While the coronavirus pandemic has created incredible hurdles for the wider world of professional sports, one decades-long tradition has been able to easily withstand it: trading cards. E-commerce corporation eBay sells millions of trading cards annually — but this year’s numbers have shown unprecedented success.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, basketball cards have become the most popular sports trading card, with sales rising 130% since the fourth quarter of 2019. Overall, eBay’s sports card category sales between March 2020 and May 2020 were 92% higher than they were during the last three months of 2019, according to SC Daily.
“With 2020 being a year unlike any other, we attribute this trend, in large part, to people spending more time at home and finding new ways to spend their time,” Nicole Colombo, general manager of focus verticals at eBay, wrote in an email. “This includes people cleaning out their garages and discovering collections they can sell to make extra money, or feeling nostalgic and having more time to reignite their passion for the hobby.”
Card collectors aren’t just relying on basketball to bolster their trading-card portfolio. Despite the loss of most of spring training and Opening Day being pushed back to July, baseball card sales on eBay jumped 61% from February to May 2020.
Even with the nicheness surrounding the trading card community, Colombo says that eBay has been looking for newer ways to tap into their interests. Last summer, the company debuted its eBay Baseball Card Hall of Fame: Class of 2019. The inaugural series honored 10 of MLB’s most iconic baseball cards, ranging from “The Closer” Mariano Rivera to “The King Without A Ring” Ted Williams. Elected players were formally inducted in New York City on June 11, 2019.
“Baseball card collecting is viewed by many as America’s second-favorite pastime, and every fan remembers the thrill of finding the most sought-after cards of their day,” Sam Bright, vice president of merchandising at eBay North America, said in a statement regarding the announcement of the event. “We created the Baseball Card Hall of Fame to recognize those who have shaped the collecting experience across their respective generations. These players’ cards have become an iconic part of baseball culture, prized by collectors around the world for their history and value.”
Following the success of the Baseball Card Hall of Fame, and with MLB’s incoming return, Colombo and eBay wanted to find another moment for trading card aficionados to bond over.
On July 8, eBay unveiled “Uncommon: A Trading Card Report for Buyers and Sellers” as a part of its broader digital content series titled “Uncommon.” The “Uncommon Report” gives the first-ever look into understanding what drives the interest and sales behind certain trading cards.
The report analyzed card sales over the past 10 years to highlight the “uncommon” player backstories that have driven demand behind their trading card. For example, Bo Jackson is famous for being a two-sport All-Star in baseball and football, Ichiro Suzuki’s migration from the NPB in Japan to MLB, and Josh Hamilton overcoming his drug addiction to become an American League MVP.
Six different pairs of MLB trading cards were assessed and offered a new perspective on how professional circumstances impact the card value of these players. They included:
- Kevin Youkilis
- Shotei Ohtani
- Brandon Lowe
- Yogi Berra
- Ernie Banks
- Evan Longoria
- Kirk Gibson
- Eric Karros
- Joe Mauer
Along with the “Uncommon Report” was the launch of eBay’s “Uncommon” digital content series, which debuted with the profile of former two-time All-Star Pat Neshek. As a child, Neshek remembers baseball cards being popular amongst his friends and teammates from his youth baseball days. He would find himself either at the local Little League baseball store or at gas stations buying newly released cards.
By the time Neshek was 12 years old, he noticed the popularity of baseball card collecting start to decline. He went on to become an All-State player at Park Center Senior High School in Brooklyn Park, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis. When he later played baseball at Butler University, his roommate and teammate Paul Beck would frequently talk about going to Ohio State football games and Indiana basketball games to get autographs.
One weekend, Neshek traveled with Beck to Ohio State and would wind up leaving with six autographed baseballs. Beck put the signed baseballs up on eBay, and by day’s end sold them for $150.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, you got pizza money for like the next month,’” Neshek said. “We couldn’t have jobs being an athlete in college, so it was kind of eye-opening.”
Over the years, Neshek has collected more than 50,000 autographed cards — including rare sets and the top-rated 1970s Topps set — and used eBay to help him source 95% of his current collection. In “Pat Neshek’s Signature Collection” video, viewers can watch Neshek describe the feeling of finding a coveted card, how his passion for card collecting took a turn following Tommy John surgery, and how it led him to collecting his 1970s Topps set.
“He welcomed us into his home, where we shot the video, and was more than willing to show us his full collection and tell us stories about some of his favorite cards,” Colombo said about the experience with Neshek. “He shared fond memories of buying cards with his father as a child and collecting autographed cards with his roommate during his college and minor league days. Partnering with Pat was such an organic experience because not only is he an expert on the baseball field, but he is a true collector and expert of baseball trading cards. The amount of knowledge and experience he brought to the table was invaluable and we would welcome the opportunity to work with him again in the future.”
Both Neshek and Colombo believe that several cultural moments have contributed to the growth of the trading card industry this year. With the 2019-2020 NBA season welcoming rookies like Ja Morant and Zion Williamson, their trading card sales have increased by 115% and 200%, respectively, since March.
As the sports world gravitated toward “The Last Dance” docuseries, sales for Michael Jordan trading cards increased more than 285% during the premiere week compared to the same period a month league. Other players from “The Last Dance” like Steve Kerr, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas also saw spikes in their card sales and searches.
In the near term, Colombo says that eBay will continue to use its “Uncommon” video series to interact with the trading card industry. Its second episode featured street artist, Melty Misfits creator and avid Garbage Pail Kids collector Buff Monster, showing off his studio of artworks and cards while also previewing his upcoming eBay collaboration.
Given its resonance with eBay users, Colombo is optimistic about the future of “Uncommon” and its role in bringing the company closer with its followers.
“We look forward to growing our Uncommon campaign and giving fans and collectors an up-close look at some of eBay’s most interesting, vibrant collections,” Colombo said.