A number of poker players have taken up a different kind of card game during quarantine, investing in sports cards. Sports cards have had an unprecedented boom in popularity during the pandemic, surpassing the mania that surrounded the hobby in the late 1980s to early 90s, now known as the Junk Wax Era. While this second round of frenzy may seem like deja-vu, the factors behind the new rise are wildly different with a great likelihood that sports card popularity is the real deal.

Why Sports Cards Now?

The earlier bubble was built on a flawed understanding of the card market. Thousands of collectors hoarded complete sets of cards, believing them to be rare and that all sports cards always rise in value. In actuality, those late 1980s and early 90s sets were some of the most produced cards ever. Furthermore, they were carefully tucked away and saved in a closet by seemingly every boy in America. With the rise of the Internet, soon every potential seller quickly realized supply absolutely dwarfed demand.

Conversely, it is exactly the opposite that today’s investors seek. Rare and high-quality cards reach new record prices, meanwhile common ‘base’ cards are sometimes carelessly tossed aside. Thousand-dollar boxes and high-end one-card packs quickly sell out as buyers hope to find autographs from Hall of Famers and can’t-miss prospects.

A Poker Player’s First-Hand Account

Poker personality Jeff Hwang, now a gaming consultant and author, is one of the many who have returned to card collecting. After discovering the value that can be found in premium guitars, Hwang turned his attention to looking for value in premium baseball cards and ended up penning the popular book The Modern Baseball Card Investor. While it is true that the vast majority of Junk Wax Era cards are not worth the cardboard they are printed on, there are some exceptions. Hwang decided to dig into these small areas of value, mint condition rookie cards. Hunting through Junk Wax Era cards meant searching solely for the superstars, such as Barry Bonds and Bo Jackson.

A 1987 Donruss rookie card of star pitcher Greg Maddux can be found easily for as low as $1. However, the same card, professionally graded and determined to be a perfect ‘Gem Mint’ 10, goes for $200. Finding these diamonds in the rough, and sending them out for grading, is exactly how Hwang hoped to make some extra money. He quickly found out, however, that identifying perfect condition 30+-year-old cards is not an easy task. Hwang, remembering his guitar, switched his focus to the high-value world of rare, serial-numbered cards of baseball’s modern players, namely superstar Mike Trout. This route also has its perils, Hwang sunk money into players that ultimately turned out to be ‘busts’ and paid the price.

The Growing Hobby

A number of factors converged to make this boom happen. Many stuck at home during quarantine had extra time to take up hobbies, naturally, some former collectors re-entered the hobby. Without live sports playing on television for most of spring and summer, the images of athletes on cardboard took their place. Another undeniable aspect, the promotion of the hobby from celebrities, such as the often-viral outspoken businessman and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, or more simply, Gary Vee.

Vee, known for his entrepreneurial spirit, quietly re-entered sports cards a couple years ago but has been actively sharing his involvement and hopeful outlook for the hobby’s lasting resurgence over this past year. Vee’s confidence was based on two factors, the return of collectors that now had money to spend on their childhood hobby. The other factor, equally as important, new interest coming from the younger generation, which he saw entering the hobby first-hand at physical card shows and on social media.

The sports card world truly is unrecognizable from where it was last year. A new most expensive card has emerged, a card that collectors in the late 80s couldn’t even imagine would one day exist. The card, as it’s price tag suggests, is more than just any card. It’s full title and set; an autographed 2009 Bowman Draft Picks Chrome Prospects Superfractor, which is a long way of saying it’s golden, very shiny and literally one-of-a-kind. It was purchased by gambling personality ‘Vegas Dave’ only two years ago for $400,000. Dave Oancea received his fair share of mockery from many in the industry for paying what seemed like such an absurdly high price. Dave got the final laugh as his gamble paid off big time. His purchase price was nearly one-tenth the record-setting price he sold it for this past May, an astounding $4 million.

While baseball cards remain king, the popularity of basketball cards is quickly becoming its rival among the younger generation. As well, soccer stickers produced overseas by major card manufacturer Panini, have worldwide popularity. No matter how you look at it seems sports cards still have plenty of room to grow.

Poker and Baseball Cards Collide

In one way, poker and baseball cards have an even more direct overlap. Topps’ annual Allen & Ginter set, based on the 19th-Century production of the same name, features a variety of subjects and personalities far beyond just baseball. The 2020 set included Tony Dunst. Unlike Hwang, Dunst has not fully jumped back into the hobby of card collecting. Yet, Dunst did boast a collection of baseball cards as well as Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering. In addition to regular ‘base’ cards, Dunst has autograph and memorabilia cards that can be pulled directly from a pack. The memorabilia piece comes from a dress shirt Dunst wore at a World Poker Tour final table. For those who pull the base version of his card but still want an autograph, Dunst is reachable via social media.

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