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Sportscard collecting, while most closely related to art collecting, is exceptional.
The product is not lauded because it was derived from a brilliant creator.
Actually, you’re more likely to find sports cards on the corner of pop-culture and sports history than at The MET or The Louvre.
Other than player performance, it’s purely driven by the consumer.
In other words – Capitalism.
Good ole’ supply and demand.
Anyone who was a sports card collector during the 80s and 90s understands this lesson.
The era of oversupply has come and gone.
Card suppliers collapsed into, what we now see, a market oligopoly, and have baked scarcity into their product and insanely overcharge (just like any good ole’ monopolist).
Example: for being an important person in Baseball history, everyone probably has a 90s Donruss Sammy Sosa rookie (I have two).
Since then, companies like Panini and Topps built scarcity with base runs supporting parallels, short prints (SP), super short prints (SSP), rookie runs, legacy runs, autos (on card and sticker), memorabilia, and the coveted rookie patch auto (RPA).
But while this does factor into card price, and make them a decent secondary (and extraordinarily fun) investment vehicle, card manufacturer influence (in terms of supply and demand) only goes so far.
I recently returned to sportscard collecting and quickly noticed that certain sports are more expensive than others.
NBA cards, for example, seem to sell for a lot more money than the other three sports.
And I bet international fame is the driver.
I also noticed that certain cards sell for significantly higher, even within the same set.
With built-in scarcity, this isn’t surprising.
That is until Panini National Treasures (NT) is mentioned.
I was stunned when I saw a Luka Doncic NT RPA sell for the same price as a BMW.
Why is National Treasures so desirable?
Does the price premium guarantee that these cards are even a good investment?
Aesthetically, there are other Panini products that are more beautiful (2018 Opulence for example).
Even the factory cost for NT is about average ($380 per box) and nowhere near the factory cost of Opulence ($796) or Flawless ($1233), according to dealernetmall.com.
Also, the NT RPAs demanding high premiums are numbered #/99.
That’s not an SP or even an SSP!
Ironically, you can buy a NT SP, in some cases, CHEAPER, than a #/99 NT RPA.
This is irrational consumer behavior at its best…
So why are sports card collectors, namely basketball collectors, going bonkers for the Panini National Treasures RPA #/99?
My theory is that…
1. People overpay for these cards because everyone else is overpaying. A great illustration is how most people believe exclusive wine tastes better. Apparently exclusivity (in the form of price) always tastes better.
Piggybacking this is…
2. Self-perpetuation. If the cost of a highly sought RPA is sold for $25,000.00, this continues the closed feedback loop. Stranger “A” bought NT RPA for $25k – it must be great! And if this person does their homework, they’ll find that all NT RPAs #/99 sell for significantly higher. Which further instigates the closed feedback loop.
3. People are inherently biased towards groupthink. This sort of ties into reason one with the distinction being that that reason has a market flavor, whereas groupthink bias has societal undertones.
4. People will obviously justify their purchase to make themselves feel good.
5. We live in a capitalist society. In capitalism, there must be winners and losers – haves and have-nots. And it looks like the “invisible hand” has chosen NT to be that dividing line.
In sum – exclusivity and a whole lot of irrationality (bias) are driving NT RPAs #/99 market prices.
Depending on the foundation, I can buy exclusivity as an investment.
But mostly irrationality?
What makes Capitalism great is competition for market share.
Sure, Panini and Topps own a lion’s share of the market.
What’s the secondary market?
It’s arbitrage performed on the internet market, namely eBay or here at Gold Card Auctions.
Someone dealing in sports card arbitrage has very little influence in the cards they’re selling with exception of 1) paying for a PSA appraisal which returns as a 10, 2) fantastic card care prior to the auction, and/or 3) buying and holding a card as a long term investment to drive up demand.
However, these three influences are applicable to all cards, thus negating any real advantage over any other card.
But isn’t Capitalism driven by consumption?
And isn’t consumption driven by consumers?
And aren’t consumers driven by preferences?
Yes, yes, and yes! Do consumer preferences change, especially over time, even for luxury goods (like high-end sports cards)?
But if the product isn’t changing all that much, then how will consumer preferences change?
Market disruption in the form of a changing consumer base.
30 years ago, antique furniture used to be the rage.
Victorian-era dining sets used to go in the low five figures. But these same dining sets, today, are going in the low four figures.
The same can be said in the antique business, writ large.
But why the change, all of a sudden?
The consumer base changed while the product didn’t.
Millennials don’t want dark and bulky non-functional furniture.
I’m not insinuating that basketball card consumption will go down in the future.
If Adam Silver continues to grow the NBA brand internationally, consumption is bound to go up.
And all signs are pointing in the right direction.
Moreover, people love sports, people love history, people love greatness, and people love collecting stuff, especially rare stuff.
But will consumers, 30 years from now, really want to pay $200k for that 2013 Giannis NT RPA #/99?
What makes the Luka National Treasures more desirable than a 2018 Luka Opulence Gold RPA, a 2019 Crown Royale Rookie Silhouette Prime RPA, or a 2018 Court Kings Heir Apparent Sapphire (other than the missing patch)?
In my biased (yet open-minded) opinion – nothing.
In fact, these sets are rarer and aesthetically more appealing than NT.
Today’s NT buyers better hope that tomorrow’s high-end sports card buyers are of a differing opinion.
Like all bubbles, sooner or later, they pop.
How about National Treasures?
The most expensive bottle of wine I’ve ever bought was a “highly rated vintage” $300 French Pinot Noir before I proposed to my wife and a $100 “well-rated” Napa Cabernet (bought on two different occasions).
I’m not a wine connoisseur, but the enjoyment gap between the $300 bottle and a $20 Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir from Costco doesn’t justify a $280 price difference.
However, the $100 Napa Cab was the best bottle of wine I’ve ever drunk and worth every penny.
2018 Opulence is that $100 Napa Cab.
Op-ed by Andrew J. Shopland
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