From Steph to Mickey Mantle to the up-and-comers, here's how to find undervalued sports cards and turn your hobby into an investment.
Updated Jul 31, 2023
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Got a thing for sports cards? Well, you're in for a treat because this hobby just leveled up to a mad obsession in 2023. And the best part? You can make some serious dough from it.
Here's the score: We’ve had a wild ride since 2020, witnessing card after card smashing records and becoming the most expensive sports card ever sold. As of October 2021, it's game on with 13 cards sold for over a million. The top dog? A Honus Wagner card that scored $6.6 million. The kicker—those splitting the windfall had only bought them only a few years back.
Now, investing in sports memorabilia isn't without its own set of curveballs. High-stakes game translates to high risks. One minute you're riding the wave, the next you could be wiped out. But then again, fortune favors the bold—think windfalls in the territory of seven figures.
So how do you score big without betting the farm? Buckle up and get ready for the lowdown on the best sports cards to invest in 2023. We'll spill the beans on how to sniff out undervalued cards and even how to get your mitts on multi-million dollar holy grail cards with just a Hamilton.
Let's kick things off with a key decision. What's your endgame? Are you a quick hitter, looking to flip sports cards like buckwheat pancakes? Or are you going for the long haul, wanting to hold on to them like precious heirlooms? There's no right or wrong, both approaches can crunch out some cream. But your choice will send you hunting for different kinds of cards. Each has its own set of perks and downers—let’s dribble over them, shall we?
If you're looking for a long-term investment, you're going to want to go for the classic cards. Like blue-chip stocks, 'blue-chip' sports cards are well-established and have already shown to hold value over longer periods—your mint-condition Mickey Mantles and Babe Ruths.
Going for these cards is like a less scary money adventure. Ok, there's less risk, but you also might not make bucket loads of cash, mainly because these top-notch cards can cost an arm and a leg upfront.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Over time, they often do a subtle moonwalk upwards in value. Sometimes, they even beat the S&P 500 in a footrace. Plus, they can help you diversify your portfolio and keep things stable when the stock market starts rocking the boat.
If you're after a quick buck, you might be looking at a smaller initial investment, but you'll be taking on more risk. When you want to flip a card for a short-term return on investment (ROI), you're mostly looking for up-and-coming cards you believe are currently undervalued but will skyrocket with time. These are often the first or second-year cards of athletes with promising careers.
The best sports cards to invest in aren't always the big-ticket ones. They're the hidden gems you reckon will go up in value down the line. Your mission is to make a profit. Meaning, you're on the hunt for cards that are bargains right now but have the potential to be worth a small fortune later. So, the million-dollar question is, how do you sniff out these diamond-in-the-rough sports cards?
To find cards that will go up in value, you need to be able to predict two things:
Being able to predict a player's market value mostly comes down to your knowledge of the sport and how closely you follow the player. You probably can't become an expert on everything, so it makes sense to focus on your favorite sports and players. If you watch basketball more than baseball, focus on NBA cards. Keep in mind that the popularity of your chosen sport will impact the value of its cards.
The card-collecting business has been around since the 19th century, but the 80s, with the Michael Jordan wave, gave it a serious adrenaline rush. In the world of sports cards, four superstars sit on the throne: basketball cards, football cards, baseball, and soccer. Hot on their heels, though, is F1, screeching its tires in the popularity race but not quite in the fast lane yet.
So here's the lowdown: there are two main camps in the card-collecting world—vintage cards (those golden oldies from before the 1980s), and modern cards. Modern packs are a mixed bag with base cards, shiny new rookies, signed autographs, and, cool memorabilia cards featuring a piece of the player's gear. The hefty paychecks are hanging out with the last three. But when you pull out a rookie card kissed with an autograph—boom, you've hit the mother lode.
Next, pick a few players you reckon are the bee's knees. Follow them and learn their stats like the back of your hand. Remember, the more trophies and awards they rack up—like MVPs, world records, hall of fame entries—the more their card's worth shoots up. So, if you can tell a rising star when you see one and nab their cards early, you're on a fast track to some good money.
Tom Brady might be one of the most valuable athletes of all time, but that doesn't mean every card with the Bucs quarterback's face on it will go for top dollar. A rookie Brady card sold for over $3 million in June 2021, but you can also find Brady cards on eBay selling for $5. So what sets the valuable cards apart from the pack? Some important factors, which are detailed in the next section, include:
There are plenty of factors to take into consideration when choosing the best sports cards to invest in. In addition to identifying hot players, here are some of the main things to look out for when combing through their cards.
Trading cards are graded according to a ten-point scale developed by various authenticator organizations, including Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), BGS, and SGC. A few exceptions aside, mint condition cards with a PSA 9, PSA 10, BGS 9.5, BGS 10, or SGC will pull in the most cash, but they'll also cost you a pretty penny. You can also buy a non-graded card you believe to be in mint condition and pay to get it graded by one of these organizations, which will likely increase its value.
If you've taken Economics 101, you know the laws of supply and demand—if a sports card is popular and rare, either because it's old or production was limited, it will go for top dollar. On the other hand, if the card was over-manufactured, it probably won't be worth much.
