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The ways and wiles of San Diego young sports card flippers

List at high price on eBay and then say Best Offer

“In order to get these cards, you have to wait for hours. The market’s stupid. Like, people are buying the hype.”
“In order to get these cards, you have to wait for hours. The market’s stupid. Like, people are buying the hype.”

In April of this year, a sports trading card featuring basketball star LeBron James sold for $5.2 million. That tied the previous record, set in January, for a 1952 Topps baseball card featuring Mickey Mantle. This was the year that I tried to jump on the sports-card bandwagon. I found I may have leapt a bit too late.

“We stopped selling sports cards because of the scalpers,” a Chula Vista Walmart employee told me on October 9. So I tried my luck at the Target in the Westfield Mission Valley mall. But the shelves there that usually held sports card boxes and packs were nearly bare. The only thing left were boxes of the 2020-2021 NHL Star Rookies collection by Upper Deck. “Cool beans, $19.99, I’ll buy ’em all,” I mumbled to myself. Like a rookie-card flipper, I piled the boxes near my body, in hopes of concealing them from any pro card flippers nearby, then hastily pulled out my iPhone and hopped onto eBay to check the prices. An end-of-period hockey horn went off in my head: “The highest-priced card from this rookie series is a Tim Stützle card selling for $31.14 + shipping,” I lamented. “These boxes aren’t worth it for me.” I left them stacked for the next buyer.

My interest in sports-card sales took hold in April, when I spoke to some high schoolers at the Bargain Hunters Thrift Store in Poway.

“What’s the longest you’ve waited in line at a store to buy sports cards?” I asked Johnny, a 17-year-old sports-card dealer.

“I once waited outside from like 7 pm the night before,” he responded. “In order to get these cards, you have to wait for hours. The market’s stupid. Like, people are buying the hype.” (Some teenagers say “stupid” to indicate a good thing.) Johnny pulled out his phone and showed me photos of a shopping cart filled with boxes and packs of sports cards from the resulting early morning score. “You have to commit to doing it,” he said. “If you don’t like to try to get exclusive stuff, you won’t get it.”

I tried my luck at the Target in the Westfield Mission Valley mall. But the shelves there that usually held sports card boxes and packs were nearly bare.

“Tell him how much you spent there,” said Rene Nezhoda, the store’s owner (who had given me the okay for the interview). Johnny’s buddies surrounded him; one of them yelled, “$1500.”

“What did you make on it, roughly?” I asked.

“$2500,” Johnny responded enthusiastically. He said the sales had taken him just a few days.

Over the last year or so, teenage card dealers like Johnny from San Ysidro to Oceanside have started standing in line for hours at big box stores — places like Walmart, Target, CVS, and Walgreens — waiting to “doorbust” on in. (It probably helped that high schools were closed due to the pandemic.) It was like Black Friday every day. And while they waited, they watched videos on their phones of YouTubers “busting” sports-card boxes, or posted and compared photos of their latest hauls with those of other sports-card fanatics.

It got to the point where “by early 2021, some Walmarts here in Chula Vista restricted customers to two packs and two boxes per customer,” explained Jonathan P., a 59-year-old who has been collecting since the ’70s. “By late July, the employees started posting signs to remind us. But sometimes, cashiers let us slide if the packs had been sitting for a while.” Young Johnny and his buddies get around the limit by arriving en masse. Some of Jonathan P.’s fellow collectors take a different tack: “They bring an extra set of shirts, pants, sunglasses, and hats.” The disguises helps them get around the pack limits; sometimes, they’re even able to fool employees at stores that keep cards out of customers’ reach.

The deceptions don’t stop there. “Some collectors pull scams on the big-box stores, taking full advantage of their return policies. They buy boxes and packs, then weigh them in their cars. If it weighs more than a standard box or pack, there’s probably a printing plate in the box.” Jonathan showed me an eBay auction of an autographed Asuka printing plate‚ currently selling for $1902. The silver plate was pulled from a pack from the 2017 WWE NXT Topps box. On the back was the message, “THIS IS THE ACTUAL CYAN PRINTING PLATE USED TO MANUFACTURE CARD.” He continued: “There are also relics — which are mats, clothing, masks — that are cut small enough to fit in a card pack, and of course, those packs feel slightly thicker. So these scammers search the boxes and packs, and if they don’t feel like they have ‘hits,’ they return them to the big-box stores for a refund or credit.” (Card collectors refer to premiums — things like autographs, relics, plates, and card variations — as “hits.”) “The sad thing is that the next buyer won’t get a hit.”

Dante Rowley’s display at the monthly SD Collectibles card show.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. Jonathan grew up buying sports card packs from “Vince The Ice Cream Man,” who would roll his truck through the Chula Vista and south San Diego neighborhoods in the ’70s and ’80s. “I also bought sports-card packs at a liquor store on Orange Avenue and Melrose Avenue where the Seafood City is now and PJ Sports Cards on 3rd Avenue where the Grocery Outlet is now.” Currently, he owns about 40,000 cards. “I’m kind of a hoarder,” he says.

