Hoops Premium Stock cards is $19.99. Through online vendors like Dave and Adam’s Card World, the same box is priced at $69.95, comparable to what Holloway charges; that is, if he has any basketball cards in stock.

“It’s so hard to keep [basketball cards] on my shelf. They are definitely my number one sale,” Holloway says. Of those new players, Dončić, Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, and Williamson cards are the most coveted. “The rookie classes of these last couple of years have been phenomenal. Everyone is looking for who will be that next player who has that breakout moment. That’s another part why the business has come back. That hype started going crazy, and it rubbed off on [sales of] football [cards].”

An avid card collector himself, Holloway has seen the highs and lows of the sports cards business first hand over the past 16 years. In 2005, he ran the now-closed Chicago All-Stars for seven years on the northwest side of the city. In 2019, he took over Elite Sports Cards & Comics for a friend who had owned the shop for 25 years.

“He was ready to retire, and I didn’t want to see it die out,” Holloway says.

Elite is one of two shops in the city. Tim’s Baseball Card Shop on North Western Avenue is the other, specializing in baseball boxes and vintage cards—think rare 1950s and 60s-era cards. In the burbs, there are a few more options, including The Baseball Card King. The 13-year-old company has locations in Plainfield, Oak Lawn, and Downers Grove, as well as a distribution warehouse in Shorewood.

The Baseball Card King owner Brian Jadzak experienced a similar, renewed interest from new customers as last year’s lockdown began. Jadzak temporarily closed his shops last February, then moved his business online where his card supply went faster than expected.

“We’ve never experienced a reaction like this, never to this extent,” Jadzak says. “If there isn’t much to buy on the basketball side, the customer is buying football or baseball. One way or the other, they’re buying hundreds of dollars of boxes. That’s how it’s been the entire year.”

Jadzak adds that basketball cards in particular have seen a rise in popularity and price because card production was affected by the pandemic, creating scarcity which contributed to prices catapulting. Even more expensive are hobby boxes, filled with specialty packs with lower-produced cards like jersey swatches, autographs, numbered brands, and different colored parallel prints. Holloway has seen a markup of up to 400 percent on basketball hobby boxes.

When customers do get their hands on an unopened box or pack, some take that to resale markets like eBay, Mercari, or StockX for an easy flip and profit. Unlike baseball and football, however, “basketball is the one sport that has a worldwide interest,” Jadzak says.

“When people buy stuff and put it up on eBay, the prices are going through the roof because you’re getting so many foreign bidders going after these cards,” Jadzak says. “That raises the prices of the cards to begin with, and that’s not something lost on the [basketball card] manufacturer Panini.”


Elite Sports Cards & Comics
2028 W. Montrose, 773-784-1396, elitesportscards.net

Tim’s Baseball Card Shop
4549 N. Western, 773-275-6725, timsbbcardshop.com

Sport & Gaming Cards
In the Golf Mill Shopping Center in Niles, 847-795-9355

The Baseball Card King
Locations in Oak Lawn, Downers Grove, and Plainfield, shopbck.com

Heroes Sports Cards
8919 W. Cermak Road, North Riverside, 708-442-1926, facebook.com/HeroesSportsCardsInc

Chicagoland Sports Cards
793 S. Buffalo Grove Road, Buffalo Grove, 847-229-2636, chicagolandsportscards.com

AU Sports Cards
6006 Dempster, Morton Grove, 847-647-8311, ausportsmemorabilia.com

Jim & Steve’s Sportscards
2909 Grand, Waukegan, 847-244-1981, jimnstevescards.com

For collectors, the past year has been equally exciting and headache-inducing. Dan Snyder returned to collecting cards about four years ago for fun. He has certain brands and players he collects. Case in point: If he sees a Jordan card for $50, he’ll probably buy it. However, he prefers not to invest in the weekly “must-haves” that generate social media buzz.

“I haven’t gotten into the prospect of buying everyone under the sun,” Snyder says. “I’ll look into certain cards and players, then make a determination, but I’m not going to go buy the five cards that this guy said to buy this week. That’s no different than playing the stock market. I can’t bring myself to do it because I can’t rationalize why certain cards move other than social media influence.”

Hearing the news of Dončić’s rookie card and its record-breaking sale, Snyder’s immediate reaction was, “He’s a fantastic player, but he’s in year three. What if he gets injured?” Take a step back from the buzz, and think about hot players in the 90s and 00s like Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Derrick Rose, or even Dončić’s teammate Kristaps Porzingis who was said to be the New York Knicks’ savior before tearing his ACL in 2018.

