Do you remember trading footy or basketball cards with your friends as a kid? While it may have seemed like little more than a game at the time, those cards could now be worth real money.
Trading cards may have been a hobby for many of us at some stage of our lives, but some people also treat them as an alternative form of investment. And they don't just feature sporting stars, with trading card ranges for everything from Star Wars characters and Marvel comic book heroes to Pokemon.
It's quick and easy to find and buy trading cards online. In this guide, we'll explore what affects the value of a trading card and how you can choose the right cards for your collection.
Types of trading cards
The trading card market is a lot larger and more diverse than when you were swapping footy cards with your mates in the playground. As a general guide, trading cards can be split into three main categories.
- Sports cards. An introduction to the world of trading cards for many, sports cards feature pictures and stats of players. There's a huge range of cards available for US sports like the NBA, NFL and baseball, while you can also trade soccer cards or cards for Australian sports like AFL and NRL. In April 2021, a LeBron James rookie card sold for US$5.2 million, making it the most expensive basketball card of all time.
- Entertainment cards. Trading cards from popular entertainment franchises offer collectibles for fans and potential money-makers for investors. Options in this category include characters like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo from Star Wars, Iron Man and Captain America from the Marvel universe, and even wrestlers from the WWE.
- Collectible card games. These games allow each player to build their own customised deck of cards and compete against other players in challenges. Popular options in this category include Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! In October 2020, a Pokemon Charizard card made headlines when it sold for $400,000.
How to compare trading cards
The first thing you need to consider is whether you're buying trading cards purely as a hobby, or with an eye to making a profit. If trading cards are a hobby, factors like nostalgia, aesthetics and your personal favourite players or characters will play a major part in determining which cards you purchase.
If you're treating them as an investment, you'll need to decide whether you want to make a short-term profit or hold cards for the long-term. For example, if you're investing in sports cards for the long-term, it's a good idea to look for cards that feature stars with generational appeal, rather than those that might be in a purple patch of form at the moment but may not be particularly well remembered in 10 or 20 years' time.
Once you've decided what you want to do with your cards, consider the following factors:
Check what condition the card is in before you buy. There are several companies in Australia that offer access to professional grading services that can help you confirm the condition and value of cards.
If you're buying a card that has been officially graded, you reduce the risk of buying something that's not as advertised. On the flip side, buying ungraded cards means you could potentially discover a hidden gem and turn a larger profit.
What player, character or scene does the card depict? Does it have any cultural significance, nostalgic appeal or, in the case of collectible card games, special features that enhance its desirability?
Supply and demand is always an important factor. The rarer a card is, the more sought-after and therefore valuable it's likely to be.
Errors and autographs
Cards with printing errors can be highly sought after. Autographed cards can also fetch a higher price — for example, there are plenty of collectors keen to get their hands on Pokemon cards signed by illustrator Mitsuhiro Arita.
Work out how much money you're willing to spend on a particular card (or collection of cards) and stick to it. Will you buy at auction or via a private sale? If there's the latter, is there any wiggle room in the asking price?
Your level of knowledge
Your own knowledge of the subject matter can also affect the cards you buy. For example, maybe there’s an unfashionable rookie who you think will develop into a cult sporting hero in the future, or a player who you think will be classed as an all-time great rather than just a very good top-level player.
Sealed packs or boxes
Buying sealed packs or boxes of trading cards is a lot like a lucky dip. You don't know what you're paying for and you could end up with nothing particularly valuable, but there's also a chance of pulling out a rare or expensive card.
What affects the value of a trading card?
From the subject matter depicted to its condition and its scarcity, there are myriad factors that can affect the value of a particular card. Some of those factors vary depending on the niche — for example, in the world of sports trading cards, rookie cards tend to be worth more than those from later in a player's career.
But there are also many other factors that can play a part. Nostalgia is one, as cashed-up older generations look to relive the collecting days of their youth. And even though cards may deal with events or characters from long ago, modern-day circumstances can have an impact on card value.
For example, Netflix aired The Last Dance, a documentary centred on basketball star Michael Jordan, at the height of COVID-19 lockdowns when many people around the world had no live sport to watch. The popularity of the documentary saw the level of interest in Jordan trading cards increase. There was also a spike in demand for collectibles relating to some of Jordan's Chicago Bulls teammates, including Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen.
If you're going to treat trading cards as an investment, researching the market and staying abreast of developments will be crucial to your chances of success.
4 things to consider
There are a few other factors you might like to consider before you start buying trading cards:
- Your old collection. Got a box of old trading cards lying around in the garage somewhere? Digging them out and researching the values of those cards is a great way to familiarise yourself with the world of trading cards and the factors that affect their worth. You might even find a hidden gem that's now worth a small fortune, but don't hold your breath.
- Know what you're investing in. The old saying that you should never invest in something you don't understand holds true with trading cards. With this in mind, it's important to do as much research as possible before you buy. You'll need knowledge of the genre as a whole, the specific subject matter of each card, and the many factors that can affect collectibility and value. The sold listings on eBay are also a handy starting point to help you better understand the value of different cards.
- NFTs. If you're thinking of buying trading cards, it's also worth considering what sort of impact NFTs (non-fungible tokens) might have on the value of trading cards in the future. Find out more about how NFTs work in our beginner's guide.
- Storing your cards. Given that the condition of a card can have a big impact on its value, it's a good idea to handle your cards with care. There are plenty of specialised storage options available, from card holders to sleeves, while you should also keep your cards in a cool, dry place.
Ready to start shopping? Check out our guide to where you can buy trading cards online in Australia.