The Challenges of Grading Ultra-Modern Trading Cards5 min read


There are a lot of things that go into the proper management of a third-party authentication and grading company that collectors might not immediately consider. Of course, qualified graders are necessary and reliable people are required to receive submissions and ship out graded items. But one of the biggest challenges in the process is the proper identification and documentation of a card for which there are no previously graded examples.

Defining ‘Spec’ Number

Before a new trading card can be introduced into the PSA system, it must be assigned a customized “spec” number that will be used to identify every future copy of that particular card that is submitted to PSA for grading. For example, the spec number for the 1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle card is 0101523110, and each copy of that card that has ever been submitted to PSA carries that identifier in our system. For cards that were produced prior to about 2016, the majority have already been researched and individual cards have been assigned a spec number. Even if an individual card has not yet been identified, it is very likely that we have already graded other cards from the same set. The ultra-modern era, which we consider to be from roughly 2017 to present day, provides a different challenge based on the newness and vastness of the card sets produced each year. In fact, nearly 50 percent of the current PSA submission backlog can be attributed to ultra-modern cards.

When baseball, basketball, football, hockey, trading card game (TCG), miscellaneous sports, multi-sports and non-sports issues are all taken into account, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new cards produced each year. I am not talking about the several hundred copies of the 2020 Donruss #129 Career Stat Line Mike Trout card that is numbered to 500. I mean millions of different trading cards that each require their own year, brand, number, subject and error/variation information to be confirmed for proper identification on the PSA label prior to the first example being graded.

Cards Galore

If you think I am exaggerating, consider that the PSA system currently identifies more than 10 different brand names under which baseball cards were produced in 2019. Some issued just a single set and others produced dozens. Topps is the most prolific of the bunch, having issued 539 different baseball card sets in 2019. Each of those sets consists of up to several hundred different cards, which in turn may have up to 20 different parallels, many of which can be difficult to differentiate. Every single one needs its own unique spec number. In fact, 2019 Topps baseball cards alone account for tens of thousands of individual card listings. Add in the other baseball brands and then seven additional major trading card genres for which new sets are issued throughout the year, and the number of cards released in a 12-month period is staggering.

In addition to trading cards, PSA also receives collectibles such as pins, coins, decals, packs and tickets that all require individual spec numbers. The necessary research and identification is performed by the PSA Specs Department, whose job is to confirm that the information presented by the submitter for each new item is accurate, create a new category for the set in the PSA system, assign a spec number to the item, and then input the subject, card number and variety (if applicable) before processing it for grading. There are several things that can slow this process, including incorrect or incomplete information on the submission form and the challenge of finding reliable information needed to verify the details of the item. The Specs Department uses reliable sources such as printed hobby catalogs or any given manufacturer’s website, but even then, the necessary information is not always immediately available. Additionally, the Specs Department is limited by the number of characters that can be printed on each line of a PSA card label: line one contains up to 26 characters, line two has 21 and line three also has 26. Such constraints are difficult to work with when the name of a card might be 2019 Topps Finest Finest Origins Autograph #RAJ Ronald Acuna, Jr. Superfractor 1/1.

New Technology

As the production of new trading cards shows no sign of slowing down, the obvious question is what is PSA doing to address this issue? The answer is three-pronged. First, investments are being made in technology that will greatly aide in the process. However, the implementation of that technology is a bit farther down the road as it continues to be fine-tuned to specifically meet our needs.

The second element that we are implementing is a request for submitters to organize their submissions chronologically and making it mandatory on Value Pricing submissions. The advent of group submissions organized on Facebook or Instagram have contributed greatly to the number of bulk orders we receive that contain a wide variety of cards all in a single submission. PSA has people in the Specs and Grading departments that specialize in certain areas of the hobby – vintage, modern, TCG, etc. When a 500-card submission comes in that contains, for example, 1933 Goudey baseball, 1963 Fleer football, 2019 Panini basketball, 1978 Star Wars and a range of Pokémon cards, it cannot be easily broken up so that the cards can go to the most knowledgeable staff members and graders, and thus it takes longer for those orders to move through the system. By having cards submitted in a more orderly fashion, they can be assigned for processing in a timelier manner.

Join the PSA Team

Lastly, PSA has been growing and developing the Research Department. Since January of this year, the Research Department has hired 57 individuals, with new positions being added regularly. If you are interested in a position in the PSA Research Department, plese visit to apply. Additionally, the department now runs both day and swing shifts, Monday through Friday, to keep up with demand.

The trust and business given to us by the trading card community is not something PSA takes lightly or is willing to compromise. So we continue to hire new employees and refine our processes in a continuous effort to better serve our customers. It is a challenging position to be in, but one that we have been granted after decades of providing the best third-party grading service in the hobby. We take great pride in our position within the trading card world and refuse to rest on our laurels.


Posted by Todd Tobias

Todd Tobias is a longtime hobbyist and PSA staff member who is constantly on the hunt for vintage lacrosse issues and autographed cards for his American Football League (1960-1969) collection.

Johnny Robinson - Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2019!!!

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