Sports Card Collecting and Investing

A beginner’s guide to modern-day card acquisition

Sports cards are back, baby. And the comeback is of epic proportions. The market for cards is scorching hot and now is a great time to join in on the fun. I recently began collecting again, and while I was disappointed to find out my one thousand card Frank Thomas collection wasn’t worth anywhere near the sentimental value I assigned it as a twelve-year-old, I’ve been enthused to see a whole new world of card collecting.

Whether you’re rediscovering sports cards or getting into them for the first time you might find the modern collecting world a little daunting. So, to help ease you into the transition and invest in a collection that would make your pre-adolescent self drool with envy, use this guide to help you navigate the modern card collecting terrain.

Card Features and Terminology Explained

In the 2000s card manufacturers began catering towards the collector and have sought to prevent the bubble that was created during the late ’90s. To accomplish this goal card manufacturers have added a lot of cool features and short-printed options to keep things exciting and consumers investing. The following is a comprehensive list of the new qualities that make modern collecting so awesome.

The Base Card

Wander Franco Base Card from 2020 Bowman 1st Edition Baseball

Base cards are common cards that comprise the bulk of all card products. Okay, so the first one on the list isn’t that awesome. But, many card sets today have common cards that far surpass the quality of the old wax packs. They are generally mass-produced, relatively inexpensive, and easy to find. Your average pack of cards will contain mostly base cards. They can be very cool but are not rare.

The Insert

Tom Brady QB Vision Insert Card from 2019 Phoenix Football

Inserts are specially designed, themed reserved for certain players. Inserts are less common than the base card but are included — to a varying degree — in each pack of cards. Inserts can be really fun to collect,(my personal favorite is from the (2020 Luminance Football collection) even if they don’t fetch a high market value. Always look at the checklist (see below) or the card packaging to see the odds of landing a specific insert.

The Case Hit

Kyler Murray Downtown (Case Hit) from 2019 Donruss Optic

Case hits are special cards that fall one per case. IE, they’re rare. They can be insert cards like the Downtown card listed above or maybe a special autographed or jersey patch card. It’s hard to know what is a case hit without looking at the manufacturer checklist. Being very rare, case hits are an exciting element of modern card collecting.

The Patch

Baltimore Ravens Multi-Color Patch from 2019 Panini Plates and Patches

Cards that include pieces of a player’s jersey or game material, such as gloves, bat knobs, and game balls are known as a patch (for jersey patch) or memorabilia (not a jersey but part of the game). Game-used patches and memorabilia will be indicated on the back of the card, as well as if the material is not game-specific. The game used materials are obviously a more exciting find, but general memorabilia can make for a beautiful display as well.

The Auto

Kobe Bryant Auto from 2018–2019 Panini Flawless

Autograph options come in stickers and hard-signed options. Sticker autos are signed by the player prior to card printing and placed on the card with a transparent sticker later in the production process. Hard signed or “on-card”, autos are signed directly on the card. The hard-signed versions increase the value of the card, but many products offer exquisite looking cards with sticker autos as well.

The Parallel & The Refractor

Zion Williamson Disco Parallel from 2019–2020 Panini Mosaic

Parallels are alternate versions of base cards. They will usually have the same picture of the player but will have a different color or pattern on the border. Parallels are often numbered cards and are less common than the base card, with numbers going as low as 1/1. Look not only for low numbered but also numbers that match a player’s jersey number for extra value.

Refractors are a type of parallel that features a metallic sheen or chrome appearance. Everybody loves a good refractor.

The Short Print & Numbered Card

Babe Ruth Numbered (and Memorabilia) 1/1 2009 Topps Tier One

Some card products offer short prints of cards which are different pictures of the player than what is usually found on the base card. Numbered cards are cards that include a number embossed on the card. This will indicate how many cards are made that are exactly like that card as well as when each card was printed within that set.

The RPA (Rookie Patch Auto)

Tua Tagovailoa RPA 2020 Donruss

The holy trinity of cards. RPA stands for Rookie Patch Auto and these cards will be autographed cards, with a jersey patch or memorabilia of a player in their rookie year. These are the cream of the crop when it comes to modern card collecting and dominate the top sales of eBay and other auction sites.

The Printing Plate

Ronald Acuna Jr. Printing Plate from 2019 Topps Series One

Printing plates are the metal pieces used by the card manufacturer to print cards. Many product lines now deliver printing plates that can be discovered in packs. Printing plates can come as just the plate, but may also include autographed versions as well.

