In case you haven’t heard, the collectibles industry has been on quite a tear as of late. We’ve seen a lot of action in the sports memorabilia, video game, Pokemon—you name it—categories in the last several months, and sports cards, one could argue, might’ve jump-started this entire trend.
Just how hot is the sports card market, currently? Well, the two most basic indicators I like to use for this are buzz around the National Sports Collectors Convention and recent sales of the industry’s most iconic cards. This year’s “National,” for instance, just recently ended and was a massive success. I’ve yet to see any hard numbers on it but it felt like the biggest one ever held, and everyone I’ve spoken to about it had an absolute blast.
Secondly, there’s the recent sale of a legendary card—the Honus Wagner T206—which might just be the most coveted card in the entire hobby (historically, that is). On Sunday, the holy grail of the sports card industry sold for a record $6.6 million, making it the most expensive one ever sold.
I think it’s safe to say that once again, the industry’s trending up.
But what do you need to get in on the action? What does it take to start a sports card business at home? In this article, I’m laying out all the essentials. Not necessarily the intangible things you need in order to form any legitimate business (like account software, a business bank account, or an LLC—all still important), but the tools that’ll help you thrive in the sports card space.
If you’re starting a sports card business at home, here’s what you need:
Whether you aspire to be an online case breaker, a digital store owner selling singles, a card grading middleman, or all of the above, the first thing you need is a solid understanding of the market. Luckily, tools are starting to pop up everywhere, which we’ll get to in a minute. But for now, the most important site you need to study is eBay.
A year and a half ago, before I bought or sold anything sports card-related, I spent at least a few weeks (probably months) just catching back up to speed on recent trends. Just start running searches and let the rabbit holes guide you.
Here’s my high-level eBay research process:
- Search something broad (e.g., “Fernando Tatis rookie”)
- Go to advanced search, then select “Completed Listings”
- Sort by most recent, highest, lowest, etc.
- Dig deeper into trends you notice along the way
Starting with a particular sport or player you know can be super helpful because it gives you a basic foundation for your research. Then, once you start to see what sells (and doesn’t sell), you can dig deeper into specific brands and products.
For advanced users, there are some other robust options starting to surface as well, they just don’t happen to be free. My current favorite is the Market Movers tool (affiliate link) by Sports Card Investor, which I can actually save you a fair bit on if you use my discount code: MINT20
To help you dig a little deeper, the next thing you’re going to need are some solid resources online. Typically, once I’ve armed myself with recent sales data on eBay, my next stop is Google. I search for a particular set and add the word “checklist” at the end.
The two resources you’ll find most often with this type of search are Cardboard Connection and Beckett. These sites will help you learn about all the different cards and their variations, short print parallels, etc. in a particular set. You can even get into rarity, as some will have pack ratios listed or be called out as case hits.
Pro tip: Be sure to run a search for “[current year] Sports Card Release Calendar” too so you can get an early glimpse and continue tracking what’s coming.
Now that you’re well on your way to getting an expert feel on what to buy (and ultimately sell or flip), let’s get into what you need in order to protect those investments—literally.
When you’re ripping open packs, you need to have some plastic on hand to slip your fresh cards into before they end up getting damaged. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than hitting pay dirt on a major find and then—accidentally, of course—having it get scratched because it was just sitting there as part of an unguarded pile.
I won’t spend too much time on this because, for the most part, this is something many of us already learned as kids. But here are the different types of plastic you need:
- Soft “penny” sleeves as a layer of first protection
- Harder top loaders, magnet cases, etc. for solid support
- Semi-rigid sleeves like Card Saver I for grading purposes
- “Team Bags” and graded sleeves for a final dust-proof layer
Due to rising demand, sometimes these items can actually be a bit expensive. If you’re starting a sports card business at home, I recommend you take advantage of bulk deals when you can. I typically buy boxes of each right on eBay a few days in advance.
Here’s a tool I haven’t really seen mentioned much before, but has been an absolute game changer for me. It’s no secret that when you send cards off for grading, professional card graders scrutinize each item to the nth degree. One of the tools they use for this is magnification.
Now, there are a ton of different types of magnifiers one could ultimately use. The type I’ve seen most often is the handheld variety similar to what you’d find a jeweler using in a store.
The one I like to use, however, is the hands-free variety that comes with a clamp so you can attach it to a desk. The one I have also happens to have an LED ring light on the back, allowing me to see cards up close with magnification of at least 10x. My vision is still relatively perfect (knock on wood) so that does the trick for me.
Under a bright LED light and intense magnification, you’ll also be able to see things like fingerprints and dust on your cards, so I recommend getting a microfiber cloth to carefully wipe them with as well. My mag light happened to come with one, so yours might as well.
If you’re going to this extent to protect your cards while they’re in your possession, I can promise your future customers will appreciate that level of care too in terms of shipping.
As a card purchaser, I’ve seen what feels like every imaginable method possible when it comes to mailing out cards and honestly, the industry as a whole seems hurried. Sometimes, it’s just a plain old waste of packing materials and sometimes the cards just don’t feel safe.
Here’s what I recommend you do: go with bubble or poly mailers. They’re inexpensive (a pack of 50 will usually run you less than 10 bucks), come in all sorts of different sizes and colors, and will do a solid job of ushering your cards safely through the mail.
The two sizes I use most often, especially for graded slabs, are 4×8” and 6×10”. Oftentimes, what I’ll do is slide a card into the smaller one, seal it, and then put that in a larger one to mail so it adds an extra layer of protection. You’ll want to pick up some packing tape too.
Excuse the pun, but please don’t mail it in when it comes to shipping. After all, you’ve done a lot of research and work to get people interested in your new store—the unboxing of the awesome cards they bought is just another key touchpoint in that consumer journey.
Last but not least, I’d spend the rest of your time focusing on the relationships you need. If you want to go big-time and start doing box breaks, for instance, you’re going to need a quality relationship with a dealer who can help feed your supply.
Whether that’s approaching the key card manufacturers like Topps, Upper Deck and Panini themselves to form a wholesale arrangement (this is almost impossible to pull off), or a dealer at your local card store, these things can help blow up your business (in a good way).
Some people have great relationships with the card-grading companies as well, offering bulk submission services at a discount. Perhaps, one day, you’ll be one of these individuals, but even if you have no interest it could be beneficial for you to get in tight with a few.
Most importantly, interact with fellow members of the hobby and build friendships. Whether you do that by buying in to breaks, joining Facebook groups focused on sports cards, commenting on your favorite content creators’ posts, or just going to card shows and meeting people in person, the relationships you form (and your reputation) will be the most important part of your business.
At the end of the day, this is a hobby we all have in common and love. Competition can be fun, but we’re all collectors in the end. Make your sports card relationships count.