The Case for Investing in Vintage Basketball Cards

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Over the course of the last few months, we have seen a real rotation in the sports card market. First, there was the epic rise in iconic names – Trout, Jordan, James— followed by a rotation into blue-chip vintage–Mays, Ruth, and Chamberlain.  

vintage basketball cards

The Last Dance documentary propelled Jordan and his peers (Olajuwon, Barkley) higher. King James won a title and with it, the cards of Wade, James, Durant also jumped in price.

And well Trout, just did what Trout does— play for a losing team, but perform really, really well.  The sale of his 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospects Superfractor Autograph (BCDPSA for short- not sure this helps any) brought attention back to his cards too.

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Along the way, there was a substantial decline in the ultra-modern sector with most cards of basketball star Luka Doncic, and Washington Nationals star Juan Soto recently dropping in price. 

And oh boy, did the bottom fall out of bitcoin! 

At the same time, the market drivers—Jordan, James, Bryant, and Trout—have dropped in some cases over 25% from the highs reached in February. So where are we now?

In my opinion, we had three epic rises in cards since the start of the pandemic, with likely a generational top in February. If data on the relationship of individual cards to the larger card market and whether they move in tandem even existed, I am sure from late 2020 to February 2021, they were very highly connected. In other words, if the sports card market moved up 75%, most cards moved up about an equal amount. Now, things have changed. All of the easy, low-hanging fruit is gone. Indeed, we are entering the next stage, which is a card pickers market looking ahead. This doesn’t mean that we ignore certain eras, and a well-rounded portfolio with vintage, modern, and ultra-modern will likely serve you best.  

But, where else should we look? How about vintage basketball cards?

 Is there a case for vintage basketball cards in general? 

 

1972 Julius Erving “Dr. J” Topps RC  vs 1963 Pete Rose Topps RC

Julius Erving is easily the most iconic basketball card from the 1970s. This all-time great won championships with the New York Nets (ABA) in 1973-74, 1975-76, and the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983-84. He won an MVP in 1981, led the league in 15 different categories over a 16-year career, including points per game, and rebounds per game, and while not highly regarded for his outside shot, even in three-point field goal percentage in the ABA.  But, Dr. J was bigger than this, he changed the entire basketball landscape with his flair and dunking, inspiring many future HOFers.

His 1972 Topps card #195 in PSA 8 has a pop number 947 examples, with likely some still sitting at PSA. So we may see this number continue to grow. If we look at the card cap (current market value times number of examples, about $4138 multiplied by 947), we get a number of approximately $4-million ($3,918,606). There have been 3829 total of 1972 Topps Julius Erving cards graded, so a relatively high percentage sit in the PSA 8 cases at about 25%.

Pete Rose is one of the most controversial players of the past half a century. Banned from baseball and with it any chance to enter  Cooperstown.  The all-time hit leader led the league 34 times in a variety of stats, including batting average three times, hits seven times, and runs four times over a 24-year career.  Nicknamed Charlie Hustle for his all-out effort and rugged play, he was voted the league’s best player in 1973 and was part of three World Series Championships.

His 1963 Topps card #537 in PSA 8 has a pop number of 420 examples, with it being unlikely that many cards are sitting at PSA capable of moving this number upwards.  His card cap sits at about  $7,476,000 and certainly demands a premium due to the fact that it is such an iconic piece, in particular in very high grade.  We certainly need to consider what the total card CAP would look like if BVG 8.5 (14 total or better) and SGC 8.5 (48 or better) were considered. Typically the market has discounted between .5 to 1 grading point when comparing SGC and BVG  to PSA. Perhaps, if you cross-graded all the BVG and SGC cards, we may add 60 or so, giving a total of 600 copies. Dr. J has 59 cards at BVG in PSA 8.5 or better and 47 at SGC, bringing his total PSA 8 cards to over 1000.  At PSA a total of 4420 1963 Pete Rose cards have been graded, so fewer than 10% are encased in PSA 8. In other words, best of luck in the current environment submitting and getting an 8 on the Rose rookie.