Rookie cards are the holy grail of sports card collecting and have been for a long time. But just because a card says "rookie" on it doesn't make it a rookie card. Often a rookie card will be from that player's rookie season, though not always. When in doubt, look up the card to verify. You'll have to pay more for a player's rookie card, though, so another strategy for finding undervalued cards is to go for a player's first and second-year cards.
The three big brands when it comes to sports cards are Topps, Panini, and Upper Deck. Topps has been around the longest and dominates the older, classic sports cards and current baseball cards. Panini now takes the cake in many other sports, particularly football, basketball, and soccer. While Panini baseball and hockey cards are unlicensed, they can also bring in some serious dough. Finally, Upper Deck is the go-to for hockey cards.
Some cards include bonus features like an autograph or a piece of a game-worn jersey. These extras often increase the value of the card. Other features that increase the eye appeal of a card, from parallel colors that match a player's jersey to famous action shots to refractors, can also improve value.
The cream of the crop in the sports cards world has a mix of classic heroes and flashy newbies. But just like people, not all cards are born equal. Some cards of big-shot players can net you a small fortune, while others might just scrape together enough to buy a cup of coffee. Sit tight, as we're about to spill the beans on top athletes and their golden tickets—cards to watch for if you're planning to play the field in 2023.
A 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card, with a 9.5 SGC grade sold for a record $12.6 million in 2022.
The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle Rookie Card, featuring a young Mantle in his second season with Major League Baseball's Yankees, is likely one of the most iconic baseball cards in history. That was the year when the Yankees clinched their fourth straight World Series victory.
This card is particularly rare, mainly because Topps discarded hundreds of cases of their 1952 set into the sea to clear space in their storage for newer editions. Deemed to be in Near Mint condition, this card belongs to the last series among the six in the 1952 collection. It's considered one of the rarest of Topps's production.
Mickey Mantle's card is undoubtedly one of the most sought-after cards in the world. A PSA 9 version of this card broke records in January 2021 when it sold for $5.2 million, becoming the most expensive sports card ever sold (until a Honus Wagner card broke that record later in the year). According to PSA, there are only three gem mint cards in existence worldwide.
The latest asset chart cites the SGC 7 1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle card at a hefty $387,000 on Rally.
A Mickey Mantle card hit a home run, selling for a record-breaking $12.6 million in August 2022. A hefty price, but baseball collectors take note—other mint-condition Mantle cards could still swing big value. After all, in the world of trading cards, Mantle is the name on the ticket.
The world's rarest baseball card, a 1909-11 Wagner T-206, sold for a record $7.25 million in August 2022.
Honus Wagner is an all-time favorite, and his T206 SGC 3 sold in August 2022 for $7.25 million, topping previous records set earlier in 2021 by over $1 million. This is an extremely rare card (there are likely well under 100 in existence), which is part of its appeal.
Got your eyes on a Honus Wagner but without the fat stack of cash? Check out the 1910 E90-2 American Caramel Honus Wagner. It's a spitting image of the record-smashing $7.25 million T206, but with a jazzy blue backdrop, and a far less eye-watering price tag. With its yellow twin breaking the bank, who knows, this one may soon climb the popularity ladder.
A rare Luka Doncic rookie card scored a record $3.12 million public sale in a November 2022 auction.
Young players like Dončić open up vast potential for massive ROI in card flipping. The value of his prime cards experienced a significant leap from his first to his second professional year, and three years into the NBA, his rookie card smashed various records.
For instance, a super rare Luka Doncic rookie card changed hands in November 2022, commanding an impressive $3.12 million, thus marking the record sale for a basketball card at a public auction.
The spotlight was reserved for the 2018-19 National Treasures RPA (rookie patch autograph) Logoman. This stand-out piece features Doncic's autograph and a player-donned NBA logo, hence the "Logoman" moniker, and it's known for being an exclusive 1-of-1 piece. Interestingly, this same card was subject to a private sale in March 2021, carrying a price tag of $4.6 million—the highest price for a basketball card at the time.
In its debut on the trading card market, this Doncic Logoman lags behind the record $5.2 million for a LeBron James RPA, brokered by PWCC in April 2021. However, with its notoriety in both private and public sales, the Doncic piece has secured two top positions in history's highest basketball card sales.
Another of Dončić's cards—the 2018 Prizm rookie card, complete with a dynamic image and backed by the in-demand Panini brand, has attracted a steady following among card collectors. These pieces, particularly the rarer variants, are considered excellent investment options.
2018 Panini Prizm Luka Doncic Rookie Card Mojo #280 /25 PSA 10 card.
Briefly stealing the spotlight as 2020 wrapped up, the Mike Trout Bowman Chrome Draft Prospects Superfractor Autograph swooped in to become the highest-grossing card ever, until 2021 rocked the sports card universe. Still, it's not to be scoffed at—holding the #5 spot, it was snapped up for a sweet $3.9 million. Now that's a home run for the seller who scooped it up for a mere $400,000 just two years earlier, batting a stupendous 875% ROI.
The 2018 Topps Chrome Rookie Autograph card has sold for as high as $11,000 with only 16 copies in gem mint condition.
