1.8 million dollars for one card

Trading cards: It seems like everyone has a couple of cards laying around somewhere. But the hobby has turned into so much more. Trading cards are an industry which is also booming during the Corona pandemic.

They are just laying there: just waiting with so much promise, even seduction. They’re shiny with green and silver and a picture of him: the man who is already known by his first name … Zion Willamson. Three packs of 2019-20 Panini Mosaic basketball cards.

Ah … basketball trading cards. Most hoops junkies have heard of them, even if they aren’t collectors. They became aware of them at the latest a couple of months ago when a LeBron James card fetched a record 1.8 million dollars in an auction.

1.8 million dollars? No, that’s not a typo. Somebody paid that much money for a single basketball card. If that seems unimaginable, come along on a trip through the booming trading card industry and its meteoric development over the past couple of years. Then that 1.8 million dollar price tag might become a bit more understandable.


Hotdogs and cards

The first basketball cards were produced by the company Bowman in 1948. It wasn’t until 1957 that another meaningful collection came out, this time from Topps, who had until then made its name with baseball cards. Topps’ adventure lasted only one year and after a three-year break of no cards readily available Fleer produced a set. But between 1961 and 1969, no cards were released – at least on the national level in the United States.

A small hot dog factory in Cincinnati, Ohio – Kahn’s Wieners – did come out with a small set of about a dozen cards every year between 1957 and 1965. The Kahn’s Wieners cards featured players from the local NBA team Cincinnati Royals – who are today the Sacramento Kings. The founder of the meat factory was Elias Kahn, who in 1882 left Albersweiler in Germany with his wife and nine children and landed in Cincinnati. It was there where he promised “The Wiener the World Awaited”.

Topps would return to the basketball landscape in 1969 and produced hoops cards annually until 1981 before the brand once again left basketball to concentrate on baseball.

Basketball started to grow in popularity early in the 1980s thanks to the likes of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. With the nation-wide market empty, Fleer jumped in and took advantage and created what became the most famous basketball card set of all time.


The first boom

Zion Williamson is the next face of the NBA, at least many believe so in the United States. And that’s why his likeness was plastered on the cover of many of Panini basketball card packs. What’s in the first pack? Hopefully a rookie card – a card from a player’s first season. Rookie cards from players are the most valuable cards. But Zion isn’t the only top rookie that collectors are looking for from the 2019-20 class. Other top debutants include Ja Morant from the Grizzlies, RJ Barrett of the Knicks, Washington’s Rui Hachimura, Chicago’s Coby White and Miami’s Kendrick Nunn – who share the cover of Chronicles Collection card packs from Panini with Williamson.

Collectors want rookie cards and the crème de la crème is the Fleer set from 1986. The absolute headliner of course is Michael Jordan, who had already been playing in the NBA for two years at that point. But Hall of Famers Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Joe Dumars, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, Isiah Thomas and Dominique Wilkins all made their debuts on cards from a major card company in that 1986 set as well.

Fleer had the NBA market for themselves until 1989 when Hoops started producing cards. Skybox joined in 1990, followed by Upper Deck in 1992, when Topps also made another comeback. And the companies were producing more than just one brand with other series such as Finest, Ultra, Metal Universe and E-X2000 among others.

Many of the stars from the 1986 Fleer set took the sport to another level around the globe in 1992 with the Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympic Games. The worldwide boom was felt in the basketball card industry as well as it led to mass production with the oversupply of cards leading to their drastic reduction in value.

The boom did however lead to more innovation in the design of the cards, with manufacturers adding more features to change the cards and transform them more into what is seen on the market today.

Exclusive and expensive

Refractors – cards that reflect in the light – were introduced by Topps in 1993. Cards with autographs also became more common as did limited and numbered cards as well as inserts – smaller individual sets within a collection. Cards featuring small patches of jerseys were also produced – with the jerseys either being game-worn or player-born, the latter meaning the player put on the jersey one time. These autograph and patch cards literally brought the fans closer to their heroes.