These days, Jonathan is trying to find an autographed Dominick Mysterio card from the 2020 Topps WWE box set. On eBay, a sports card dealer sells the San Diego native’s signed card for $1500. “I already have a Rey Mysterio Jr. autograph, who is Dom’s father.” (The two were champions recently at the Wrestlemania Backlash event, the first father-son duo in WWE history to win a title.) But the odds aren’t great: “I think about one in a thousand blaster boxes at any of these Walmarts. It’s the ‘Ultra Rare Chase Card’ stated on the boxes’ graphics — that’s one in 48,000 packs to get that bad boy. It also could be in the one in 500 packs within the hobby boxes. The same packs for this particular set are distributed through hobby and retail channels. Then we have Rey Mysterio digital cards” from Topps. “They are like an EPS file that you can view on your phone.”

Sports cards for sale at Bargain Hunters in Poway.

In 2012, Topps launched apps aimed at baseball-card fans, giving users interactive activities in order to download a digital file resembling a sports card. In the following years, they expanded to football, soccer, hockey — and professional wrestling. To purchase the Rey Mysterio digital card on eBay for $150, notes the seller, “you must have Topps WWE Slam Card Trader application on your device (IOS, Android).” Jonathan shook his head. “That Mysterio card is a digital item that can only legally be exchanged within the Topps Slam app community; people can only trade on the app, and buying and selling are not allowed.” (Shortly after I spoke with Jonathan, the card’s listing was pulled down.)

Wrestling cards like the Mysterio are all Jonthan collects these days. “But [Target and Walmart] are sold out of all of the boxes and packs. I can’t compete with these kids; they’re too fast. I just tell these younger flippers to slow down, because there are younger children that are buying just to collect, and they might get hurt.” His concern is genuine. On August 21, at an El Cajon Target store, an employee posted two signs in the collectible card section. The signs read: “To ensure the safety of our guests and team members, MLB (Major League Baseball), NFL (National Football League), and NBA (National Basketball Association) trading cards will no longer be sold at stores until further notice.” Jonathan saw the same “safety” signs at the Chula Vista Target stores by his home. “Those signs were put up because of a 35-year-old sports card collector who pulled a gun on four other collectors at a Target in Wisconsin,” he told me. (According to news reports, the “other collectors” had jumped him as he left the store on May 7.)

Brian Harper-Tibaldo, a Target spokesperson, reportedly said shortly after the incident: “Given the significant interest in trading cards, we recently began limiting MLB, NBA, NFL, and Pokémon purchases to one item per guest, per day, and asking guests not to line up overnight. We’re continuing to evaluate the protocols we have in place to ensure safety at our stores related to this category.”

Violence, deception, and endurance aren’t the only way to beat the odds, however. Evan, 32, is a bookstore employee and card collector. He frequently scores goodies and then posts photos of his haul on Facebook. “I learned how to figure out the drops and get contacts from people in Eastlake to Grossmont to Santee,” he told me. “Drops” are when the collector boxes and packs first hit the shelves and wall hangers in stores, and “contacts” are the employees who put the product out for purchase. Some collectors and scalpers are “connected” — in cahoots with the stores’ upper management, people who know SKU numbers and code numbers on the inventory list and the cases stacked on pallets. None of my interviewees admitted to tipping cash to their contacts for intel on product drops, but tipping “on the low” is an unspoken, general principle practiced as part of the collectible card hobby.

Rene Nezhoda and his wife Casey are used to sifting through sports card collections. The Poway couple are superstar-buyers on the A&E show Storage Wars, where they compete with other dealers to purchase abandoned storage lockers full of contents. Some of those lockers contain sports card collections.

“What’s your biggest score in one day?” I asked Evan.

“It was on July 30. I spent about $190 retail, and it was worth maybe $450 in resale. It was from two Walmarts and one Target.” He then direct messaged me a photo: three boxes of 2021 Panini Prizm Draft Picks, one Upper Deck Series 2 Hockey box, two 2021 Panini Prizm Draft Picks hanger packs, one 2021 Panini Mosaic Soccer box, one 2021 Topps Baseball Series 2 box, and one 2021 Topps Stadium Club Series 2 box.

I’m not connected, so I join other San Diegans in scouring Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, and local card shows to find my sports cards. At this point, considering the secondary market, people like me knowingly pay higher prices than what people like Evan originally paid at big-box retail establishments. “Then there’s Hobby Lobby,” Evan continued, “mostly blisters and cello packs, though, never any blasters or anything super good. But good if someone wants to get their ‘rip fix.’” “Ripping” refers to when collectors rip open a cellophane-wrapped pack of sports cards. Rippers hope that there’s an autographed or ultra-rare card in the pack — which may contain between six and 120 sports cards, depending on the brand and style. Barnes & Noble, Dollar Tree, and Rite Aid can also help people in need of a rip fix — people like 30-year-old Logan Heights soccer card collector Eduardo Pineda. While resellers and scalpers buy the boxes and packs to resell for a profit, Pineda busts open the packs for the excitement of pulling rare cards for his collection. “I have pulled a Bruno Fernandes autograph from a mosaic [Panini box], Lionel Messi #’d to 99, Nathan Ake auto #’d to 49, and a Virgil Van Dijk #’d to 49,” he says. (On eBay, two vendors sell the Fernandes autographed mosaic cards for $2000-$5000. Other sellers sell Messi’s numbered to 99 cards from $30,000-$50,000, while a Van Dijk #’d to 49 autographed card goes for $350.)