“There have been plenty of examples throughout history of players who had good starts to careers and never ended up being hall-of-famers,” Snyder says.

Snyder also sees a difference in the amount of cards per player. He mentions the example of Jordan having one rookie card from the ’86 Fleer collection. To compare, he speculates that Dončić has “no less than 100 different rookie cards when you factor in all the different numbered parallels” and variations. His concern is that cards could have less value in the future.

“I look at the cards market to some degree like the housing market when everyone was investing then flipping houses. At some point, someone has to live in that house,” Snyder says. “At some point, that card has to end up in someone’s collection. More of them have to end up in a collection than not to sustain that kind of value.”

Snyder has good reason to be pessimistic. In the late 80s and early 90s, a boom of cards created a space in which there were 300 trading cards available for every living American. The time period was full of “junk wax.” Even with superstars throughout the 90s and 2000s, the card market was in poor shape until 2015, Jadzak says.

“[Card-shop owners] are all trying to figure out what happened, but it was a turning point,” Jadzak says. “Nothing was sitting on the shelves like it had been before. The profit margins were a little bit higher, and collectors started to come back.”

Nowadays, a box of cards from the “junk wax” era can go for six figures. In three weeks’ time, Holloway saw a complete set of 1986-87 Fleer with a Jordan rookie inside jump in price from $12,000 to $80,000 to nearly $800,000 on eBay. Even though Holloway knows those customers exist, he isn’t sure how long the surge will last. He predicts the market will correct itself by 2023.

Brock Snider, a 29-year-old USG sales rep by day and card collector, is more optimistic. Born and raised in Evanston, Snider began collecting basketball and Pokémon cards when he was five years old. After losing interest in his teens, he rediscovered his passion two years ago. He’s also enjoyed the investing side, which has ramped up considerably for him over the past year.

“When the pandemic hit, it forced people to think about what’s important to them and what they like doing,” Snider says. “Cards are an investment that’s tangible rather than placing a sports bet or playing fantasy sports, and the money goes out the window. The buzz comes from the culmination of the pandemic, social media, and the eyes and dollars being brought into the market.”

Snider has seen first-hand the amount of money customers are willing to spend with Breaker Boyz, a card-breaking Instagram account he started with his childhood friends Michael Lezine and Evan Joseph. In a break, Snider says customers are essentially paying someone to open a pack of cards that they couldn’t afford or don’t have access to.

Through Breaker Boyz, customers can spend anywhere from $20 to $80, depending on the pack of cards that’s being opened. Once all the slots are filled, the Boyz host a live event on Instagram where they open packs of cards for the customers. When the break is finished, the cards are shipped. Breaker Boyz is one of many card-breaking channels to pop up over the past year. And since its debut a little over a month ago, the group has gained more than 1,200 followers.

“It’s a fun, interactive experience,” Snider says of the live breaks. “We love opening cards, and we get to open awesome cards for people who pay to do it with us.”

From a consumer standpoint, Snider knows the frustration that has come with increased prices and scarce amounts of product. As the market continues on its upward trend, he thinks customers are playing catch-up.

Gone are the days of just buying cards and letting them sit. Investor-savvy customers are getting their cards graded by authenticators like PSA or Beckett who judge the condition of the card on a scale of one to ten. These graders are looking for creases, if the card is properly centered, and the wear and tear near the corners and edges, among other details.

Prices for grading cards range due to the value of the card and speed of service. It doesn’t help that PSA currently has a backlog of literally millions of cards waiting to be graded. Still, with a PSA grade of eight or higher behind a valuable card, a $100 card’s value can skyrocket into the thousands. To a new generation of customers, the process is worth it.

“We’re so used to what cards were worth,” Snider says. “Now, there’s new methods with grading cards, and more market presence. This is where the transition is coming with the old-school mentality of not wanting to spend money to get the big money. With all these people coming into the market, there have to be ways of protecting what we have. If you’re trying to make money, and you’re investing in cards as assets, you should be getting your cards graded.”

Even as social media leads collectors into new territories like card-breaking, or the digital NBA Top Shot marketplace, shop owners and customers are enjoying the hype while it lasts. Even when the bubble bursts, Jadzak suspects basketball cards will remain, to once again quote NBA Jam, “a monster jam.”

“The only sport that may not be impacted by that correction would be basketball because it has such a worldwide appeal,” Jadzak says. “Even at the end of COVID, when everything has reopened and you don’t even have to wear masks, the hobby will still be peaking.”   v

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