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The Ultimate Guide to Sports Card Grading

mobile hero grading
Jason Koeppel/ONE37pm

If you are like the countless numbers of people who are either just getting started in the trading card hobby, or recently rediscovering it after collecting as a kid, you are likely a bit confused about the grading process. I receive questions daily, such as:

1. “What company should I send my cards to, and why?”

2. “My cards have been stored away in top loaders for the last 20 years, that must mean they will get a PSA 10… right?”

3. “How do I send out my cards to ensure that they will not be damaged in transit?”

For everybody who has similar questions, I put together this crash course on all-things card grading. 

1. Why Should I Grade My Cards?

jackie
Getty Images

The simple answer is:

  1. Grading your cards will encapsulate them so that they are protected for life.
  2. If your cards are in fantastic condition and receive a high grade, the value of the card will skyrocket compared to their “raw” (ungraded) value.

Let’s say you are getting back into the hobby after 20-30 years and have a shoebox with a 1989 Ken Griffey Jr Upper Deck rookie card in it. You saw that one recently sold on eBay for $1625 and you are thinking “wow… my card must be worth the same!” 

I’m sorry to give you the bad news, but that’s not how it works. You can find many examples on eBay of that exact card selling raw for $10

You will now have to make a determination as to whether or not it’s worth it to grade your card. If you search for your card on eBay by typing in (for example) “1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr PSA 7” and filter the search by checking “sold items”, you will see that in this grade, they are selling for around $40. When you factor in the cost of grading (about $20), you will quickly see that it probably isn’t worth it to send out this card to be graded unless you expect it to receive at least a PSA 8 ($78) or PSA 9 ($200). I would suggest that no matter what card you have, you search the raw value as well as the value of each grade, and then compare the condition of your card to the one that sold. Remember, you are not a professional, so even if you THINK you have a PSA 9 or 10, there is certainly no guarantee that it will end up that way.  

You may now be asking, "what are the major factors in determining what grade I can expect?"

Corners and Edges

corner
Jason Koeppel // ONE37pm

If you don’t have razor sharp corners and clean edges, it’s extremely unlikely that you will receive a high grade. If even one of the corners is rounded or “soft”, it will greatly affect the grade. It's unlikely that it's going to be worth it to grade a modern card with soft corners, but that may not be the case with a vintage card. 

Centering

off center copy
Jason Koeppel // ONE37pm

If your card is not perfectly centered, you have no chance of getting a PSA 10, even if everything else on the card is perfect. It seems a bit unfair for cards to come out of a pack and immediately placed into a protective sleeve, and then see the value of the card take a massive dip because of centering issues. However, that is the reality of the hobby. Often times, cards are not cut perfectly and that is why a PSA 10 has so much value. They are very hard to get even when you do everything right.

Surface

scratch
Jason Koeppel // ONE37pm

The grading companies will put the cards under a microscope and look for any surface scratches or blemishes. If you can see any with the naked eye, it’s going to greatly affect your grade. Cards often come fresh out of packs with surface issues. In modern cards, the foil and chrome surfaces can be easily scratched inside of the packs, or there can be printer lines on the cards. On vintage cards, sometimes there was gum in the packs that could leave a stain on a card. Centering and corners are easy to see with the naked eye, but surface issues are often the difference between receiving a PSA 9 and PSA 10 grade. 

If you look over the card and decide that the corners are perfect, the centering looks good, and there are no visible blemishes or scratches, it’s time to take the next step…

2. How to Send Your Cards to Be Graded

materials
Jason Koeppel // ONE37pm

What you are going to need:

  • Penny Sleeves: In order to protect the surface of your cards, it is important that you place them in a “penny sleeve” before inserting them into a protective top-loader or Card Saver 1.
  • Post-it flags: After putting your card into a penny sleeve, place a post-it flag on the top of the outside of the penny sleeve. This will make it easier for the grader to remove the card from the Card Saver 1 without damaging it.
  • Card Saver 1: Ditch the top loaders. Most grading companies will only accept your cards if they are sent in a Card Saver 1. Also, the cards do not move around in a Card Saver 1 while they could slide around in a top loader, potentially damaging them in shipping.
  • Bubble wrap: You will need bubble wrap to put around the outside of the stack of your cards to further protect them in shipping.
  • Blue painters tape: Painters tape is easily removed, but sticky enough that it will seal the bubble wrap.
  • Bubble mailer/box: Some people ship their cards out in a bubble mailer, however, I personally prefer to use a 6" x 6" x 6" box and include a ton of extra bubble wrap inside of it. I just feel like it adds even more security to protect your cards.

