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'I’ve Never Seen It Like This.' A Look Inside The Booming Trading Card Industry In Utah

Ross Terrell
The trading card industry across the country and in Utah has exploded since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Buyers and sellers say it’s because of a combination of people being stuck inside and seeing cards as an investment.

John Zenes lives in Stansbury Park — a small town about 30 minutes west of Salt Lake City. In late January, he hosted a video on Facebook live in his Cardboard Dreams group. Zenes co-owns The Cardboard Kids, his trading card business, and has been involved with trading cards since 1979 when he was just 8 years old.

Zenes introduced himself to the dozens of people who tuned in to see what treasure he might find, then he started breaking or ripping card packs — that’s the lingo for opening them. The first selection of the evening was a 1980’s baseball pack from the manufacturer Topps.

When he opened it, a piece of decades old gum fell out. He popped it in his mouth and began showing off the cards.

Pandemic Explosion

Ross Terrell
A Target in Salt Lake City placed a quantity limit on the number of cards people could buy. Its trading card shelves have been rendered scarce for weeks due to soaring demand.

In the year since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the trading card industry has taken off. People are collecting cards like Pokémon or the game Magic — but mainly it’s sports cards. The run on the cards somewhat resembles the mad-dash for toilet paper and sanitizer last March, with some big box stores putting quantity limits on them.

“Attention guests: We have a limit of three per guest on each type of trading card,” reads a sign at a Target in Salt Lake City.

The boom is happening for a couple of reasons. Zenes said for some people it’s because they are stuck inside and bored. Others view collecting cards as an investment in case the economy hits another recession.

“I think it's the guy or gal from a generation or two ago that couldn't afford or didn't have the disposable income that now does,” he said. “[They’re] looking for the specific cards, collections, etc.

And this is not just a Utah phenomenon. Zenes has sold cards to high rollers across the country. He said he has sold a single card for $40,000 and has paid near six figures multiple times for other collections.

Unheard Of Boom

Ross Terrell
End Zone Hobby Center in Clearfield has cases filled with cards. Some include Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell and other notable NBA names.

John Irsik owns the End Zone Hobby Center in Clearfield. He’s been in the business since 1991.

“Out of all the years of doing sports cards, I've never seen it like this,” Irsik said from his office in the back of the store.

His shop is jam-packed with board games and comics. Lining the walls and small walkways are hundreds, if not thousands, of trading cards. Some feature Donovan Mitchell — the current face of the Utah Jazz who was recently named to his second All-Star game in as many years. Online, his cards are going for as much as $200 apiece.

Irsik said it’s tough to keep up with cards going for so much..

“As a retail store, the problem we have is now our distributors are taking advantage of us,” he said. “It's really difficult because for us, all our basketball orders got canceled and we can't get the products in unless we want to pay a premium price.”

Another example is the former face of the Utah Jazz, Hall of Famer Karl Malone. He played with the team from the mid-80s to the early 2000s — losing twice to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.

One eBay listing had a 1986 Malone rookie card with an asking price of $20,000.

Ross Terrell
A 1986 Karl Malone rookie trading card is listed for $20,000 on eBay. The card is graded by Beckett as 9.5 Gem Mint meaning it is top of the line.

Finding Their Value

Card prices are driven by basic economics like supply and demand — and scarcity. Zenes compared it to owning a piece of fine art.

Hey, you know, I have the only one of this on planet Earth,” Zenes said about people setting their prices. “It’s like I have the only Van Gogh or I have the only Michelangelo painting or whatever it may be. I possess it. If you want to have it — here, here's my price tag.”

Cards also get their value from a grading system. Third-party companies like Beckett Grading and Professional Sports Authenticator — known as PSA.

PSA grades them on a scale of “poor” to “GEM-MT 10” which is the top of the line. They evaluate things like how the card is cut, the quality of the photo or whether it is stained. Irsik said the better the grade, the more you can charge.

“It's a lot easier to sell to high collectors because they wanna know the card is real,” he said. “And two, it has a professional rating.”

Brennan Platt, an economics professor at Brigham Young University, said having cards can be equated to owning stock in a company. Except instead of letting the price per share dictate when someone sells, that decision is based on how much someone personally values the card.

“You can think of each person having a lower bound — that if the price goes low enough, I'd be happy to buy that card,” Platt said. “And an upper bound is saying if the price of it goes above that, I'm selling it off and taking the money.

A Lasting Industry

Ross Terrell
Cards feature images of players on the front and some include statistics on the back. Depending on the professional rating, they can sell for hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.

Cards have been around for decades, but this recent surge was caused by the pandemic.

Zenes said he doesn’t predict an equivalent event any time soon to slow the market down because people actually understand trading cards.

I think there's this new generation coming up that also watched their parents maybe be collectors at one time. Now [they] are looking at it and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we can make money doing this as well’,Zenes said.

Both his kids are now hooked. He said his 24-year-old son has started to invest heavily in basketball cards, and his 10-year-old daughter is on the lookout for Jackie Robinson cards.

Platt said whether the market continues like this depends on the collectors.

“Once we get back to kind of a more normal life, the long term value of the cards will definitely be determined on whether there's long term interest in holding the cards and not just as an asset,” Platt said.

As for having trading cards yourself that may be worth something, Irsik said you should check them out.

“It's really a lot of fun,” he said. “See what you have. I really encourage people to really enjoy the hobby, and especially right now when you're locked inside. It’s kind of cool to pull out your cards and look at them.”

Those cards buried away in the attic or basement may just be a piece of cardboard, or they could be a card collector’s dream.

Ross Terrell is the managing editor at KUER.
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