It’s possible to avoid the big-box blitz altogether. Back at the Bargain Hunters Thrift Store on Poway Road, I spoke with Ruben Sezara Jr.,14, and his father (hereafter referred to as Junior and Senior). The father-and-son team had purchased a 2019-2020 Panini Obsidian Basketball First Off The Line hobby box for $600 from shop owner Nezhoda. “It’s like a reinvestment into our pseudo-card business,” Senior said. Added Junior, “We have our inventory on spreadsheets. We are buying and holding, like, investment-wise, and we are moving cards that we profit on to reinvest in more stuff.” Continued Senior, “Right now, we are projected at plus $3000-$4000. Sometimes, [Junior] goes into Walmart and buys packs for $5 retail, and he re-sells the pack for $40.” But the Panini-brand hobby box was never sold in Walmart or Target. It was initially released in July 2020 and sold only through select smaller retail stores. And it contained only one cellophane pack with seven cards inside, unlike retail boxes containing multiple packs.

(“A hobby box of cards is generally going to have more ‘hits’ than a retail box,” explained La Mesa card collector Charles. “That is, more autograph cards or jersey cards. As a result, hobby boxes are more expensive, and, as the name suggests, more exclusive, as they typically can be found in hobby card shops.” Charles has bought and sold cards since the 1980s. Lately, he’s been buying, selling, and trading at the monthly SD Collectibles card show at the Elks Club in Poway and at St. Dunstan’s Church in La Mesa. “I think it’s great that teens are getting into the hobby,” Charles continued. “It can teach them to focus on something positive and enjoyable, and also teach them about money management.”)

“This [$600] box has two guaranteed autographs in it,” Junior said. “We’re hoping to pull a Ja Morant.” On June 2, a Minneapolis eBayer sold a Ja Morant red etch rookie card from the same hobby box for about $5500. The card was autographed by Morant, a 6’3” point guard for the Memphis Grizzlies. Another dealer was selling the same card in like-new condition for $19,500. “They’re pretty rare,” Junior said. “And a lot of the cards are numbered to 99 out of all the boxes. There are only 99 of those cards. We are also hoping to pull a Zion Williamson autograph.” On May 3, an Austin, Texas seller sold an Electric Etch Contra Zion Williamson card in PSA 9 condition for $4999.99 on eBay. (A PSA 9 indicates a card that is about 90 percent, condition-wise, of a perfect PSA 10 grade.) Junior said that if he pulled a Zion Williamson autograph, he would get it graded with PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator), and then might send it to “PWCC Marketplace, where they’ll auction your card. They are popular, and for the bigger cards, prices go higher than they normally do, because there’s more attention around them. It’s also stored in their facility, and they deal with it. Plus, there’s zero percent sales tax in Oregon.”

Dante Rowley, the owner of downtown sneaker store Rosewood San Diego doesn’t buy packs or boxes, “because that’s like buying lotto tickets. They are pretty risky investments. I’m not knocking it, but if you want to make money from the hobby, you have to buy individual cards that are raw, not graded, and then send them off to PSA.” He likes to buy undervalued cards as investments. “I bought a bunch of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander rookies when he was cheap, and now he’s having a great season. So the prices are going up.” He recently had about 50 of his sports cards graded by the company, paying about $50 apiece. PSA then encased each card in a hard plastic case and affixed a sticker to the case. The stickers contained information about the card, information which was also logged onto the authenticator’s database: the year the card was released, the name of the card set it was from, the player’s name, the number of the card in the set, the condition of the card, a bar code, and a serial number.

Rowley said that “two big grading companies are head and shoulders above the rest: PSA and Beckett.” (Beckett provided the go-to price guide in magazine format in the 1990s before the internet took over. “PSA-graded cards are worth a little bit more than Beckett-graded cards right now, but that could flip-flop at some point.” Then there are other grading companies like HGA (Hybrid Grading Approach) and SGC (Sportscard Guaranty Corporation). These two are more affordable and have a faster turnaround time, but their graded cards are worth a little less than those graded by PSA and Beckett. As Rowley noted, when sports cards are graded, they sell for more than “raw” cards that are not. For example, on October 25, I jumped onto eBay and looked up the late Tony Gwynn’s #482 rookie cards from the 1983 Topps set. An autographed card graded by Beckett at a 10 sold for $510 on October 11. The same card signed and in similar condition but not graded (raw) went for about $179 the month before.

“PSA just doubled their price of grading because of covid and a renaissance in card collecting,” Rowley continued. “They’re understaffed and getting more cards submitted than they ever have before. Most people who submit one or two cards to PSA with the cheapest grading service are looking at a 7-8 months wait to get them back. Even SGC is behind schedul; they recently released a statement apologizing for delays.”

