9 of the Most Popular (and Valuable) Modern Sports Cards

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Jason Koeppel // ONE37pm

Sports cards are no longer a thing of the past. With an increase in overall sports viewership and with the instant ability to access an ever-growing base of popular athletes, it only makes sense that sports cards would find their rightful place back in the United States. 

Being a shop owner over these past years has given me an interesting and unique look at what collectors, investors and flippers are making popular. Grading companies, eBay, the increase in the use of mobile payment services and, of course, the rapid growth in social media has only fueled the rise. In all of the recent attention, a few cards have definitely emerged to the top. Popularity and value seem to intertwine in the hobby community and the following list of modern sports cards should help you navigate the modern scene.

Now, before I get to this list, let’s qualify a few things:

  • Modern cards are considered to be cards that are not "vintage" cards, and depending on what circles you vibe in, vintage cards typically mark their way backward from sometime in the '70s. In contrast, modern cards would be considered everything else until now.
  • There are different tiers of value: low, mid, high, really high and then crazy high end. For purposes of this article, we will focus on the low to the mid/high end, you know, what most people can afford. No 2000 Tom Brady Contenders autographs or 2003-04 Lebron Exquisite RPAs showing up on this list. (RPA = rookie patch autograph… I told you this would be a "modern" list!)
  • This list takes on football, baseball and basketball only. Sorry, you hockey and soccer nuts!

1. 2003-04 Topps Chrome LeBron James #111

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Current Value (PSA 10) $31,132

PSA 10 Population: 2,068

LeBron’s Topps Chrome rookie is a staple in the card collecting community. I can’t tell you how many “baseball-only” or “football-only” folks have one of these LeBron’s stashed away. Is it the staple step-back jump shot on the front that makes it so popular? Maybe the classic, youthful 19-year-old image on the back? Or is it just that this is THE Topps Chrome brand rookie card of this current generation’s Michael Jordan? Probably the latter, but it’s an interesting card value-wise. Since LeBron’s move to LA, the PSA 10 copies of this card have nearly doubled in value. The card is known to be typically well off-center, so it’s not an easy grade for the PSA/BGS savvy types. This specific card has versions as a standard refractor, black refractor (#/500), xfractor (#/220) and the highly sought after gold refractor (#/50).

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2. 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. #1

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Current Value (PSA 10) $2,829

PSA 10 Population: 3,903

Ask any ‘80s to ‘90s card collector about this card, and I’m sure they all can identify it as the most popular card of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s junk era. The funny thing is this card is far from junk. With a PSA 10 POP report of 3,903, this card’s value on the secondary market continues to remain solid, and Griffey continues to be wildly popular with baseball collectors. With his recent Hall of Fame induction (2016) and popularity that crosses multiple generational lines, the Griffey Star Rookie has cemented its place as one of the most collectible and popular cards. It’s quite easily the most recognizable baseball card of the current generation.

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3. 2018-19 Panini Prizm Luka Doncic #280

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Current Value (PSA 10) $1,556.50

PSA 10 Population: 15,639

What we have seen from LeBron James in the Topps Chrome Brand, we also see in Panini’s version of Prizm. Prizm, a brand released in 2012 by Panini, has taken the reins as the marquee chrome-like brand that collectors love. Now add in the enormous domestic and international buzz from Doncic to an already crazed basketball-collecting community, and you have a worldwide phenomenon modern rookie card. I would venture to say that this card has single-handedly brought tens of thousands of new eyes to the world of cards.

The PSA POP report at the time of this article was 15.639 for graded Gem Mint 10s. The craze is real, and Luka has become the new prince of the NBA (move over King?). Looking for a PSA 10 Gem mint copy? You’ll have to fork over a cool $1500+, but who knows how high the ceiling for this card could be. You can also find this card in a variety of parallels, including the ever-favorite Silver Prizm.

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4. 2000 Bowman Chrome Tom Brady #236

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Current Value (PSA 10) $23,100

PSA 10 Population: 1,058

Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. Well, that name doesn’t exactly appear on this 2000 card, but the standard eight-letter “Tom Brady” sequence does. While I will leave the four-letter GOAT conversation alone, there is no argument that Brady’s rookies have become legendary in the hobby. The 14-time Pro Bowler and winner of six Super Bowls rings (or “chips,” if I’m going for cool points) sure does bring a lot of attention to his rookie cards. The Bowman brand, a brand that is now more synonymous with baseball prospects than anything, would be seen as one of the staples for Brady in 2000. There are many sought-after rookie cards from his rookie year (Upper Deck SP Authentic #118, Playoff Contenders Autograph, etc.). Still, the Bowman Chrome is by far the most preferred for anyone trying to own a small piece of the sixth-rounder out of Michigan. Similar to the 2003 Topps Chrome, centering can be an issue on these cards, and PSA 9s and BGS 9s seem to carry a little bit more of an uptick in value as compared to a raw Mint copy. There is no 2000 Topps Chrome rookie card, hence why the Bowman Chrome has become so collectible.

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5. 2011 Topps Update Mike Trout #US175

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Current Value (PSA 10) $4,101

PSA 10 Population: 5,178

One of the most influential Topps rookie cards of the past decade has been the #US175 Update Mike Trout. The modern-day Griffey Star Rookie, this Trout rookie has seen a healthy rise in value and grading submissions in the past five years. Known by many in hobby circles as simply the “Trout Update,” the card may not woo you at first glance. It’s quite basic and made relatively cheap—thin card stock, simple design, paper base, minimal foil—no bells and whistles. But don’t let that fool you into thinking this card isn’t a powerhouse. PSA 10 Gem Mint copies of this card are selling at an all-time high. Quite impressive from a card in which the print runs of the 2011 Topps Update set were never released. That’s something to be said for how beloved Trout’s game is and how he carries himself on and off the field. From a strictly subjective perspective, customers always talk Trout. They talk about his play demeanor and cards. Trout has fans young and old. Many see him as the modern-day Mickey Mantle. How do you see him? Or better yet, how do you see his rookie card?