So let’s view this comparison in a vacuum, without consideration for if the overall card market is under-valued. At a fair value or over-valued, relatively speaking, who is the better value?

Who has the greater legacy and impact on their game?

Really tough call on this, but my opinion is Dr. J has a greater impact on future generations of NBA players. Erving brought notoriety to dunking, making it such an integral part of the game moving forward, the same way Curry has made everyone step behind the 3 point line.

Charlie Hustle was the epitome of an over-achiever, someone who brought grit and intensity to baseball. The argument has a lot of debate, as Rose is the all-time hits leader and the history of the sport and its allure is so steeped in statistics.

Who was the better player in their sport?

Again, another tough call, but advanced metrics in career WAR and OPS+ aren’t kind to Rose. In fact, he falls outside of the top 125 on career OPS+, due to his lack of power and only average ability to take the walk. Rose sits at 65th all-time in career WAR, behind Adrian Beltre and Wade Boggs. 

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In terms of Dr. J, if we look at PER and TS%, he is 20th all-time in PER (combining his time in the ABA and NBA), but only 162 in TS%-falling outside of 150, from his inability to shoot a high percentage from three-point range. Again, for my money, despite his low true shooting percentage, I am choosing Julius, even though this is a very close call. It is hard enough to compare players in the same sport, let alone in different sports.

 

THE CARD COMPARISON

While past returns are certainly not indicative of future performance, it should provide us with some information when comparing the key rookies of the two players. Similar to reading the nutritional label on the back of a package, there’s not much we can do to change it, but it certainly can impact our decision-making.

Both the PSA 6 and PSA 8 cards of Dr. J have moved in very similar ways over the past 10 years. From 2016-2021, the PSA 8 copy of Dr. J went up an average of 58.61% per year, and a solid, but not as spectacular average annual return of 13.76% from 2011-2016. Looking back ten years, the Julius Erving card has averaged about  33.61% growth per year. Extremely solid returns, certainly back-ended from recent appreciation but fairly consistent.

 

1972 Topps Julius Erving
Annual returns (over 5 Year Period)-PSA 8 Annual returns(5 year)- PSA 6 POP for 8 ActivePOP in 8 CARD CAP**
2021 58.61% 47.11% 947 16.79% $4,020,962
2016 13.76% 13.86% 710 8.45% $300,330
*2016 is an estimate
**card price multiplied by POP

 

On the other hand, the returns on the 1963 Topps Rose card are extremely inconsistent, about in line with the wifi quality in an outhouse.

Slightly negative returns on the PSA 8 from 2016-2021 and very strong returns from 2011-2016. Oddly, the PSA 6 copy of his rookie has yielded consistent returns over the past 10 years.  Perhaps, the PSA 6 is simply more within reach of the average collector.

 

1963 Topps Pete Rose
Annual returns (over 5 Year Period)-PSA 8 Annual returns(5 year)- PSA 6 POP for 8 ActivePOP in 8 CARD CAP**
2021 -0.77% 21.29% 420 10.95% $6,636,000
2016 58.73% 18.34% 357 18.53% $5,863,011
*2016 is an estimate
  • Active POP is sales volume in relation to the POP count for that card, both POP count and volume can clearly vary and there is likely an equilibrium in terms of percentage (too high, too much supply and too low, too little demand)

In terms of price ratios of their PSA 8 copies, that has certainly narrowed to under 4:1 from 39:1 in 2016, from 7:1  in 2011.  Looking back, the Doctor was a screaming buy in 2016, especially when compared to the 2011 ratio. We are talking 2 buckets of KFC for $8.99 kind of bargain- sanitized finger-licking good!

From a card cap perspective (price multiplied by POP count), Dr J was at a meager $300,000 in 2016 and has ballooned to over $4 million in May of 2021.  Dr. J was trading at 20 times less valuation than Rose back in 2016, but this gap has closed and it now stands at 1.65.  