The card manufactures began pushing the envelop at the start of the new millennium with ultra-exclusive cards, for example Upper Deck’s Exquisite Collection 2003-04. A pack of five cards cost a hefty 500 dollars at release time. But they include some absolute dream finds – extremely limited cards with autograph and jersey patch.

Just like with the 1986 Fleer set, the sets from the 2003-04 season stood out because of the rookies who would become superstars in the game – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. And that brings us back to the magical 1.8 million dollar card. The rookie card of LeBron James was a limited one of 23 copies with autograph and jersey patch from the Upper Deck Exquisite Collection set.

Heading online

Fast Forward to the present. Opening a pack of cards is something special. You can’t wait to see what’s inside. What great cards are hidden behind the face of Zion Williamson? The shiny packaging is opened with caution and there are four cards inside. A speciality from this specific Mosaic Multi-Pack are Pink Camo cards – cards with a pink background pattern.

Ever so slightly fanning the cards out, you can see if there is a card with a different color or design from the so-called base cards – the cards from the base set.

In the middle and late 1990s, basketball cards could be bought just about in any kiosk in Germany. One young hoops fan who fell in love with the hobby in the 1990s was Kiki Beslic from Langenfeld. He went to a trading card and comic shop in Düsseldorf every Thursday to meet people and buy and trade cards. In 2000, between 500 and 600 convened in Cologne for a trading card convention – among them the 15-year-old Beslic. The hobby grew on the continent and for the next two years, the convention attracted cards fans from throughout Europe. Then all of a sudden, cards were no longer readily available in Germany, but only in card and comic shops. And the explosion of the Internet meant the end of most card shops.

The hobby moved online and collectors like Beslic came together virtually in the Internet forum dascardboard.eu among other places.  Card hunters and collectors displayed the cards they had bought on Ebay and made deals online. “YouTube and Facebook were cool. The Internet took over everything. Stores and shops couldn’t keep up with the Internet and had to close,” remembered Beslic.

But for Beslic, a big part of the hobby is meeting other collectors and just talking – about the cards, the sport and everything else in life … oh and trading cards.

In 2008, Beslic decided to organize a small gathering of card collectors in the hotel his family had opened in Langenfeld. Between 15 and 20 people came the first year and in 2019 more than 200 showed up. The 13th edition of the show in Langenfeld in 2020 fell victim to the Corona pandemic and was cancelled.

But these meetings of card collectors are Beslic’s attempt to keep alive the hobby in Germany and Europe. Trading cards are at the end of the day also a business. And that can be seen in the market. In 2000, Skybox went bankrupt and was bought up by Fleer, which suffered the same fate in 2005 and was taken over by Upper Deck.

The basketball card business entered a new era in 2009 when Panini took over the market as the exclusive trading card partner of the NBA. The Italian card and sticker manufacturer also purchased the license to produce college basketball cards in 2015, which meant that Panini could present the NBA superstars in their college jerseys as well.

The Panini monopoly

There are no Zion Williamson cards in a Duke jersey in the Mosaic packs. Mosaic is just one of 36 different so-called platforms or brands from Panini’s basketball offering. Panini also produced 2019-20 cards from the WNBA and the BIG3 league. Mosaic, Prizm, Donruss and Hoops are the lower end brands while collectors have to drop thousands of euros for boxes of brands like Immaculate Collection or National Treasures. And there are various retail configurations within the brands: fatpacks, multipacks, blaster boxes, retail boxes and hobby boxes.

Panini and the NBA extended their partnership in 2012 and 2017. Three years ago, the extension was described by the partners only as “long-term, multiyear”. Not all collectors are thrilled with Panini’s dominance of the basketball business. Before the announcement of the extension in 2017, the website change.org initiated a petition to share the NBA trading card license with other manufacturers. The petition received 328 signatures – though it had no real effect.

Without any competition, Panini continued with their collections and tried its best to make the cards more interesting. But they weren’t exactly successful, according to Beslic. “I miss the variety among the many companies. When I started, we had Topps, Upper Deck, Fleer, Skybox, Press Pass – a lot of brands which produced a lot of different cards. Today we only have Panini. The productions very often have the same design, almost one-to-one. I miss the variety,” said Beslic, whose brother Ivan is a well-known artist who also writes a column for the German basketball magazine FIVE.