The Graded or Slabbed Card

Lebron James Rookie Card Graded by Beckett 2003–04 Upper Deck

There are several companies that will evaluate and encase your cards for a fee. The benefits of having cards graded include preserving their value and certifying the quality of the card. Grading companies will rate the card on several qualities including, centering, corner sharpness, and quality of the autograph if there is one. You can recognize a graded card by the rating that is on top of the case. Having cards graded can be pricey, but worth the investment.

Purchasing Options — How to buy Sports Cards in 2020

The internet has transformed the card collecting industry making your options much more varied and exciting. Here are the most common ways to begin collecting now.

Card Breaks

This is a popular way to get your card collection started. Card companies and eBay sellers will purchase a large bulk of cards, usually by the case, and will sell spots within that case for buyers to bid on or purchase.

The winner of each spot receives all of the cards for the specific team or player purchased. For example, if you buy a Joe Burrow spot in a two case player break, you will get all cards of Joe Burrow that come out of the two cases.

Break spots can be for specific teams or players or can be random. In random breaks, each spot in the break costs the same, and buyers' names are randomized prior to the opening of the cards to determine who receives which spot in the break.

Breaking is a fun, but risky venture. Rather than trying to buy an entire box or even case yourself, you can spend a fraction of the cost and narrow your card search down to just the players or teams you want to own. However, it‘s also a gamble and there are some things to know in order to minimize your risk.

Tips for getting into a break

  1. Shop Around — some companies have more overhead than others and the price per spot will vary depending on where you go. Before jumping into your first break look around at both eBay users card breaking companies and auction sites. Pay close attention to the full description of the listings as well as the seller ratings. Anything less than a high 99% rating on eBay is worth investigating. Negative feedback can be a big red flag. Sometimes it's a disgruntled buyer who didn’t read or understand the concept of a card break, but often an investigation into the reviews may have you looking elsewhere. If you notice even a couple of less than glowing reviews of the seller, move on to the next choice. There are plenty of sellers with impeccable ratings.
  2. Know the checklist — I recommend using the Cardboard Connection to determine how often a player or team shows up in a certain product before you decide to buy. You don’t want to get in on what you think is a good deal only to find out the spot you’ve purchased has a low number of quality cards in the product set. Repeat after me, “know the checklist.”
  3. Remember that nothing is guaranteed — the allure of the break is that you can get a highly coveted and valuable card for a fraction of the price you would normally pay for it. The flip side is sometimes you get beans. Breaks can be a great way to quickly acquire multiple cards from the team or player of your choice and sometimes you strike cardboard gold. However, it is a gamble and no cards are a guarantee.

Direct Buy Packs & Boxes

If you want to avoid the gamble and ensure that you walk away with at least something, then you can purchase packs and boxes outright. There are two categories of cards to be aware of as they provide different value and price points.

1. Retail — Buying packs and boxes from retail stores is the easiest entry point into card collecting. Retail cards can be purchased at nearly any big box store or retail chain.

Retail boxes and packs of cards offer the same player and sport choices, but fewer card features and more frequently produced cards. With exceptions, these cards have a lower return of investment value but are still fun to collect. These cards can *usually be found on the shelves of your local retailer.

*With a rise in the value of retail products, card flippers have been increasingly active at local retailers. If a store doesn’t regulate purchases — few of them do — -you may find yourself struggling to pick up the boxes and packs of the most popular products. If you’re going to buy these cards at the retail value, it will take equal parts vigilance and luck.

2. Hobby — Hobby boxes and packs offer cards with limited print runs and more detail that can make them truly stunning and highly valuable. All of the huge sales you see on eBay and similar auction sites most likely came from a hobby box. If you have the budget for it, and really want to invest in card collecting, hobby boxes are the way to go. Hobby boxes and packs can be bought at local card shops and online through card retailers and eBay. Hobby products are not found in big retail stores.

How to tell the difference between retail and hobby

Generally, the price will be a dead giveaway. And with cards, you are getting what you pay for. The higher the price point the higher the potential return on value.

But, like any growing market, there are people trying to scam buyers. To avoid getting scammed look for the hobby logo on individual packs and other indicators on hobby boxes to tell. Anything that comes from a “blaster box” or can be purchased at large retailers is not part of a hobby set. The price difference should be noticeable.

