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A Look Back at Sports Card Prices: Then and Now

As we all know card prices have been on a steady and historic rise for some time. Prices on cards vary for many different circumstances, but usually follows performance. Unsurprisingly, not all cards have gone up over the years. I will dive deep into the 2003 and 2004 NBA Draft classes which were once full of young promising players and compare prices at that time of the established classes from yesteryear, the 1996 and 1997 class.  All data will be taken directly from an old paper Beckett Price Guide from August 2005 in an attempt to understand past and how it correlates to the present. We will review card prices of various players both Future Hall of Famers, league All-Stars, and guys full of hype. We will see how generational talents like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, and Lebron James stack up against era superstars like Ray Allen, Tracy McGrady, Chris Bosh, and Dwight Howard, all in an effort to understand what to expect tomorrow.

Two things to note from the 2005 August issue of Beckett Basketball. Grading was not quite as mainstream yet and ultimately card values were not anywhere near what they are today due to increased popularity and evaluations. The below chart illustrates four NBA Draft classes roughly 6-8 years apart and will illustrate prices from 2005 and now.

Let’s take a look at the 2004 Draft Class first; just one year removed from their rookie campaigns. Using the Beckett Price Guide, we can see sentiment for the class is relatively high still. Ben Gordon had a really productive rookie year averaging about 15 points per game and there was a lot of buzz heading into year two for him. Thus his pricing is the highest. Emeka Okafor ended up winning the NBA Rookie of the Year averaging a double double on the year 15/10. Dwight Howard had a productive rookie campaign but didn’t take home any hardware and the hype wasn’t quite there yet. As we know today he went on to have a very solid NBA career.  Gordon and Okafor were plagued by injuries during their next few years and never ended up getting back to that promise they previously showed and neither made an All-Star game in their careers. Look at Yuta Tabuse?, who played a mere 4 NBA games, yet somehow still had value. This just goes to show, we have no idea what will happen and is the reason why we should give players a few years to pan out. As I’ve always said, for 90% of players, year one will be their highest evaluations as there still a ton of unknowns and the jury is out.  

Now let’s journey back seven years and see how the 1996 and 1997 class was stacking up in 2005 card values. After seven years, we really had a good understanding who these players were and what they would become. By 2005 Tracy McGrady had established himself as one of the premier scores in the league, winning the Scoring Title two years in a row. Tim Duncan had a few MVPs and three NBA championships under his belt by now with the Spurs. Kobe Bryant was an All-Star and already had won 3 NBA championships as well. Lets take a look at Keith Van Horn as well. “Who?” Just a kid with so much promise and a tremendous ceiling. Van Horn was drafted #2 overall by the Nets and showed some promise early on, averaging nearly 20 PPG his first few seasons. He made the All-Rookie team, then injuries got to him and he bounced around for the remainder of his career. By 2005 he was just another guy and card values reflect that. How about Jermaine O’Neal. A four time NBA All-Star when Aug 2005 Beckett Price Guide was issued and a dominate force in those early 2000 Pacers teams as well. O’Neal was a very talented player at the time just like TMac, and what do both of these guys have in common? Their cards are more worthless now than they were back in the sluggish days of the hobby.

So what does this mean exactly? Card values of today, likely will not be the same tomorrow. It’s that simple, or is it? You cannot predict the future, but you can limit your risk. Imagine if you invested the same amount of money in the proven commodities like Kobe, Iverson, or Duncan in 2005 as you did in the 2004 class, hoping and praying for the next rags to riches story.

The Sports Card landscape is littered with examples of this. Guys fail, don’t live up to promise, get hurt, etc. My point is simple. Prospecting is a dangerous game to play and generally is a losing effort. Sure you might have gotten lucky and bought into Lebron or Kobe early on, but you would have lost your butt on guys like Darko Milicic, Marquis Daniels, and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Look at the 2004 Draft class for example, ROY winner in Okafar (think Ja), and hype beast Ben Gordan (think Zion), all underperformed in their sophomore campaigns and never made a single All-Star game in their short flame out careers. I am by no means saying neither Ja nor Zion won’t make All-Star games, but that does happen. Take a look at this list of former NBA Rookie of the Years from the last 20 years. I see 3 HoF players (Lebron, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant). The remaining guys had some okay careers and were stars during their era, but by no means are enough of a generational talent to have their Sports Card values hold up long term. 

1999-Steve Francis/Elton Brand

2000-Mike Miller

2001-Pau Gasol

2002-Amare Stoudemire 

2003-Lebron James

2004-Emeka Okafor

2005-Chris Paul

2006-Brandon Roy

2007-Kevin Durant

2008-Derrick Rose

2009-Tyreke Evans

2010-Blake Griffin

2011-Kyrie Irving

2012-Damian Lillard

2013-Michael Carter Williams

2014-Andrew Wiggins

2015-Karl Anthony Towns

2016-Malcom Brogdon

2017-Ben Simmons

2018-Luka Doncic

2019-Ja Morant

So if I am looking to invest, not gamble, I would be focusing on players that are established, with a pedigree and resume of Awards. Current examples might include guys like Stephen Curry, Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo to name a few. Find the guys with the hardware (Multiple All-Stars, MVP, Championships) and they usually have stronger long term values than the current “hot players”. You don’t want to get stuck holding the bag of a Van Horn, McGrady, Rose, Gordon, or Jermaine O’Neal’s of the world. We are investing not gambling. 

-Justin, Co-Founder of Sell The Peak

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