 

ROSE/DR J in PSA 8 Card Price Ratio (Rose/Dr.J) Card Cap Ratio
2021 $15800/$4246 3.7 1.65
2016 $16423/$423 38.8 19.52
2011 $1630/$222 7.3 4.19

 

Are we a seismic shift and a so-called changing of the guard, with perhaps baseball, as well as other sports trading at a discount to basketball?

Basketball, in terms of its global position, is secure and growing versus the other sports. We can thank Michael Jordan and to a lesser degree Dr.J for that.  No, thanks to those damn Pistons!

 

Who is a better card value, and where are those catalysts?

Certainly, the 1963 Topps Rose card is much more scarce and deservedly trades at a premium – and it always had a strong following in the hobby. 

But should Dr.J trade at 55% of the Rose card? 

The Rose card has such low POP numbers, the card likely merits a 20-25% premium, simply based on rarity.  But that leaves another 25-30% premium based on their respective card caps differences.  Even with the relative value historically and this narrowing with the popularity of basketball, this figure seems higher.

But what could narrow this gap?

Perhaps the NBA 75th anniversary, a time when the league will name the greatest players of all time, bringing back some attention to the best who have ever played the game. Coupled with the fact that collectors coming to the realization that there are so few iconic rookie cards before 1980 of NBA legends. I’d bet that the attention of this event (if the NBA holds it given the current environment) the iconic cards of Jordan, Bird/Magic will find some footing (after a recent dramatic price correction) and start to move higher again,  something that will certainly help the rookie card of Dr. J.

In terms of Rose, the catalyst would be the infinitesimal chance Rose gets reinstated and is allowed into Cooperstown.  The chances of this occurring are about the same as getting through a day without hearing about Bitcoin or a tweet from Elon Musk, or both.

So what is a reasonable discount on the 1972 Topps Dr. J card vs the Rose rookie, likely somewhere in the 10-20% range. Cards of Dr.J have fallen dramatically from their peak of $9000 or more in February and likely deserve a look, in particular in PSA 7 or better condition.

 

Finally, we need to take a look at something called ActivePOP. 

How much of the card has trading in relation to the total pop number. While both the POP and how much of that particular trade can vary from year to year or month to month. The ratio is more important. 

This isn’t simply sales volume, it is the number of transactions in relation to the overall POP size.

Let’s look at its importance. It may not be brussel sprouts and air important, but it can be useful to understand investor sentiment. For example, let’s consider:

  • Perhaps the POP count increases, but the trading volume of that PSA number increases more and the ActivePOP moves up. Likely good, short-term for pricing.
  • Or perhaps the POP count stays the same, but the trading volume moves higher, the ActivePOP again moves up. Again likely great for card prices.

Likely the worst scenario, and what we don’t want to see—including another Stallone sequel—is the POP count increases drastically and the trading volume moves lower.  Increasing supply, decreasing volume; the ActivePOP drops, and prices for this card get ugly. Gorn from Star Trek ugly.

When you look at the 2018 Luka Doncic PSA 10 Prizm, the POP soared from under 10,000 to nearly 17,000 (with plenty of BGS, SGC out there) and the sales volume couldn’t keep up with nearly doubling in POP count.  In other words, increasing supply, with demand staying flat or even leveling off or falling.  Clearly, this results in the card price dropping, and it has fallen from $1800 to under $1000, even with another terrific statistical year for Luka.

The activePOP with the Dr.J rookie over the past year has been fairly high with about 17% of the POP changing hands. Certainly, the same exact copy can trade, but this is much higher than the ActivePOP five years ago. What does this tell us? At times over the past year, sellers were eager to take advantage of high prices and the increased relative volume of the last year helped build the price momentum.  

Clearly, this is only one comparison and even that relevance is more like iPhone to Samsung Galaxy. Certainly, we need to consider the relative value of other sports (basketball to hockey and football).  

