ROCHESTER, Mich. — People who are unfamiliar with sports cards in the 21st century usually ask the question, "Do you still get a piece of bubblegum when you open a pack?"
Those days are gone, but the nostalgia that created for generations of collectors remains. It just comes in the form of an autograph or memorabilia, and the potential values skyrocketed through the coronavirus pandemic.
When the sports world stopped, the sports cards industry boomed. Collectors and shops in Metro Detroit have cashed in, from dusting off collections to hunting for cards of the next big thing.
"It’s been a little crazy. We went from a lot of uncertainty, and there’s still a lot of uncertainty," Steve Majkowski, owner of Rochester Sports Cards and Memorabilia said. "We really didn’t know what would happen, and I guess the last thing we expected was the boom that we’ve seen on sports cards in the last few months.”
When sports were taken away, collectors looked for something to keep them close to the games they love, and recapture some of that youthful passion for sports. What happened next made national news.
“It’s almost like you’re betting on who you think is going to be good a couple years down the road. It’s like trading stocks," local collector Zach Hurt said while shopping at the Rochester shop.
A LeBron James autographed memorabilia rookie card sold in July for $1.8 million. A Mike Trout autographed rookie card sold in May for $900,000.
Throughout the last few months, Majkowski has barely been able to keep his shelves stocked. Topps baseball cards, Panini football cards, Upper Deck hockey cards, and Panini basketball cards: his shop is flooded with customers looking to buy.
“I think a lot of people started going through their old collections again and looking through stuff, started doing a little research and realized: the sports cards of today are a lot different than they were in the 80s and 90s," he said.
In those decades, card companies printed and printed and printed. By the time the packs were all opened, the values on most cards tanked because there were so many of each one made.
Upper Deck, Panini, and Topps have found innovative ways to create a new wave of value for collectors.
“Topps has this unique position of being the bridge between the fans or collectors and and the game and the players. So people have really come to Topps over the past few months when we really haven’t had sports on our TVs," Emily Kless, communications manager at Topps told WXYZ.
“Just like any industry, the card manufacturers had to innovate or die, and they had to add more value to the product," Majkowski added, pointing to game-used net cord cards from the Stanley Cup Final that Upper Deck has inserted into products.
"That’s when they started putting autographs in the products, pieces of memorabilia, all of that can really help get collectors back into it.”
A few years ago, the industry was somewhat caught off guard with how the prices at which Trout's rookie cards started selling. Trying to get ahead of the game, and land the next Trout, LeBron, Tom Brady, or Connor McDavid has dominated the card landscape for the last few months.
“So I got a basketball hobby box like a month and a half ago for just over $400. Those same boxes are selling on eBay right now for $1200 with no problem," Hurt said.
That's the Zion effect.
It's undeniable there has been one monumental athlete causing the shift in collecting during the pandemic.
"Zion had the YouTube hype in high school," Majkowski said.
Collectors noticed. “It’s insane. A Zion autograph is worth $10,000," said Hurt, who was in the store to buy shipping supplies for cards he sold.
So to pull a Zion rookie card, what would that feel like?
"Uh, I mean, like I won a big game," Hurt said. "That’s why you do it. You’re chasing.”
One local man won that big game. Mason Katty’s family owned Sports Card City USA in Royal Oak for 21 years. Mason stopped collecting when his family sold the shop, but when he saw the hobby booming again, he jumped back in.
He hit a Williamson gold prizm card numbered 01/10.
"I sold it for $15,000," he said.
Card-collecting has been a part of sports for a century, attracting collectors young and old. The new wave of memorabilia and autographed cards have created a huge boom, but there's still plenty of room for kids.
“I was looking to get a few autographs because I’m trying to get my first autograph," youth baseball player and new collector Jack said at the Rochester shop when WXYZ visited.
He bought his first box for under $40, and scored a Luis Robert rookie card along with that elusive first autographed card, featuring Andruw Jones.
There’s risk involved in spending on anything that comes without a guarantee, but the return on investment with cards has never been higher. That same bubblegum nostalgia, the tie to youthful love for the game, it all hits home for collectors who have rediscovered the love for cards.
So is there a guarantee to any of this? No. But like the collector said, it’s like the stock market.
The more you know, and the more you put time into it, the better your odds may be. Collecting can be fun, after all. And it gets us closer to the games we love.