Single Card Purchases or Auctions

If you’re looking for pure investment and want to avoid the risk of not getting the cards you seek (a definite downside to card breaks and direct box purchases) you can enter auctions or buy specific single cards. This is the end game of card collecting and can save you a lot of hassle on the front end. Although you may find yourself paying more than you planned when in the midst of a competitive auction. Set a limit, set up a Gixen account, and have fun.

Where to buy single cards

eBay — There are both auctions and Buy It Now options.

COMC — Or Check Out My Cards is a card exchange that allows you to purchase and quickly relist cards. Or have them shipped to you at your convenience. Not only does this allow you to more easily buy low and sell high, but it can also save you a ton in shipping costs by consolidating your purchases.

Reddit Forums — There are several easily discoverable Reddit groups filled with card collectors who offer their cards for sale. r/superfractor and r/footballcards are two that come to mind. But, there are plenty that exist.

There are many ways to buy cards online now, find the option that works best for you.

Determining What a Card is Worth

The key to investing wisely is knowing what the market value of a product is. In today’s card world there are two main tools to keep you up to date on the going rate of sports cards.


If you collected cards in the ’90s as I did you will likely recognize this name. Beckett is the card collecting magazine that lists a suggested market value for nearly every sports card in production. Beckett still exists in paper and digital forms today and can be used as a tool to better understand the market price of a particular card. They have also expanded their services to be a more comprehensive caterer to card collectors.

eBay Previous Sales Filter

The Completed Items and Sold Items filter on eBay is the best way to get a real-time estimate of the market value of a particular set of cards. It is very useful to combat listing price inflation. Before you make a purchase, or if you’re trying to determine how much to sell your card for, check this search function and act accordingly.

Things to watch out for before making a purchase

  1. Condition of the card — You want cards that have sharp corners, no surface damage to the card, and are authentic products. Official products will be marked as such by the manufacturer of the card. Watch out for the facsimile cards, the troll of the resale market. You also want to pay attention to the way cards are handled in the photo. If the card picture isn’t is on the dashboard or seat of their truck, buyer beware.
  2. Seller Reputation — Can’t stress this one enough. Pay attention to the seller rating and the reviews. Anything below a high 99% could be cause for concern depending on the number of reviews the seller has been given. Sometimes poor reviews are unwarranted, but sometimes they’re not. If you notice several recent negative feedback scores, move on. There are plenty of sellers and companies with reputations of quality service.
  3. If Something Seems Too Good to Be True — It probably is. Cards or boxes that are well under market value or seem like steals, generally are. Sometimes you can find newer sellers or wholesalers who are looking to unload their collection for under market value, and of course, auctions can allow you to pay less than projected value. But, other than those exceptions, pay close attention to seller ratings, and read the full product description before making your purchase or bid.

Card Collecting is a Hobby…

Two years ago I rekindled my love for sports cards in a rather extraordinary fashion.

After doing some research I decided to get into a random team break hosted by a prominent card breaking company. I invested $80 dollars into a Bowman Baseball random team break and ended up with a monster hit. I drew the LA Dodgers and pulled a gold, on-card autograph of rookie phenom Gavin Lux. The card resold for $800 dollars in an auction and from that point forward I was hooked. But, as I continued to invest in cards, I learned pretty quickly that like any other investment opportunity with great reward comes great risk. And while I ended up with a lot of new prized possessions I also learned that I was misspending my funds in hopes of the next big card. I didn’t bet the farm or anything, but I certainly could have bought smarter had I known what the purpose behind my purchases was.

So. Before you start your own venture into the sports card world, remind yourself that card collecting is an investment, but it is not a get rich quick scheme. Unless you have a significant bankroll to go after premium card cases and high-end boxes (this article is probably not for you)there are probably better ways to invest your money.

There is definitely potential for return on investment. It is a hobby that can pay for itself or better if you’re smart about your purchases. But don’t let the sky-high auctions trick you, like any other red-hot market, it's bound to cool down.

Keep that in mind as you begin your journey into the sports card world. Whether you’re beginning the hobby or rediscovering an old past time, enjoy the thrill of the chase and embrace the passion of the hobby. Doing this will ensure card collecting is a worthwhile endeavor, no matter what you spend.

Parent, partner, educator. Working from home or hardly working?

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