 

So let’s take a look at comparisons of a few other key players ( Ryan vs Dr. J and Schmidt vs Dr.J)

 

Year Average Selling Price ( of 3 PSA 8 sales) POP Count (PSA 8) CARD CAP CARD CAP ( DR J, $4246 market price) Card Cap Ratio to DrJ
Ryan 2021 $8,720 731 $6,374,320 $4,020,962 1.59
2016 $8,128 621 $5,050,403 $300,330 16.82
2011 $1,094 435 $475,975 $118,326 4.02
Schmidt 2021 $1,343.66 1504 $2,020,870 $4,020,962 0.50
2016 $595.00 1128 $671,156 $300,330 2.23
2011 $230.50 752 $173,333 $118,326 1.46
*2016, 2011 POP Counts are estimates

 

Similar pattern, the ratio widened in 2016 and has narrowed to the all-time lowest ratios.  I guess we ask ourselves, should we really buy discretionary items with bitcoin?  I mean, will these patterns reverse back to normal levels (3-5 for Ryan to Dr. J, 1.5-2 for Schmidt to Dr.J) or have we seen a permanent shift.

Finally, let’s take a look at the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle in PSA 5 vs 1961 Fleer Wilt Chamberlain in PSA 5. Oh, I know comparing the most iconic post WW2 card to anything, is like comparing “I cannot believe this is not butter” to the real thing.  Yes, there is a noticeable texture difference.

 

 Well, we did anyway!

 Oddly the POP numbers currently on the PSA 5 Mantle and Chamberlain are close at 175 (average price $97,000 for Mantle) vs 184 (average price of $7969 for WIlt) – but the CARD CAP not surprisingly are not even close. For good measure, I threw in the 1957 Topps Brooks Robinson in PSA 6 (POP about 387, Market price of $1066)) for comparison.  It trades at 3.5 times less than the Chamberlain rookie, but historically traded at the same Card Cap.

rose

So what’s changed?  And are the changes permanent?


In my view, the market realized that a massive value gap between iconic basketball players and baseball players had formed between 2016-2020.  This coupled with the fact that there are so few truly great vintage basketball cards ( Mikan, Russell, Cousy, Baylor, Chamberlain, West,  Abdul Jabbar, and Erving) due to large voids in production years (ever heard of the 1960s) 

Vintage basketball players generally have much lower POP count numbers typically than baseball players ( PSA 7 1954 Topps Hank Aaron is POP 388 vs PSA 7 1957 Topps Bill Russell at POP 87, although the Card cap on Aaron is 8.6 million vs 5.95 million). In most cases, vintage basketball cards are not likely garnering the scarcity premium that they deserve.

Basketball has more active participants worldwide and is second, behind soccer in popularity. Baseball in fact saw attendance numbers drop over 5% in 2019.  Unless baseball expands internationally or is able to get a truly iconic international star, the changes are likely permanent at this point or at least trending for the next 3-5 years.

Moving ahead, while the vintage card market has remained strong through 2021, many have slid alongside the market drivers- Lebron, Kobe, and Jordan.  Many of these cards are likely close to a very good entry point for the long-term investor and should be able to out-perform many of their vintage baseball counterparts over the next five years. 

Dr. J famously “rocked the cradle” and dunked over Michael Cooper in the 1983 NBA finals. This famous dunk is in the class alongside the Jordan switching hands move vs the Lakers finals – both are indelible moments.  So make sure you don’t fall asleep on the cards of the Doctor, as his critical 1972 Topps cards should be nearing support for a great long-term purchase.  In fact, all of the key vintage basketball cards should continue to shine and basketball continues as the card market leader for the next decade.

From our friends at sportscardportfolio.ca (Insights into Investing in Sports Cards)

Please note that past performance is not indicative of future returns, and any investment decision needs to be in the context of your own unique financial situation.

 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Keep in mind, Pete Rose played until he was 45 years old. His stats, weren’t going to be what they were, in his 20’s and early 30’s. But yeah. I’m not the biggest Rose fan though, that is worth mentioning imo.

    • Michael,
      Thanks for the comment. Great point, Rose played a long time in a sport that rewards longevity. If Rose had a 12-15 year career would he have been viewed much differently then Todd Helton or Richie Ashburn. Certainly hard to compare players in different eras or in hitters ballparks. Thanks for reading.

      Sportscardportfolio.ca

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