Junior is part of that renaissance. “Covid affected sports-card collecting,” he said, “because with a lot of my friends, we watch sports. We love sports, and we wanted to do something while [staying at home]. We like tangible items that we can have our hands on, and that created hype for us younger kids getting into the hobby. So I stopped playing a lot of video games and being on my phone 24/7. I got away from that, and I got really into sports cards, which changed my perspective.”

Shortly after we interviewed, a Rancho Cucamonga dealer was selling the #75 Williamson rookie card pulled from Junior’s box on eBay for $500,000. The realistic price was more like $5000, but a half-million dollar price tag is the sort of thing that attracts attention on social media. The seller hopes that it then acts as a draw to attract customers into the online store, where curious lurkers can be turned into actual customers.

Bargain Hunters owner Nezhoda knows all about the tactic. “What we do with eBay is we list our item, and we put the [higher] price. If we are willing to take an offer, we’ll put ‘Best Offer,’ and it all goes through the eBay process.” In 2019, Tamebay.com observed an increase of 18 percent in sales with eBay listings with the ‘Best Offer’ option after they experimented with the feature for seven weeks.

Nezhoda and his wife Casey are used to sifting through sports card collections. The Poway couple are superstar-buyers on the A&E show Storage Wars, where they compete with other dealers to purchase abandoned storage lockers. Some of those lockers contain sports card collections. Nezhoda and Casey have sold many of their locker finds, including sports cards, at Bargain Hunters Thrift Store. But the store’s site is slated for redevelopment, and now, they are concentrating on their eBay pages, where they’ve been selling since the late 1990s.

“It’s a simple process: they buy, I ship, and that’s it,” Nezhoda said to me in April. “Any kind of problems, you go through the steps on eBay. Sometimes, people play games, saying, ‘Oh you know, I don’t like this, can you refund $20,’ and I’m like, ‘No, we can’t, we have a strict policy, and we don’t do that. If you don’t like it, make a return request, and we’ll approve the return.’ Most of those people that ask are trying to scam you.” Even though he he pays about 20 percent in fees, which includes the cut that the auction site takes and an allotment for lost or damaged goods, he prefers the site to Facebook Marketplace. “In Facebook Marketplace, you deal with a lot of flakes,” he continued. “I don’t want to meet people, and if I have to answer direct messages all day long, I will not be able to make money. We probably have like a million-plus in eBay merchandise, so we need to work on that.”

Like Nezhoda, North Park’s Mike Hernandez has been selling on eBay since the ’90s. “The ‘Best Offer’ option also allows you as a seller to weed out the shitty buyers,” Hernandez explained. “Here’s how it works, like say on that $500,000 Zion Williamson card. That seller is receiving offers on the backend that the general public cannot see. If someone offers a substantial amount for the card, like, let’s just say, $150K, then the seller looks at the offerers’ feedback status and sees if the buyer has been around the block and dealt with people in the past.” (The buyer can do the same: in the case of billvan23, who is selling the $500,000 Williamson card, the account has 1729 positive feedbacks with zero negatives and has been selling on eBay since 2003.) “So if this dude gets any offers, he reviews them one by one, and this is key,” Hernandez continued. He paused, as if questioning if he should reveal a trade secret. “He reviews the ‘feedback - left for others’ tab by these offerers on previous transactions. If the person making offers is a troll that drops negative feedback regularly, we never take their offers seriously. Some of us block those troll buyers to keep them out of our ecosystem. And that is what he (billvan23) bases his decision on who to sell to, or not. And that’s why eBay is the best selling platform online for big-ticket sports cards, in my honest opinion.”

That’s the market as it stands. But some collectors think they have a line on the future. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, “are ownership [rights] of a digital asset,” John Thompson explained to me on October 6. “That asset typically comes with certain rights or perks.” Thompson is a San Diego native who, with his sister, used to run baseball-card shows in Encinitas. In early September, Thompson purchased a Petco Park NFT from the Major League Baseball Stadium Series. “I bought one of 492 Silver Petco Park Steel NFTs for $150, including the minting cost.” Minting an NFT is the equivalent of garnering a stock at an initial public offering price. But “instead of a stock, you receive a digital asset with all rights defined by the creator,” Thompson continued. “The purchase of the NFT is recorded on the blockchain, which basically is a transaction ledger distributed across many computer networks.”

An NFT can be a video clip, a digital photo, a video-game character, or an in-video-game item. Recently, the San Diego Padres’ Facebook page gave visitors a look at The MLB Stadium Series 1-of-1 Gold Edition Petco Park NFT, a video clip depicting a 3D card spinning in a circle. One side of the 3D card shows a photo of Petco Park with the San Diego Padres logo graphic up top. Underneath the baseball field’s image is a caption that reads “PETCO PARK SAN DIEGO CA / OPENED 2004,” with the Major League Baseball logo shown towards the bottom. In the video, the 3D card spins around, and on the backside is a graphic of the Western Metal Supply Co. structure that’s embedded within our downtown stadium.