3. Which Grading Company Should I Use?

companies
Jason Koeppel // ONE37pm

There are 3 major grading companies, and it is important to know the difference between the three.

  1. PSA: PSA is far and away the most popular grading company right now. Turnaround times can be slow, with an incredible number of cards being sent to them daily. Their “five-day service” is currently about a three-week turnaround, "20-day service" is about 3 months, and “45 day” will take about 6 months to get your cards back. While PSA prices have recently gone up, a high PSA grade will bring you back the most value for your card. PSA is the only company that uses “qualifiers” so you might want to read this article and get yourself educated on exactly what a qualifier is. 
  2. BGS (Beckett): BGS is also a highly respected grading company in the hobby. They offer multiple service levels. “Premium 2 day” will get your cards back in about five-ten days. “Express 5 day” takes about 10-15 days. “Standard 10 day” takes 12+ weeks. “Economy 30 day” takes five-six months. A Beckett “black label 10” is the most difficult grade to get and is rarely ever given out. The Beckett 9.5 is comparable to a PSA 10, however, a PSA 10 will be worth more. 
  3. SGC: SGC is known for its “tuxedo” slabs. I think their slabs are actually the best looking of the three companies, with the black background making the art on the card pop. However, the value of SGC graded cards are typically a fraction of PSA and Beckett and their turnaround times are equally slow. Some collectors seem to like using them for vintage cards, but I wouldn’t suggest sending them anything modern.

4. What is a Group Submission?

group
PSAcard.com

As this article illustrates, the grading process can be quite overwhelming. There are a ton of things you need to purchase, many steps that can be confusing, and trying to figure out if the condition of your cards is “grade-worthy” is something that is best left to a person who has a lot of experience and the proper tools. 

There are many people who specialize in “group submissions”. You can send these people your cards and they will handle the entire grading process for you for a small fee. They will look through your cards for you, clean them (remove fingerprints, dust, and sometimes even be able to buff out small surface scratches, etc), and put them under a microscope to determine if they are grade-worthy. 

The advantages of sending your cards to somebody who does these group submissions are that even though they charge you to inspect your cards, they will often save you money by rejecting the ones you shouldn’t bother sending out. 

For instance, if you sent them 20 cards instead of sending those same 20 cards directly to PSA, and they decided that only 10 of them are worthy of being sent out, they just saved you 10 x $15-20 in grading fees ($150-$200) for typically around $3/card ($60). They will also handle the entering of the cards into the grading company's database. 

Finally, you will often receive your cards back a little bit faster when you go this route. If you are submitting cards on your own, you won’t have access to the same pricing and turnaround times as people who do group submissions. PSA’s $20 economy service is no longer available to individuals unless you join their “Collectors Club” for $59/year. 

In short, if you have never submitted cards for grading, I would highly recommend going with a reputable group submission. It will likely result in you getting better grades, faster turnaround, and will likely even save you money in the long run. I have sent many cards to Card Collector 2 and yielded fantastic results. 

5. How Do I Protect My Slabs Once I Get Them Back?

case
www.thecollectioncase.com

Once you get your cards back, it is important to protect the slabs. If the slab gets damaged, chipped, or scratched, it can affect the value of the card, even if it gets a PSA 10. I would highly recommend getting these clear resealable bags to store your slabs in. 

Once you have them protected in the bags, a good sturdy case like this one will keep your slabs in perfect condition for life and come in handy if you decide to travel to a card show or a friend’s house and want to show off your cards!


If you read this article and still have questions about the grading process, please feel free to email them over to me at jason.koeppel@one37pm.com. Good luck and may ALL your cards come back Gem Mint 10’s!

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