“I’m not a fan of all of the designs, but some of them I am. And for some of the designs that I like, I can totally understand if someone says that it’s the ugliest thin

g in the world,” said Ryan Cracknell, editor with the trading card magazine Beckett. “It’s almost like the movies. I like a stupid comedy or an action movie, and my wife wants the romance movie. Cards are like that now too. They’re so specified.”

“I love the art of sports cards. Each card is its own piece of art. I love that more focus is being put on inserts and the artistry of cards. But, art and cards have always been tied together,” said Kristina Thorson, one of the co-hosts of the House of Jordans podcast – one of the ever-increasing number of podcasts dealing with the trading card industry.


Corona and the cards

Base card, base card … oh bingo … base card, but Zion! “NBA Debut” is at the top of the card and below is the date “January 22, 2020”. Mosaic’s “M” is in the upper right hand corner and the “RC” for rookie card is in the upper left corner. Okay, it might be just a base card, but Williamson is the top rookie and a must-have for collectors. Sure, it would have been cooler to get for example a Reactive Blue version of the same card – a so-called parallel, which is much more valuable.

Other parallels in the Mosaic collection are Silver, Camo Pink, Genesis, Green, Reactive Orange, Red, Blue (limited to 99 copies), Purple (49), Orange Fluorescent (25), White (25), Blue Fluorescent (15), Gold (10), Pink Fluorescent (10) and Black (1). It was not possible, however, to even pull a White, Gold or Black parallel in this pack since those are only available in hobby boxes – a feature that makes some configurations (hobby boxes, retail boxes, fatpacks etc) more valuable than others, besides just the number of cards available.

Still, it’s a Zion card. He is dribbling the ball in his right hand and is wearing the Pelicans’ red uniform. Cool design or not, the collectors are taking whatever they can get their hands on. And that throughout the whole year.

The various platforms (such as Mosaic, Mosaic, Prizm, Immaculate Collection and National Treasures) are released staggered throughout the basketball season. The usual NBA calendar runs from October to June, including the playoffs. Eight months equals 32 weeks. And Panini released 36 different collections during the 2019-20 season – meaning more than one new product was planned for each week.

But of course 2020 has been anything but normal with Covid-19 and the pandemic. Everyone in the hobby was asking what would happen. But the trading card industry was not affected negatively at all. Just the opposite: the hobby is experiencing a never-seen-before boom with prices for the small pieces of sports art going through the roof.

Covid-19 halted the sports world and the cry for sports was at least temporarily answered in late April with the release of the 10-part documentary series “Last Dance” about Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. Then on May 8, a Michael Jordan 1986 Fleer rookie card was auctioned for 96,000 dollars. Someone had bought another copy of the same card from the same auction house Heritage 19 days earlier for 51,600 dollars – a jump of 86 percent in less than three weeks.

1,110 different Doncics

Locked down in their homes for months, many former collectors who had left the hobby went back looking for their beloved old cards. Overwhelmed by the memories associated with those cards, many of them decided to get back into the hobby. Many of those same people also had children who were the same age as the parents were when they started collecting.

Thousands of collectors had no experience with trading cards since the early or mid 1990s, and they found themselves re-entering a hobby that wasn’t anything close to the one they left almost three decades ago. There used to be one rookie card per manufacturer – like the Jordan 1986 Fleer card. There were no parallels, refractors, autograph cards or jersey patches. If an earlier trading card collector woke from their sleeping beauty slumber in February 2020, it would have been good for a young recent collector to take them in their arms and console them.

The offering is simply overwhelming. Thorson from the House of Jordans podcast counted an astounding 1,110 different Doncic rookie cards from the 2018-19 season. And that doesn’t mean 1,110 copies but 1,110 cards from different sets – including the red, pink and white parallels and various other inserts as well as base cards and jersey patch etc from Prizm, Mosaic, National Treasures and all the other platforms.

“Too many to count, yes; too many in general, I don’t think so,” Thorson said about the number of different Doncic rookie cards. “I like that there are different rookies that collectors can pick up depending on their personal preference and budget. No matter your budget, there is a product out there for you.”

