PSA and the Hobby Explosion, From 2015 to Present 13 min read

 

It’s been a rapid ascent at times, and a slow and steady climb at others. But there’s no denying the outcome; we are currently experiencing a hobby explosion, and PSA is seeing a record number of submissions as a result.  

But how did we get here? How did the hobby come to enjoy this massive renaissance? Well, it can be attributed to a combination of factors, everything from increasing interest in vintage cards, to a certain children’s trading card game (TCG) cracking into pop culture, all the way to former hobbyists getting reacquainted with their cards while stuck at home and the re-emergence of a former high-flying NBA superstar.  

It’s been a journey, but collectibles seem to be making headlines now more than ever. Let’s take a trip back in time and revisit some key moments that led to our current hobby explosion, starting in 2015 and ending in the present. 

2015: Vintage Rookie Card Spike and Emergence of Modern Superstars 

In 2015, the hobby started to see a spike in vintage card value that indicated a renewed interest in classic cardboard. This movement to vintage cards gained a ton of momentum the following year (more on that to come). Across the board, interest and value in vintage cards began to peak, starting with marquee cards (the Clementes, the Koufaxs and of course the Mantles) and trickled down from there.  

Take the 1955 Topps Koufax #123, for instance, using the historical data on PSA Auction Prices Realized. In 2014, a PSA 8 example of the card maxed out at $3,346. Just six months later in May 2015, an example in the same grade sold for about double the value, at $6,641. The card hit the $9,000 mark during fall 2015, but it continued a steady climb from there, eventually hitting $20,000 during summer 2016. Yes, the Koufax has since settled in value, but the point is that the hobby was stirring and that impacted the trading card world today. 

Couple the vintage movement with the emergence of young superstars like Mike Trout, and we have collectors young and old, veteran and novice contributing to the hobby. Trout was fresh off his first MVP nod and had already garnered comparisons to the game’s greats, like Rickey Henderson and, yep, Mickey Mantle. Further propelling the superstar’s hype, the “Trout or Bryce Harper” conversation was still a valid discussion. The former has since cemented himself as the consensus best in the game now, and collectors still vie for his cardboard.  

2016: A Historic Card Find, Gotta Catch ‘Em All and the New Face of the Hobby  

This is the time when everything came together, and interest in the hobby, card values and PSA submissions began to skyrocket. In fact, from 2015 to 2016, PSA saw a roughly 25% increase in submissions. And each year since then, submissions have steadily increased. PSA was also celebrating its 25th anniversary and rebranded its logo. 

The renewed interest in vintage cards that stirred the previous year carried over full steam into 2016, thanks in no small part to the historic find of not one but seven T206 Ty Cobb cards with Ty Cobb back deemed “The Lucky 7 Find,” the largest and most talked about find since the “Black Swamp Find” of 2012.  Seven 1909-1911 Ty Cobb rarities were found by a southern family who was cleaning the home of a recently deceased relative. Before this remarkable find, there were only 15 such cards known to exist. The collecting world was buzzing, several media outlets picked up the story that spilled far beyond the hobby, and now interest in vintage cards was in full gear. 

But back to 2016. The collective hobby was gaining momentum. Though a breadth of vintage issues spiked in value, the biggest beneficiaries of this craze were the cards and collectibles of Mickey Mantle. Long the hobby mainstay, 2016 saw a noticeable boost for any collectible with the Mick’s name affixed. But it was his iconic 1952 Topps #311 that enjoyed a meteoric ascent. 

Every time a ‘52 Topps Mantle was up for auction, it seemed like a new record price was set. The card and the athlete had always been revered, but this renewed Mantle publicity arguably catapulted his ‘52 Topps card ahead of the fabled 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner, becoming the most recognizable card in the hobby! Mickey Mantle cards and collectibles saw its 2016 hobby peak with the fall sale of a PSA 8.5 example fetching $1.1M at auction. 

While vintage cards built a full head of steam, a children’s card game was about to enjoy a global explosion that spilled over from pop culture and into the hobby. Before 2016, Pokémon was a popular, albeit niche, trading card game as far as the hobby was concerned. The franchise had seen its share of cartoons, video games, toys, and, of course, trading cards, but Pokémon cards never really made an impact on the hobby. 

Then, Pokémon Go was released and introduced a whole new concept to the franchise, and with it, a massive audience. The game was a viral success, and suddenly, those kids who once played with their Pokémon cards in school yards were grown up, with grown up income. These former collectors started searching for their long-lost Pokémon cards, and buying up the cards they needed. This led to a spike in Pokémon card values, a massive increase of roughly 94% in Pokémon and TCG submissions to PSA from 2015 to 2016 and the emphatic inclusion of Pokémon cards into the hobby. When the most rare and coveted Pokémon card, the Pikachu Illustrator, sold at auction and fetched over $50K for a PSA 9 example, collectors had to take the kids’ game seriously. 