Opening the pack of a 2018 Topps Chrome Rookie Autograph and finding Ronald Acuna Jr.'s #RA-RA (Gold Wave Refractor) card is equivalent to striking gold nowadays.
Ronald Acuna Jr., a name synonymous with explosive power hits and swift base running, has caught the eye of baseball card investors worldwide.
As for other Ronald Acuna Jr. cards you should have on your radar? The Topps Stars of MLB Ronald Acuna Jr., Topps Chrome Ronald Acuna Jr. PSA 10, and the regular Topps Ronald Acuna Jr., all of which are well within reach for most punters. But remember, the smart play is to seek out a graded card that's minty fresh.
Messi's 2004 Panini Sports #71 scored $304,770 in January 2022 and his recent Inter Miami move may boost its value.
Messi's magic is real and it's not just limited to the pitch. The value of his cards is rising at apace, mirroring his illustrious career. In January 2022, Messi's card bagged $304,770 at The MINT25 Auction by Lelands. Contrast that with the $270,600 it achieved at Goldin Auctions in August 2021, or even the $116,988 it scored on eBay in September 2020. See the trend?
Messi's recent move to Inter Miami is stirring things up. Change often sparks interest and this fresh start could be a value accelerator for his cards. And that's not all.
Messi’s World Cup win solidifies his status as potentially the greatest player of all time. This global recognition can do wonders for his cards’ worth.
If you snap up a Messi card, you're not just buying a piece of sports memorabilia. You're investing in the legacy of an epic player, recognized by many as the GOAT. His star is on the rise and so, it seems, is the worth of his cards. It's not flashy, it's facts. All this aligns with Messi's very own ethos—brilliance without the unnecessary show.
There's one basketball card reigning the courts, and it belongs to none other than LeBron James. Snatching a record $5.2 million, it's become the highest-priced basketball card ever. It missed a score of 9.5 by a whisper, ranking as the third-best card in existence. This isn't just a card, it's a basketball masterpiece.
Dating back to the birth of modern high-end sports cards in 2003-04, the LeBron James Rookie Patch Auto Parallel was the one every collector eyed. Ultra-rare and numbered 23 copies, it has outpaced itself to be the crown jewel of sports card investing.
This powerhouse card is breaking records match after match: from $1.8 million in July 2020 to $1,722,000 in April 2021 at Goldin Auctions. The $5.2 million tag matches the price paid for the well-known 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card.
LeBron's on-court triumphs are boosting his card's value significantly. Every achievement, every recognition—it all adds up. It's like a basketball ETF, mirroring LeBron's career performance.
Choosing this card isn't just a worthy pick, it's a top draft choice. History, stats, and sale records suggest a potential slam dunk investment. All this noise without an ounce of flash. In the realm of basketball card trading, this LeBron James card is like the man himself, a king.
Stephen Curry's 2009-10 Playoff National Treasures Rookie, holds the record as the most expensive basketball card ever, selling at $5.9 million.
Stephen Curry has a lot of records attached to his name. Now he holds the record for having the most expensive sports card of all time. The 2009-10 Playoff National Treasures Rookie Logoman Autograph Stephen Curry sold for $5.9 million.
Steph Curry's card isn't just hitting threes—it’s sinking investment records. The one-of-one Curry card—a parallel of his valuable Rookie Card, is in NM-MT 8 condition according to PSA. So the question is, why invest in a piece of sports memorabilia? Because this card isn't just about power layups and clutch threes. It represents the entire sports card market, as Alt's founder Leore Avidar points out.
The Curry card's price tag swooshes past the $5.2 million paid for the 2003-04 LeBron James and even brushes shoulders with the inimitable 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle.
How about past sales? Well, the previous high for a National Treasures Rookie Logoman Autograph was a screaming $4.6 million—a record held by Steph Curry's contemporary. This fact alone makes Curry's card an enticing pick.
Adding on, the 2009-10 Playoff National Treasures Basketball, which featured Curry's card, marks a significant moment as Panini's first super-premium basketball product. It's the cornerstone for top-level basketball rookie cards.
So, why choose Steph? His card represents more than just a player. It's about consistently exceptional performance, historic milestones, and an enticing investment. Just like his jumper, this card could be nothing but net.
Sports cards, tempting as they may seem, aren't your typical blue-chip stocks. Yes, you might strike gold with a rare valuable card like the 1952 Mickey Mantle fetching a cool $12.6 million. And certainly, the eBay stats indicating a 142% jump in trading card transactions does make one wonder.
But here's the truth: sports cards are as volatile as a rookie's season. A soaring card today could be a dud tomorrow. Counterfeits exist and the 'perfect condition' card could invite a brutal markdown for that minor crease.
Now, you're thinking again. Good. Sports cards are a novelty, a flirtation with the unconventional. They can bedazzle your portfolio but should ideally occupy only a small corner of it. Approach it as you would a rookie with potential—a keen eye, background checks, and always have a plan B. Look for genuine value, not just a flashy rookie card. And remember, value can also be emotional, especially if you're holding on to your favorite player's card.
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