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July 25, 2021

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US sports trading cards booming amid pandemic

INSIDE an unassuming store in New York’s Greenwich Village, around a dozen men unlock black briefcases, remove sports cards and begin to trade them — a growing hobby and industry that has boomed during the pandemic.

Excitement is high after a San Francisco-based investment fund announced earlier that day that it had bought a card of Golden State Warriors’ basketball star Stephen Curry for US$5.9 million, setting a new record.

Michael Campobasso, a 38-year-old jewelry dealer, hopes that sale will spur interest in his highly graded card of Curry from the three-time NBA champion’s rookie 2009-10 season.

“After that card, this is probably one of his more coveted cards. I’d sell it for US$80,000,” said Campobasso, who paid US$25,000 for it last year.

The sports trading card industry has been growing for several years, but coronavirus lockdowns reinvigorated hobbyists and attracted new ones, with investors helping to send prices skyrocketing.

“It’s had a massive impact,” Jacob Salter, product manager at Bleecker Trading which hosted the trade night in New York, said of the pandemic. “People were home, they were bored, cooped up in their houses, reliving their childhoods, so they started buying sports cards.”

The early days of lockdown coincided with the release in April 2020 of the hit Netflix series “The Last Dance,” about Michael Jordan’s celebrated Chicago Bulls team of the 1990s.

It sent demand for Jordan memorabilia soaring and contributed toward basketball cards taking center stage in the sport trading card world, which had long been dominated by baseball over other sports.

In February, a rare Jordan card signed by the six-time NBA champion sold for US$1.44 million at auction, breaking the previous record for a card of his by US$500,000.

A LeBron James rookie card fetched US$5.2 million in April.

Basketball cards dominate exchanges at the Bleecker Trading event, where organizer Salter estimates the total value of cards in the room over the course of the night at US$20 million.

The authenticity of the cards have all been attested to by grading companies, which rate them on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the highest. Ratings factors include rarity and condition.

All of the cards are encased in see-through plastic “slabs,” which the traders proudly display on racks inside hard suitcases that have combination number locks due to their contents’ high value.

For 28-year-old Vahe Hekimian, collecting sports cards started as a hobby that morphed into his main source of income.

“It’s a passion. I love it. But I also sell to keep going,” he said, explaining that sports stars’ performances impact the value of their cards.

He once paid US$50,000 in a partial cash-trade transaction for a card of rising NBA star Luka Doncic, who will represent Slovenia at this summer’s Olympics.

The most valuable trade of the night exceeded US$90,000 and involved multiple cards, including baseball hotshot Shohei Ohtani and young NFL quarterback Justin Herbert.

Campobasso didn’t sell his Curry card, but he did strike a deal worth US$11,000.

A 44-year-old collector calling himself Cage Lawyer, who owns a Jordan card worth half a million dollars, says trading cards are now increasingly seen as astute investments.

“People view them as an alternative asset class now, something akin to art and cryptocurrency. People are looking for something to put their money into hedge against inflation,” he said.


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