To top it off, PSA began featuring Pokémon articles prominently within its monthly SMR magazine. By late 2016, Pokémon Go had seemingly come and gone, but its impact on the hobby could not be understated.  

2017: TCG and #PSAcard Heats Up 

In 2017, momentum in the hobby continued to push forward, capped off by a crucial update in PSA’s labels, with its new LightHouse™ labels. Packed with counterfeit-deterrent features, these labels reinforced PSA-holdered cards with added security. 

That year also marked an influx of more and more TCG collectors into the hobby, which translated to another huge leap in TCG submissions from 2016 to 2017 – a roughly 100% increase! This group of digitally savvy collectors took to social media to chronicle their latest card finds and PSA returnsAs a result, the hashtag #PSAcard caught fire on Instagram. Just launch the social media platform and you’ll see that there are thousands of posts under this hashtag,  with more and more added daily.   

Image via @leonhart54 on Instagram

The emergence of TCG on social media also drew the attention of influencers, who began sharing videos and images of their latest Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and other TCG hits. With enormous digital footprints, these influencers broadcasted the emergence and soaring value of TCG to an entirely new audience. The hobby interest in TCG and PSA submissions continued to mount.  

Image via Rhymestyle on YouTube.

PSA was now regularly producing Pokémon and TCG content across its channels. In July 2017, PSA even featured a Pokémon on the cover of SMR for the first time.  

PSA featured a Pokémon on the cover of their monthly SMR magazine for the first time in their 2017 Comic Con edition.

2018: A New Superstar Drives the Market and Records Continue to Fall  

By this point, we had collectors of vintage and modern, sports and TCG all pushing hobby excitement. But perhaps the most profound impact on the hobby in 2018 can be attributed to a certain Japanese phenom, Shohei Ohtani.  

Ohtani pandemonium hit hard and fast. Collectors rushed to their local card shops to scoop up boxes and boxes of the latest card drops, in hopes of unveiling anything Shohei Ohtani. There was one point where cards of the young, pitching/hitting stud were valued at tens of thousands of dollars. The headlines piled up and hobby interest continued to soar, as did PSA submissions. To put the popularity of Ohtani into perspective, PSA received nearly 100 times more Ohtani items during 2018 than the previous year. Ohtani and the latest crop of young studs steered more people to the hobby and accelerated the ultra-modern market. 

The ultra-modern market was also bolstered by a long-term stability within the sports and hobby titans of baseball, basketball and football. Up to this point in time, no labor strike or lockouts meant that fans could count on uninterrupted sports each year. (No thanks to COVID-19, of course.) With seasons in full swing, card manufacturers could churn out product throughout the year, publicizing where and when collectors could grab cards of their favorite sports stars. And with more and more ultra-modern hits like Shohei, came an influx in submissions to PSA.  

PSA certified its 30 millionth collectible in 2018 with this Tom Brady card.

The cards and excitement never ceased, and by April 2018, PSA certified its 30 millionth collectible, a milestone that was marked by a card submission bearing one of the most celebrated athletes of the 2000s, Tom Brady. This landmark certification was also immortalized on the label of the Tom Brady card, which featured a “30000000” as its PSA cert number. 

Heavy hitting cards, both vintage and modern, continued to set records at auction. In April 2018, Mantle’s 1952 Topps card made headlines once more when a PSA 9 example sold for an otherworldly $2.88M. And in May, Derek Jeter’s celebrated 1993 SP Foil rookie card graded PSA 10 sold for a staggering $99K at auction.  

Interest in PSA and the hobby came to a head during the 2018 National Sports Collectors Convention, when a livestreamed pack break of 1955 Bowman cards struck gold during the show and the key Mickey Mantle card was pulled. The card eventually graded an amazing PSA Mint 9 

The Mantle pull garnered immediate, widespread hobby attention and news of it went mainstream soon after. The hobby gained even more attention, more new collectors and another boost to vintage card values.  

PSA again ended the year on a high note, having set another record by certifying nearly 2 million collectibles during 2018, opening an office in Japan and launching a new look and concept to their PSA Set Registry.   

2019: A Familiar Face Enters the Hobby and Pokémon Finishes Strong 

Thanks in part to the surging value of trading cards, a buzzing hobby and the fact that he was a childhood collector, famous entrepreneur and social media aficionado Gary Vaynerchuk emphatically came back to the hobby. It started when he declared “Sports cards are the next big thing” during an April 2019 appearance on the Rich Eisen show.  

