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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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The Wemby Rookie Card Market Hasn’t Matched the Wemby Hype Machine. Why?

  • Compared to highly touted rookies of years past, collectors aren’t dishing out major money for Wemby cards.
  • The Spurs’ rookie entered a cooling card market, and his autograph deal with Fanatics leaves big-money collectors sitting on their hands.

Throughout his rookie year, 7’4″ Spurs center Victor Wembanyama has repeatedly thrilled NBA fans with his Space Jam–like plays. One way to gauge the instant impression he’s made: He’s already top five when it comes to jersey sales through the first half of the NBA season, despite his team’s 11–47 record. 

But the trading card market for the French sensation tells a different story. In a word, says Ryan Cracknell, a writer at Beckett who closely studies the card market, “It’s weird.” For such a highly touted rookie, Wembanyama’s cards haven’t been selling for the record prices that his predecessors did during their debut seasons. 

There are a couple of factors working against Wembanyama’s cards. For starters, it’s a little early to judge; many of the higher-end sets that NBA collectors crave, such as Panini’s National Treasures (an ultra-high-end offering loaded with autographs and player patches), have yet to be released. And the trading card renaissance of the COVID-19 pandemic has, in essence, passed; the market has regressed closer to the mean during the return to normalcy. 

Then there’s the fact that Wembnayama finds himself in the middle of a Panini-Fanatics transition (and antitrust lawsuit). Fanatics, which bought Topps in 2022, is set to take over the NBA trading card license from Panini before the ’25–26 season. In the meantime, Wembanyama signed an autograph exclusivity deal in June with Fanatics, putting him in a weird place with Panini, which seemingly has no incentive to market the rookie the way Fanatics might, because Panini can’t get his signature on cards. 

As a result, there’s no definitive timeline for Wembanyama autographed cards entering the market. In other words: “We’re not getting the full Wemby experience as collectors,” says Cracknell. 

That dynamic has left hobbyists with a choice: Wait it out, invest in a Wembanyama rookie card that doesn’t come with an autograph but that is licensed by the NBA, or look outside the licensed realm. But “non-NBA-licensed basketball cards historically do not have significant value or do not hold their value,” says Ken Goldin, founder and CEO of the online collectibles marketplace Goldin. “Over the years, a non-NBA licensed issue—even if it is initially popular—loses significant value once the NBA-licensed product comes out. It’s like a placeholder until the real product is out. And now we have a situation where the real product is coming out … and none of it is autographed by Wemby. It’s putting collectors in a quandary as to what they can buy, what they should buy. I think it has tempered the enthusiasm dramatically.” 

Pelicans forward Zion Williamson was the last rookie whose hype rivaled Wembanyama’s, and the timing of his NBA arrival couldn’t have worked better for his card product. The No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, Williamson saw his cards enter the market right before it took off, during the pandemic. One Williamson rookie card, a ’19–20 National Treasures autograph numbered out of 99, sold for just shy of $100,000 in June ’20. At the time, Williamson had played just 19 games.

None of this is to say the Wemby interest isn’t there. Collectors are looking for Wembanyama products but might not be willing to spend on the high end. According to eBay, since the NBA preseason began (October 2023 to January ’24), users searched for “Wembanyama” nearly 1,200 times per hour on its website globally. The number of Wembanyama collectibles sold during his draft month (June ’23) was over 130% more than the number of Williamson collectibles sold during the month that the Pelicans selected him (June ’19). And, in his first full month in the NBA (November 2023), the number of Wemby trading cards sold increased more than 460% compared to the previous month.

Through Monday, Wembanyama has played in 52 games. Today, raw, ungraded versions of his 2022–23 Bowman card, featuring him in his French league Metropolitans 92 uniform, plus his Topps Allen & Ginter and Topps Now cards, are regularly selling for upward of $1,000, with prices climbing for serial numbered and high-grade (PSA 9 and 10) cards. 

A Wembanyama card from the January/February 2023 issue of Sports Illustrated Kids regularly sells for more than $100, and the Topps Now card from his first pitch at Yankee Stadium was one of the company’s top-sellers for the whole year. Two refractor editions of the 20-year-old’s 2022–23 Bowman Chrome University Prospect Autographs Gold, each graded 10 by PSA, sold recently for roughly $12,000 apiece. And last August, months before the NBA season, a Bowman Superfractor card, autographed with the inscription “1st ever,” sold for $67,333 in a Goldin auction, the most for a Wemby card.

More in the realm of the everyday collector, according to Beckett: Wembanyama’s 2023–24 Hoops rookie card, the first of him in a Spurs uniform, began selling in the $15 to $40 range and settled in the $8 to $20 space. His Donruss rookie card started in the same $15 to $40 scope but has since dropped to between $12 and $30. And Wembanyama’s latest rookie, the Panini Prizm, released this month, is currently selling in the $50 to $120 range. (By comparison, LeBron James’s iconic ’03–04 Topps Chrome rookie experienced sales in the $20 to $50 range while Williamson’s Panini Prizm rookie shot into the $40 to $100 space, seemingly tied to the market boom.) 

“They’re very strong [numbers], but they’re not the eye-popping numbers you saw back when things were peaking and a lot of people were coming back into the industry or starting new,” Cracknell says of Wembanyama’s sales. “The headline numbers are different. You’re not seeing million-dollar sales. It seems like Zion was a bigger deal at the time—but [there are] factors. Like: He had [NBA-certified] autographs. … He had a deal with Panini, and Wemby [doesn’t]. Some people who want those things might be holding off until Fanatics takes over in a couple years. We will see Wemby autographs eventually.”

Goldin surmises that Wembanyama’s third-year card—the first for Fanatics under its NBA license—will bring with it more hype than anything the market has seen yet. But it will be complicated. “It will sell significantly better than any other third-year card in history,” he says. “But it’s not going to be considered his rookie, it’s not going to have the rookie hype.”

Wembanyama’s card market is similar to his game on the court: a confluence of unprecedented factors. Just like fans, he’s giving collectors their own unique experience in his first season.

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