Returning collectors must understand that it’s next to impossible to collect everything you want – something that was the case earlier in the hobby. But the production of limited-numbered cards – such as 1-of-1s, cards with only one copy in existence – means not even having all the money in the world can get you every card from a set.

“You have to just try and figure out what your tastes are and go from there. You have to limit yourself to certain things. What cards do I like best. It has to be manageable,” said Beckett editor Cracknell when asked what he would recommend to collectors getting back into the hobby.



Zion may as well have been dribbling a ball of money on his “NBA Debut” card. That card promises its owner a healthy return if sold, especially if it was graded. A graded card is one that has been evaluated by an independent company – the most well-known are PSA and Beckett in the United States – and given a grade from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best possible rating. The grading is based on four criteria: the condition of the card’s corners, its edges, its surfaces (both front and back) and its centering. Copies of the Zion Williamson “NBA Debut” card that received a PSA 10 grade were auctioned 54 times for 100 dollars or more in July and August 2020, according the PSA website – one time even for 375 dollars. A card with a PSA 9 grade mind you was sold for 85 dollars. Without a grade from PSA, Beckett or another grading company, sellers cannot make as much money on the sale.

Coveted cards meanwhile are becoming harder to find – even for people who have been collecting for decades. The nostalgic collectors with kids are just one part of the newcomers or returnees segment. Sneakerheads have also started flooding the card industry. More and more people who used to flip shoes – buying sneakers cheap and re-selling them for much more – have discovered trading cards. The big advantage of cards is that they are available in much, much bigger numbers than sneakers. And some big players in the sneaker business have gotten into the card business. Sole Supremacy for example is considered one of the biggest sneaker resellers in the world. According to statistics from 2015, Sole Supremacy made more than 3 million dollars in selling used or deadstock shoes. Now they are selling sports cards online.

Another group which is pushing the hobby is investors. The coronavirus may have brought the world economy to its knees, but investors still have their money and are looking for other long-term assets. The economics magazine Forbes reported already back in early 2019 about the rise in trading cards.

“The past six months have been unbelievable. And the past three months have just been shocking,” Ken Goldin was quoted on May 22, 2020 on Yahoo Finance. The reason was pretty clear for the CEO of Goldin Auctions. “A lot of wealthy people don’t have anything to spend their money on. A lot of them pulled their money out of the stock market and they want hard assets.”

More and more websites and Instagram feeds are being filled with content about trading cards. And many of them look like – and read like – stock reports with names like Stockx.com and Card Ladder, which both track the values of cards like they would stocks.


Gambling with cards

After the rush of getting a Zion card in the first pack, the hopes go up for the next Mosaic pack. Ripping a pack or breaking a box – industry lingo for opening them – is a strange mix of excitement, suspense, avarice and nostalgia. At the same time, it’s also like gambling or playing the lottery. You can pull a limited card that is worth tens of thousands of dollars.

When you combine that with Corona, many collectors consider the breaking of boxes as real entertainment. There are thousands of videos on YouTube of people filming themselves opening packs of cards. Breakers even develop their own style of displaying and describing the cards. Some allow viewers to see every card and other breakers only show the valuable cards. And when a real extraordinary card pops up, the breaker really expresses their excitement.

In general, it is becoming more difficult – and more expensive – to purchase boxes and packs. The NBA products on Panini Germany’s website are usually sold out already in pre-order. Dealers who were able to buy products then sell blaster boxes, hobby boxes or even individual packs for elevated prices on Ebay.

But collectors also have other ways of getting cards – through so-called group breaks, which are streamed through YouTube. A “Select Collection” hobby box for example costs 350 dollars retail, and a breaker offers 30 spots in a group break for 25 dollars each. That earns him straight away 400 dollars profit. The 30 spots correspond to the 30 NBA teams, which are often randomized by the breaker and assigned to the participating collector. All of the cards of players from each of those teams will then go to the corresponding collector. The Select hobby box only has 60 cards, which means a collector can go empty-handed in a group break. Or you can get really lucky and be assigned the New Orleans Pelicans from the randomization and the breaker pulls a Zion Williamson rookie jersey autograph card, which was auctioned for 2,000 dollars in mid-August.