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6. 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan #57

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Current Value (PSA 10) $222,630

PSA 10 Population: 316

If I were ranking this list, it would be shocking not to have this card at the top. What is not to love about the iconic MJ Fleer rookie card? [delete two extra spaces] The card captures his iconic flight en route to a one-handed dunk, all while the tongue is flapping in the wind. How about the red/blue/white and yellow inner border that screams ‘80s warm-up suit? It doesn’t get any more classic than this. Another critical component to this card’s popularity is that the run is so simple: #57 is the only base set version of the card, and there is only one subset card—the sticker rookie card. That’s it. Less is more. It’s easily the most recognizable basketball card of all time, and unfortunately it’s also one of the most faked/reprinted cards. The MJ fleer rookie can be seen as a significant “key date” for you coin collectors. MJ, across the board, has only seen an overall increase in value in almost all of his cards, highlighted even more so with this 1986 sample. (To briefly touch on the authentic element and looking at our shop records for 2019—the count is up to eight—as in eight is the number of people who have brought in a “valuable MJ rookie” to sell to us, resulting in the unfortunate fake news. Additionally, a search on eBay will allow you to buy a “reprinted” version of this card for a few bucks.)

Please be careful when looking into purchasing this card, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Buying an already graded version of the MJ Fleer rookie will save you a lot of headaches. Just like his game, the MJ rookie IS the GOAT. Don’t @ me!

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7. 1993 Upper Deck SP Derek Jeter Foil #279

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Current Value (PSA 10) $140,400

PSA 10 Population: 21

0.14 percent—this is the magic number. This 0.14 refers to the percent of the 1993 Upper Deck SP FOIL that have received the unicorn-level grade of PSA 10. It puts things into perspective when the registry has the Jeter Foil at a whopping 15,683 total cards graded. To give some perspective in terms of value, in May 2018, a PSA 10 off eBay sold for $99,100. Fast-forward to December a year later to find a purchase of $138,000 (including the buyer premium). As one of the most popular ‘90s baseball cards (and one with significant value), the 1993 SP FOIL Jeter has only seen an uptick in recent months and years. What’s unique about this card is that foil element makes the surface of the card extremely delicate to scratching, and the dark corners highlight any imperfections to almost a higher degree than other cards of this era. It is widely known that this card could be damaged simply by friction in the wax packs—a very tough grade. In terms of mass production popularity, the Jeter Foil and Griffey Star Rookie sit in their thrones atop the ‘80s/’90s junk era.

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8. 2018 Topps Update Ronald Acuna #US250

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Current Value (PSA 10) $188.83

PSA 10 Population: 16,749

Probably one of the most under-the-radar cards in the last two years, the Acuna Update (At-Bat in Blue Jersey) has seen a tremendous rise in value for one of MLB’s most promising young talents in just the past year. This specific card has multiple variations, including the “Bat Down” pose and the highly coveted “White Jersey” SSP, all of which carry the #US250 numbering. The Topps Update version has become synonymous with many players as the player’s “true” rookie card, and Acuna is no exception. In the shop, the card never really peaked over $8 to $10 for a non-graded mint copy during the 2018 season, but the 2019 season brought the rain. PSA 10 copies of the base “At-Bat in Blue Jersey” card began selling $125 to $150 consistently on eBay, and the loyal Atlanta fan base seemed to be gobbling these cards faster than we could keep in stock.

On top of that, when you can find multiple parallels, including (but not limited to) the Gold (#/2018), Mother’s Day Pink (#/50), Father’s Day Blue (#/50), Camo (#/25), Clear (#/10) and coveted Platinum #1/1, it only adds to the craze. These parallels and short prints, for the most part, seemed to almost fuel the fandom for this card in a way that I haven’t seen from a base Topps Baseball Card in a long time. Values have cooled down a bit, but the Acuna Update is a rookie card that has revitalized those standard Topps wax packs!

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9. 2017 Panini Prizm Patrick Mahomes #269

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Current Value (PSA 10) $11,450

PSA 10 Population: 852

Football cards can be a tricky bunch. When comparing the three major U.S. sports, it’s a common theme to see basketball and baseball carry more predictably than football. Maybe it’s because the NFL season is only 17 weeks/16 games, and players are quick to injure? Things can change so quickly with the pigskin. Lately, that rule seems to also apply to hot quarterback rookie cards as well. (See Lamar Jackson 2018 Prizm #212 for some homework.) Many savvy investors would have said the Patrick Mahomes base Panini Prizm rookie (which is silver) had already reached its peak at the beginning of the 2019 season. PSA 10 Gem Mint copies at that time could be had for roughly $200 to $300 and non-graded versions for around $60 to $90 depending on condition and eye appeal. Who knew that PSA 10 versions of this simple shiny base rookie card would skyrocket to $11,450? Never have we seen such a quick spike for such a basic football rookie card. I believe, one, this further solidifies the Panini Prizm brand as the new Topps Chrome and standard collectible rookie card, and two, that the element of branding, combined with hype, is fueling a new age of collecting. Let’s give credit where credit is due though—Mahomes, in his way, is reinventing the game as well with a massive arm, no-look passes, school-boy flip tosses, Madden covers and ketchup infatuations—all while appearing to have fun playing football. Keep an eye on this card for years to come as Mahomes is leading the changing of the guard with staples like Brady, Brees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Rivers and more coming to the end of their careers.

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