Unlike the gold edition spinning NFT, Thompson’s steel edition depicts a 3D card as stagnant, a still digital photo of Petco Park. Thompson, a lifelong Padres fan, proudly displays his NFT in a digital frame in his office. But if someone were to pull a heist on Thompson’s digital frame, it’d be worthless to the thief, because the right to ownership of the file is still under Thomson’s name. “Once you’ve bought the NFT, you have access to the high-resolution file,” Thompson continued. “It’s higher quality than right-clicking the images and saving them. That is often brought up by newbies who do not understand the value beyond the digital file. The NFT can then be transferred to your digital wallet of choice for better security.” With the gold edition Petco Park NFT, the Padres threw in a VIP game day experience. (An additional perk in owning sports NFTs is “often voting rights on future NFT drops,” added Thompson. A “drop” is the time, date, and minting price of the NFT.)

OpenSea, SuperRare, Raible, and Foundation are four popular NFT-online marketplaces, but the Petco Park NFT is sold on Bitski’s Candy platform, which is a developing “ecosystem for official Major League Baseball collectible NFTs where fans and collectors will be able to purchase, trade, and share officially licensed NFTs.” Opined Thompson, “Many NFTs will be worth five times to 100 times the value immediately after minting. You do see this movement with the gold version of this MLB drop. I think the Padres’ NFT went for around the equivalent of $6K, while other teams’ gold NFTs on this drop went for $30K plus.”

Underneath the Padres’ Facebook post about their Gold NFT drop, some Padres’ fans booed the offer. “I don’t want an NFT of anything,” commented one person. “If I cannot physically touch any piece of art, etc., it has zero value to me.” But Thomson’s $150 investment has the stats to back up its worth. “The market for non-fungible tokens (NFTs) surged to new highs in the second quarter, with $2.5 billion in sales so far this year,” reported Fox Business in July, “up from just $13.7 million in the first half of 2020, marketplace data showed.”

As with the uptick in sales and physical sports card prices, NFTs gained popularity when art lovers could not physically enter art galleries due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “[Our] sports NFTs are not there yet, but will be once fans understand NFTs,” Thompson said. “Growing up in the Tony Gwynn heyday, I see the similarities today with Tatis Jr., Machado, Myers, and a great all-around squad. I know AJ Preller, the Padres’ GM, and Josh Stein, the Assistant GM, work Elon Musk-type hours all year long trying to put together a winning team; Padres NFTs will increase in value with wider adoption and success in the coming years.”

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Events January 27-January 29, 2022
“In order to get these cards, you have to wait for hours. The market’s stupid. Like, people are buying the hype.”
“In order to get these cards, you have to wait for hours. The market’s stupid. Like, people are buying the hype.”

In April of this year, a sports trading card featuring basketball star LeBron James sold for $5.2 million. That tied the previous record, set in January, for a 1952 Topps baseball card featuring Mickey Mantle. This was the year that I tried to jump on the sports-card bandwagon. I found I may have leapt a bit too late.

“We stopped selling sports cards because of the scalpers,” a Chula Vista Walmart employee told me on October 9. So I tried my luck at the Target in the Westfield Mission Valley mall. But the shelves there that usually held sports card boxes and packs were nearly bare. The only thing left were boxes of the 2020-2021 NHL Star Rookies collection by Upper Deck. “Cool beans, $19.99, I’ll buy ’em all,” I mumbled to myself. Like a rookie-card flipper, I piled the boxes near my body, in hopes of concealing them from any pro card flippers nearby, then hastily pulled out my iPhone and hopped onto eBay to check the prices. An end-of-period hockey horn went off in my head: “The highest-priced card from this rookie series is a Tim Stützle card selling for $31.14 + shipping,” I lamented. “These boxes aren’t worth it for me.” I left them stacked for the next buyer.

My interest in sports-card sales took hold in April, when I spoke to some high schoolers at the Bargain Hunters Thrift Store in Poway.

“What’s the longest you’ve waited in line at a store to buy sports cards?” I asked Johnny, a 17-year-old sports-card dealer.

“I once waited outside from like 7 pm the night before,” he responded. “In order to get these cards, you have to wait for hours. The market’s stupid. Like, people are buying the hype.” (Some teenagers say “stupid” to indicate a good thing.) Johnny pulled out his phone and showed me photos of a shopping cart filled with boxes and packs of sports cards from the resulting early morning score. “You have to commit to doing it,” he said. “If you don’t like to try to get exclusive stuff, you won’t get it.”

I tried my luck at the Target in the Westfield Mission Valley mall. But the shelves there that usually held sports card boxes and packs were nearly bare.

“Tell him how much you spent there,” said Rene Nezhoda, the store’s owner (who had given me the okay for the interview). Johnny’s buddies surrounded him; one of them yelled, “$1500.”

“What did you make on it, roughly?” I asked.

“$2500,” Johnny responded enthusiastically. He said the sales had taken him just a few days.

Over the last year or so, teenage card dealers like Johnny from San Ysidro to Oceanside have started standing in line for hours at big box stores — places like Walmart, Target, CVS, and Walgreens — waiting to “doorbust” on in. (It probably helped that high schools were closed due to the pandemic.) It was like Black Friday every day. And while they waited, they watched videos on their phones of YouTubers “busting” sports-card boxes, or posted and compared photos of their latest hauls with those of other sports-card fanatics.