Group breaks have developed a real community or even a sports bar feeling, regardless if an observer has a team at stake or is just watching.

One card nobody can expect in a Select Collection group break though is a LeBron James autograph card. The reason is an exclusive contract from King James. About a month before the 2003 NBA Draft, James signed a five-year contract with Upper Deck, giving the company exclusive rights on all LeBron James memorabilia – including his signature. James and Upper Deck extended their deal which meant that Panini is not allowed to produce any card with a LeBron autograph.

1.8 million dollars

That brings us back to the 1.8 million dollar LeBron card. Collectors look for rookie cards as well as autograph cards. Sure, cards from James’ first season can be had – even for somewhat reasonable prices. But cards with his signature just don’t enter the market any more.

Only 23 copies of the LeBron 2003 Exquisite Collection rookie parallel were produced, and the auctioned copy was numbered 14 of 23. Originally, it was pulled in a pack that cost 125 dollars. The card was graded 9.5 “Mint Gem” of a possible 10 by the Beckett Grading Service, which very rarely hands out a pristine grade of 10.

Leore Avidar offered 1.845 million dollars for the card at the Goldin Auctions site, breaking the record for most expensive modern sports card. The cards expert Cracknell from Beckett was not really surprised with the 1.8 million dollar amount.

“I’m not shocked any more by anything that I see,” he said. “With collecting, there’s a competitive side, and you want to get the best that you can get. And that’s why we’re seeing these super high-end cards going for so much right now. It’s hard to comprehend because I don’t have that kind of money.” Cracknell compared it to a house. “Why should I get mad if someone pays 10 million dollars for a house. I’m not going to be jealous of them. It’s their money, and if that’s how they want to spend it, that’s cool.”

Kiki Beslic knows a thing or two about big cards. He is one of the most well-known collectors in the business and owns one of the biggest Kobe Bryant collections in the world. But he was a little surprised that someone would dish out 1.8 million dollars for this LeBron James card.

“This price for a card with 23 copies, that was crazy. It really doesn’t make sense. Twenty-three is not a lot, but still. What made it special was the top grade: BGS 9.5. But even there, that is not the only copy of that card with that grade,” Beslic remarked. “I was surprised that it went for so much. But whenever there are two people who want something, then the price doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

Because of the exploding prices for rookie cards like those of LeBron James, many collectors have shifted their focused and started looking for rookie cards of other NBA superstars – Jayson Tatum, Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo as well as superstars who recently retired such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal or Tim Duncan.

The final Mosaic pack delivers a really nice card: Giannis Antetokounmpo wearing a suit and holding his MVP trophy. Up top it says “MVPs” and the background is shiny and checkered – so it’s a Mosaic Silver, which already twice has sold for more than 450 dollars with a PSA 10 grade.

Giannis surprised basketball fans and trading card collectors alike in June 2020 when he published a TikTok video showing off his card collection: dozens of trading cards of himself. When the sale of the LeBron James card was announced on Instagram, King James himself commented on the post: “”Guess who has a couple of those exact ones too?”

That begs the question if Zion is collecting cards too. One thing is certain: Zion is the shiny new toy in the trading card business – and that fits right along with the glamor of the packs.

by FIVE Magazine #173 – NBA Trading Cards – Text: David Hein

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About the author

Max is one of the KICKZ squad's rookies. Ever since a youngin', he's been a student of the game and everything it collides with. His heart bleeds wine and gold, so the 2016 NBA Finals are one of his favorite moments in sports history. When you're hearing him "blocked by James", you know the thrill.
After his school days, he used to work as a warehouseman for KICKZ in Rüdersdorf. That's when and where is love for sneakers started.
First pair: Air Jordan IV 'Toro Bravo'. Fun fact: He learned the Roman numerals by checking the tags and names on the Jordan shoeboxes - in collaboration with the Asterix & Obelix comics.
Besides all that, he has a 'locker room guy' mentality and likes American Trap, good food and perfectly glued labels on bottles.

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