Back in their heyday, sports cards were the hottest thing on the planet. Odds are, you or one of your friends from childhood have a connection to the hobby that swept the nation starting in the late ’80s and extending into the ’90s. During that time, card companies like Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, SkyBox and more experienced significant growth. The giants of the industry could seemingly do no wrong. Over the years, cards evolved from plain cardboard versions to glossy and foil-stamped, to serial numbered and autographed, to memorabilia-infused ones with bits of the player’s items embedded, like a jersey or a bat. The hobby of collecting baseball, basketball, football and hockey cards was booming.
Humans are nostalgic, and thus, we reminisce about the good old days of collecting, which consisted of targeting your favorite players and sets at the local card shop, buying a pack (or a box, if you were lucky enough to afford it), trading with friends and attending local card shows. Whether it’s the 1986 Donruss Jose Canseco rookie, the 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck, some Dan Marino or Deion Sanders cards, a Michael Jordan insert or a LeBron James rookie from 2003, millions of us have a memory of the hobby.
There are crazy stories of collectors taking out a second mortgage on their house to hoard rookie cards of popular players, thinking if they purchased elite rookie cards they would be worth a fortune in the future. Those folks ended up being very disappointed.
Unfortunately, following years of huge success, the sports card market became saturated. Because of mass production, a changing seller’s landscape, the emergence of the internet (specifically eBay), a decline of local card shops and a lack of superstars in the sports world, interest in the hobby plummeted. Many retailers and collectors were left with much more inventory than they could sell. Supply was at an all-time high, while demand was at an all-time low. Of course, the rarest and most sought-after cards continued to sell at high prices, but by and large, the market had collapsed.