It got to the point where “by early 2021, some Walmarts here in Chula Vista restricted customers to two packs and two boxes per customer,” explained Jonathan P., a 59-year-old who has been collecting since the ’70s. “By late July, the employees started posting signs to remind us. But sometimes, cashiers let us slide if the packs had been sitting for a while.” Young Johnny and his buddies get around the limit by arriving en masse. Some of Jonathan P.’s fellow collectors take a different tack: “They bring an extra set of shirts, pants, sunglasses, and hats.” The disguises helps them get around the pack limits; sometimes, they’re even able to fool employees at stores that keep cards out of customers’ reach.

The deceptions don’t stop there. “Some collectors pull scams on the big-box stores, taking full advantage of their return policies. They buy boxes and packs, then weigh them in their cars. If it weighs more than a standard box or pack, there’s probably a printing plate in the box.” Jonathan showed me an eBay auction of an autographed Asuka printing plate‚ currently selling for $1902. The silver plate was pulled from a pack from the 2017 WWE NXT Topps box. On the back was the message, “THIS IS THE ACTUAL CYAN PRINTING PLATE USED TO MANUFACTURE CARD.” He continued: “There are also relics — which are mats, clothing, masks — that are cut small enough to fit in a card pack, and of course, those packs feel slightly thicker. So these scammers search the boxes and packs, and if they don’t feel like they have ‘hits,’ they return them to the big-box stores for a refund or credit.” (Card collectors refer to premiums — things like autographs, relics, plates, and card variations — as “hits.”) “The sad thing is that the next buyer won’t get a hit.”

Dante Rowley’s display at the monthly SD Collectibles card show.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. Jonathan grew up buying sports card packs from “Vince The Ice Cream Man,” who would roll his truck through the Chula Vista and south San Diego neighborhoods in the ’70s and ’80s. “I also bought sports-card packs at a liquor store on Orange Avenue and Melrose Avenue where the Seafood City is now and PJ Sports Cards on 3rd Avenue where the Grocery Outlet is now.” Currently, he owns about 40,000 cards. “I’m kind of a hoarder,” he says.

These days, Jonathan is trying to find an autographed Dominick Mysterio card from the 2020 Topps WWE box set. On eBay, a sports card dealer sells the San Diego native’s signed card for $1500. “I already have a Rey Mysterio Jr. autograph, who is Dom’s father.” (The two were champions recently at the Wrestlemania Backlash event, the first father-son duo in WWE history to win a title.) But the odds aren’t great: “I think about one in a thousand blaster boxes at any of these Walmarts. It’s the ‘Ultra Rare Chase Card’ stated on the boxes’ graphics — that’s one in 48,000 packs to get that bad boy. It also could be in the one in 500 packs within the hobby boxes. The same packs for this particular set are distributed through hobby and retail channels. Then we have Rey Mysterio digital cards” from Topps. “They are like an EPS file that you can view on your phone.”

Sports cards for sale at Bargain Hunters in Poway.

In 2012, Topps launched apps aimed at baseball-card fans, giving users interactive activities in order to download a digital file resembling a sports card. In the following years, they expanded to football, soccer, hockey — and professional wrestling. To purchase the Rey Mysterio digital card on eBay for $150, notes the seller, “you must have Topps WWE Slam Card Trader application on your device (IOS, Android).” Jonathan shook his head. “That Mysterio card is a digital item that can only legally be exchanged within the Topps Slam app community; people can only trade on the app, and buying and selling are not allowed.” (Shortly after I spoke with Jonathan, the card’s listing was pulled down.)

Wrestling cards like the Mysterio are all Jonthan collects these days. “But [Target and Walmart] are sold out of all of the boxes and packs. I can’t compete with these kids; they’re too fast. I just tell these younger flippers to slow down, because there are younger children that are buying just to collect, and they might get hurt.” His concern is genuine. On August 21, at an El Cajon Target store, an employee posted two signs in the collectible card section. The signs read: “To ensure the safety of our guests and team members, MLB (Major League Baseball), NFL (National Football League), and NBA (National Basketball Association) trading cards will no longer be sold at stores until further notice.” Jonathan saw the same “safety” signs at the Chula Vista Target stores by his home. “Those signs were put up because of a 35-year-old sports card collector who pulled a gun on four other collectors at a Target in Wisconsin,” he told me. (According to news reports, the “other collectors” had jumped him as he left the store on May 7.)

Brian Harper-Tibaldo, a Target spokesperson, reportedly said shortly after the incident: “Given the significant interest in trading cards, we recently began limiting MLB, NBA, NFL, and Pokémon purchases to one item per guest, per day, and asking guests not to line up overnight. We’re continuing to evaluate the protocols we have in place to ensure safety at our stores related to this category.”

Violence, deception, and endurance aren’t the only way to beat the odds, however. Evan, 32, is a bookstore employee and card collector. He frequently scores goodies and then posts photos of his haul on Facebook. “I learned how to figure out the drops and get contacts from people in Eastlake to Grossmont to Santee,” he told me. “Drops” are when the collector boxes and packs first hit the shelves and wall hangers in stores, and “contacts” are the employees who put the product out for purchase. Some collectors and scalpers are “connected” — in cahoots with the stores’ upper management, people who know SKU numbers and code numbers on the inventory list and the cases stacked on pallets. None of my interviewees admitted to tipping cash to their contacts for intel on product drops, but tipping “on the low” is an unspoken, general principle practiced as part of the collectible card hobby.