With his appearance and millions of followers, Gary Vee broadcasted the hobby and card grading out to an entirely new audience, much like Pokémon influencers did just two years prior.  

By June 2019, submissions continued to come in droves to PSA headquarters, and Collectors Universe (parent company of PSA and its sister company on the coin side, PCGS) celebrated its 75 millionth certified collectible.  

Vaynerchuk took this renewed excitement for the hobby and card grading into the 2019 National Sports Collectors Convention in late July, showing up to talk cards, sign autographs and take photos with attendees. In doing so, he again shared his hobby enthusiasm with his millions of followers. PSA went on to set yet another record by certifying over 12,000 collectibles during the 2019 National. 

Gary V. signs cards at the 2019 National Sports Card Convention.

From a TCG standpoint, fall 2019 was an especially action-packed time for PSA and Pokémon. Remember that Pikachu Illustrator we mentioned earlier? A PSA 9 example sold for over $220K in October of 2019! This card is really living up to its “Honus Wagner of Pokémon cards” lore.  

And to cap off this monumental Pokémon sale, PSA certified its 1 millionth Pokémon!  

PSA’s 1 millionth certified Pokémon card. 

2020: Quarantine Actually Bolsters the Hobby 

The stage was set for 2020 to be the biggest year in the hobby and for PSA to date. But, as you know, no one could have predicted the dire months that would follow when the calendar flipped past 2019.  

First, the untimely passing of a modern sports icon and legend in Kobe Bryant on January 26 was followed by a precipitous spike in value of all cards and collectibles of the late Laker legend. This leap in value was followed, unfortunately, by an influx of fake Bryant autographs.  

Then, of course, the COVID-19 months would follow starting in mid-March 2020. No one knew the effect a global pandemic would have on the hobby, let alone the world at large. But as countless people found themselves quarantined for weeks on end, many collectors – both those new to the hobby and veteran collectors – turned to the thing that brought them joy and started collecting while stuck at home. 

It looked like the coronavirus bolstered the hobby, rather than caused a decline in collecting. After all, the hobby can be enjoyed at home, consumed through social media and, thanks to the advent of videoconferencing apps like Zoom, can still be enjoyed with the company of your friends and other collectors virtually.  

This phenomenon was especially seen among the breaker community, who enjoyed the largest surge in participation since this digital hobby segment rose to prominence roughly 10 years ago. Now, stuck at home, collectors need only tune into one of the dozens of breakers on YouTube and view endless hours of glorious card packs being opened. Though breaking had been slowly gaining steam for over a decade, this virtual form of hobby entertainment is now more popular than ever.

Then, with perfect timing, “The Last Dance” documentary aired and enjoyed immediate acclaim. Newly christened collectors were already quarantined and fully immersed into the hobby. This precipitated a heightened market for any Michael Jordan cards and memorabilia collectors could get a hold of. It also led to a tremendous jump in value in Jordan cards, especially his 1986 Fleer #57.  

Before the “The Last Dance” aired, the card was already valued in the $30-to-$40K range for PSA 10 examples. Now, thanks to the wild success of the documentary and collectors across the hobby swooping up Michael Jordan collectibles, the card is valued in the $100K range! What a leap! (Forgive the basketball pun.)  

But it wasn’t just Jordan’s ‘86 Fleer that reached new heights. It seems that quarantine and a renewed vigor in the hobby led to several cards across the board skyrocketing in value. Cards like Mike Trout’s 2011 Topps #US175 Update rookie card, the 1989 Upper Deck #1 Ken Griffey Jr. rookie and even the 1985 Topps #401 Mark McGwire rookie started jumping in value. 

This perfect hobby storm was also seen in PSA submissions. During the quarantine months of March to May – despite PSA having to briefly close operations due to the pandemic – the company saw an incredible increase in submissions. If PSA was busy before the pandemic, the amount of submissions received post quarantine months is on an entirely new level. 

So here we are, 2020 is halfway over, and the hobby is seeing a vigor that mirrors the hobby popularity of the early ’90s. With this collecting renaissance, PSA is receiving an astonishing amount of submissions.  

For its part, PSA has continued to aggressively hire and expand operations. During this expansion, Lean manufacturing principles are being implemented to maximize operational efficiency and further accommodate the unprecedented amount of submissions received.  

If there is a silver lining, it’s that the hobby is enjoying a true resurgence, which brings us to where we are now. Who knows what the future holds, but history indicates that cards and the hobby will be involved in some way! 

Posted by Ryan Gaeta

Ryan is a sports fan and Non-Sports aficionado, who is still tormented by the fact he owned the entire 1st Edition run of Pokémon cards but traded them away or ruined them at one point or another.

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