Investing in Football Cards: The Basics

An investment carries very similar attributes regardless of the industry or category.  A widely accepted rule of thumb with most business ventures is to keep emotion out of the decision making process.  While collecting football cards can be a sound business investment with the potential to be quite lucrative, there are many factors that exist when approaching the strategy to your portfolio.

Dick 'Night Trane' Lane went undrafted, then intercepted an 14 passes in his rookie season on his way to a HOF career

First of all, even if you are looking at investing in football cards, there is probably some part of you that is a fan or collector of some sort.  The beauty of football is the unpredictable nature of the game, with the next superstar or champion sometimes coming from the unknown to stardom.  Therefore the same can be said about the football card market, and it may be a good idea to invest in players you like, or like to root for, just in case not every business investment turns out as you had hoped.  The joys of collecting your favorite players can be a great offset when an investment goes awry.  Buy what you like is rule #1.

Beyond performance on the gridiron, card values can fluctuate with many factors, as the rarity and condition of cards have become even more paramount than before.   

While the rarest cards have always been some of the most sought after, the condition is now what truly sets the values apart, and the market sets the price, not a magazine.

Professional grading companies changed the game so to speak, as the industry is now dominated by cards that are sent away to be examined for a professional condition grade.  PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator) was the first such company to gain the respect of collectors in the 90’s, using a scale of 1-10 to determine the values (chart below or PSA Grading Standards).

A flawless Elway - you name the price for perfection?
  • GEM-MT 10: Gem Mint
  • MINT 9: Mint
  • NM-MT 8: Near Mint-Mint
  • NM 7: Near Mint
  • EX-MT 6: Excellent-Mint
  • EX 5: Excellent
  • VG-EX 4: Very Good-Excellent
  • VG 3: Very Good
  • GOOD 2: Good
  • FR 1.5: Fair
  • PR 1: Poor

PSA still sets the market standard, but Beckett (BGS) has it’s own grading service, and along with Sportscard Guaranty (SGC) has gained more credibility over recent years with slightly different grading scales.  Other companies do exist, with varied results so do your research on the grading company when purchasing.

1952 Bowman Bobby Lane graded an SGC 96 showing that a non-RC can be quite valuable: listing price $3,600

There will always be a subjective nature to grading, as it is handled by humans and is a business, but if you are looking at cards as an investment, grading provides a solid guideline for value.  Always use your judgment and examine each card carefully when buying or trading.  Grading is definitely not an exact science, and some dealers and collectors will disagree with the grades if the card isn’t to their liking or if they don’t trust the grading company.

It can be tough to judge whether it is worth the cost of grading a card you own, especially if the condition is expected to be less than a PSA NM-MT 8, as it can actually drop the value of certain cards, especially vintage ones.  Others are worth grading even if quite low quality, depending on the rarity of the card.  Compare the various levels of the card on the market when making these type of decisions.
For example, one of the most valuable cards on the planet is Bronko Nagurski’s 1935 National Chicle Rookie Card (RC), with the only PSA 9 in existence selling for $350,000 in 2011.  Even a PSA 4 goes for around $5,000, due to the rarity of the card and popularity of the former two-way star.

Joe Namath’s 1965 Topps Rookie Card is a collector and investor favorite alike.  Broadway Joe helped usher the NFL into everyone’s living room, and coming good on his guarantee in Super Bowl III has guaranteed a strong value of his rookie card over time.  The difference between graded and ungraded can be quite drastic, ranging from around $250 in mid-to-lower ungraded form and anywhere from $500 to $20,000 in the graded realm.

As with the sport itself, quarterbacks get a lot of the glory in the card market, from Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr’s rookie cards in the ‘57 Topps set, through to Joe Montana in ‘81 Topps and Elway/Marino in ‘84 Topps.  But running backs not to be forgotten, such as Jim Brown’s 1958 Topps, Walter Payton’s 1976 Topps and Barry Sanders ‘89 Score rookie card.

And of course, one of the most enigmatic and polarizing people on the planet, O.J. Simpson.  Simpson’s 1970 Topps rookie card can be found for $20-$40 dollars ungraded most of the time.  On the flip side, a PSA 9 was sold on eBay in May 2012 for $692, showing the power of a quality grade even for a card that only certain collectors will even acknowledge in the market.

For those looking to start collections, or buy, sell and trade in the range $50-$1,000 range, there are still plenty of vintage cards that can be had.  And it may make sense to buy in the ungraded and low-graded realm, and maybe even focus some purchases on the past 25 years, such as Brett Favre.  As time passes, your investments grow as the players move their way from recently retire to vintage.

From the 80’s to now, more and more card producing companies have entered the market, and some sets were produced in abundance.  Limited or short prints and subsets have been produced to keep rarity as a primary focus of the industry, but grading is now a constant factor even with many newer issues.  We’ll delve further into the more complicated nature of recent cards in other articles, as some superstars like Peyton Manning nearing retirement that are worth a look even for vintage collectors.

There are many websites available where you can buy, sell and trade cards, with Ebay as a prime place to monitor the fluid market in addition to Beckett and PSA pricing measures.  Each player profile we have includes a list of current Ebay auctions, to give you an of how that player is trading at the time.

One strategy to investing, is bulk purchasing, as buying larger collections can be a great way to develop a versatile portfolio, and expand quickly.  Message boards on Beckett and other sites can help facilitate trading if that is more your interest as well.  (See our guide on where to buy investment grade cards for more info).

Overall, investing in football cards can be a profitable venture, with patience and timing consistent factors always in play.  Similar to the general manager of an NFL franchise, if you play your cards right you can feel like you’re on top of the world with the best names in game leading you to great success!  A mixture of savvy purchases or trades can net some nice returns, and all the more rewarding are those deals that involve cards and players you enjoy collecting.


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