Rene Nezhoda and his wife Casey are used to sifting through sports card collections. The Poway couple are superstar-buyers on the A&E show Storage Wars, where they compete with other dealers to purchase abandoned storage lockers full of contents. Some of those lockers contain sports card collections.

“What’s your biggest score in one day?” I asked Evan.

“It was on July 30. I spent about $190 retail, and it was worth maybe $450 in resale. It was from two Walmarts and one Target.” He then direct messaged me a photo: three boxes of 2021 Panini Prizm Draft Picks, one Upper Deck Series 2 Hockey box, two 2021 Panini Prizm Draft Picks hanger packs, one 2021 Panini Mosaic Soccer box, one 2021 Topps Baseball Series 2 box, and one 2021 Topps Stadium Club Series 2 box.

I’m not connected, so I join other San Diegans in scouring Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, and local card shows to find my sports cards. At this point, considering the secondary market, people like me knowingly pay higher prices than what people like Evan originally paid at big-box retail establishments. “Then there’s Hobby Lobby,” Evan continued, “mostly blisters and cello packs, though, never any blasters or anything super good. But good if someone wants to get their ‘rip fix.’” “Ripping” refers to when collectors rip open a cellophane-wrapped pack of sports cards. Rippers hope that there’s an autographed or ultra-rare card in the pack — which may contain between six and 120 sports cards, depending on the brand and style. Barnes & Noble, Dollar Tree, and Rite Aid can also help people in need of a rip fix — people like 30-year-old Logan Heights soccer card collector Eduardo Pineda. While resellers and scalpers buy the boxes and packs to resell for a profit, Pineda busts open the packs for the excitement of pulling rare cards for his collection. “I have pulled a Bruno Fernandes autograph from a mosaic [Panini box], Lionel Messi #’d to 99, Nathan Ake auto #’d to 49, and a Virgil Van Dijk #’d to 49,” he says. (On eBay, two vendors sell the Fernandes autographed mosaic cards for $2000-$5000. Other sellers sell Messi’s numbered to 99 cards from $30,000-$50,000, while a Van Dijk #’d to 49 autographed card goes for $350.)

It’s possible to avoid the big-box blitz altogether. Back at the Bargain Hunters Thrift Store on Poway Road, I spoke with Ruben Sezara Jr.,14, and his father (hereafter referred to as Junior and Senior). The father-and-son team had purchased a 2019-2020 Panini Obsidian Basketball First Off The Line hobby box for $600 from shop owner Nezhoda. “It’s like a reinvestment into our pseudo-card business,” Senior said. Added Junior, “We have our inventory on spreadsheets. We are buying and holding, like, investment-wise, and we are moving cards that we profit on to reinvest in more stuff.” Continued Senior, “Right now, we are projected at plus $3000-$4000. Sometimes, [Junior] goes into Walmart and buys packs for $5 retail, and he re-sells the pack for $40.” But the Panini-brand hobby box was never sold in Walmart or Target. It was initially released in July 2020 and sold only through select smaller retail stores. And it contained only one cellophane pack with seven cards inside, unlike retail boxes containing multiple packs.

(“A hobby box of cards is generally going to have more ‘hits’ than a retail box,” explained La Mesa card collector Charles. “That is, more autograph cards or jersey cards. As a result, hobby boxes are more expensive, and, as the name suggests, more exclusive, as they typically can be found in hobby card shops.” Charles has bought and sold cards since the 1980s. Lately, he’s been buying, selling, and trading at the monthly SD Collectibles card show at the Elks Club in Poway and at St. Dunstan’s Church in La Mesa. “I think it’s great that teens are getting into the hobby,” Charles continued. “It can teach them to focus on something positive and enjoyable, and also teach them about money management.”)

“This [$600] box has two guaranteed autographs in it,” Junior said. “We’re hoping to pull a Ja Morant.” On June 2, a Minneapolis eBayer sold a Ja Morant red etch rookie card from the same hobby box for about $5500. The card was autographed by Morant, a 6’3” point guard for the Memphis Grizzlies. Another dealer was selling the same card in like-new condition for $19,500. “They’re pretty rare,” Junior said. “And a lot of the cards are numbered to 99 out of all the boxes. There are only 99 of those cards. We are also hoping to pull a Zion Williamson autograph.” On May 3, an Austin, Texas seller sold an Electric Etch Contra Zion Williamson card in PSA 9 condition for $4999.99 on eBay. (A PSA 9 indicates a card that is about 90 percent, condition-wise, of a perfect PSA 10 grade.) Junior said that if he pulled a Zion Williamson autograph, he would get it graded with PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator), and then might send it to “PWCC Marketplace, where they’ll auction your card. They are popular, and for the bigger cards, prices go higher than they normally do, because there’s more attention around them. It’s also stored in their facility, and they deal with it. Plus, there’s zero percent sales tax in Oregon.”

Dante Rowley, the owner of downtown sneaker store Rosewood San Diego doesn’t buy packs or boxes, “because that’s like buying lotto tickets. They are pretty risky investments. I’m not knocking it, but if you want to make money from the hobby, you have to buy individual cards that are raw, not graded, and then send them off to PSA.” He likes to buy undervalued cards as investments. “I bought a bunch of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander rookies when he was cheap, and now he’s having a great season. So the prices are going up.” He recently had about 50 of his sports cards graded by the company, paying about $50 apiece. PSA then encased each card in a hard plastic case and affixed a sticker to the case. The stickers contained information about the card, information which was also logged onto the authenticator’s database: the year the card was released, the name of the card set it was from, the player’s name, the number of the card in the set, the condition of the card, a bar code, and a serial number.

Rowley said that “two big grading companies are head and shoulders above the rest: PSA and Beckett.” (Beckett provided the go-to price guide in magazine format in the 1990s before the internet took over. “PSA-graded cards are worth a little bit more than Beckett-graded cards right now, but that could flip-flop at some point.” Then there are other grading companies like HGA (Hybrid Grading Approach) and SGC (Sportscard Guaranty Corporation). These two are more affordable and have a faster turnaround time, but their graded cards are worth a little less than those graded by PSA and Beckett. As Rowley noted, when sports cards are graded, they sell for more than “raw” cards that are not. For example, on October 25, I jumped onto eBay and looked up the late Tony Gwynn’s #482 rookie cards from the 1983 Topps set. An autographed card graded by Beckett at a 10 sold for $510 on October 11. The same card signed and in similar condition but not graded (raw) went for about $179 the month before.

“PSA just doubled their price of grading because of covid and a renaissance in card collecting,” Rowley continued. “They’re understaffed and getting more cards submitted than they ever have before. Most people who submit one or two cards to PSA with the cheapest grading service are looking at a 7-8 months wait to get them back. Even SGC is behind schedul; they recently released a statement apologizing for delays.”

Junior is part of that renaissance. “Covid affected sports-card collecting,” he said, “because with a lot of my friends, we watch sports. We love sports, and we wanted to do something while [staying at home]. We like tangible items that we can have our hands on, and that created hype for us younger kids getting into the hobby. So I stopped playing a lot of video games and being on my phone 24/7. I got away from that, and I got really into sports cards, which changed my perspective.”

Shortly after we interviewed, a Rancho Cucamonga dealer was selling the #75 Williamson rookie card pulled from Junior’s box on eBay for $500,000. The realistic price was more like $5000, but a half-million dollar price tag is the sort of thing that attracts attention on social media. The seller hopes that it then acts as a draw to attract customers into the online store, where curious lurkers can be turned into actual customers.

Bargain Hunters owner Nezhoda knows all about the tactic. “What we do with eBay is we list our item, and we put the [higher] price. If we are willing to take an offer, we’ll put ‘Best Offer,’ and it all goes through the eBay process.” In 2019, Tamebay.com observed an increase of 18 percent in sales with eBay listings with the ‘Best Offer’ option after they experimented with the feature for seven weeks.

Nezhoda and his wife Casey are used to sifting through sports card collections. The Poway couple are superstar-buyers on the A&E show Storage Wars, where they compete with other dealers to purchase abandoned storage lockers. Some of those lockers contain sports card collections. Nezhoda and Casey have sold many of their locker finds, including sports cards, at Bargain Hunters Thrift Store. But the store’s site is slated for redevelopment, and now, they are concentrating on their eBay pages, where they’ve been selling since the late 1990s.

“It’s a simple process: they buy, I ship, and that’s it,” Nezhoda said to me in April. “Any kind of problems, you go through the steps on eBay. Sometimes, people play games, saying, ‘Oh you know, I don’t like this, can you refund $20,’ and I’m like, ‘No, we can’t, we have a strict policy, and we don’t do that. If you don’t like it, make a return request, and we’ll approve the return.’ Most of those people that ask are trying to scam you.” Even though he he pays about 20 percent in fees, which includes the cut that the auction site takes and an allotment for lost or damaged goods, he prefers the site to Facebook Marketplace. “In Facebook Marketplace, you deal with a lot of flakes,” he continued. “I don’t want to meet people, and if I have to answer direct messages all day long, I will not be able to make money. We probably have like a million-plus in eBay merchandise, so we need to work on that.”

Like Nezhoda, North Park’s Mike Hernandez has been selling on eBay since the ’90s. “The ‘Best Offer’ option also allows you as a seller to weed out the shitty buyers,” Hernandez explained. “Here’s how it works, like say on that $500,000 Zion Williamson card. That seller is receiving offers on the backend that the general public cannot see. If someone offers a substantial amount for the card, like, let’s just say, $150K, then the seller looks at the offerers’ feedback status and sees if the buyer has been around the block and dealt with people in the past.” (The buyer can do the same: in the case of billvan23, who is selling the $500,000 Williamson card, the account has 1729 positive feedbacks with zero negatives and has been selling on eBay since 2003.) “So if this dude gets any offers, he reviews them one by one, and this is key,” Hernandez continued. He paused, as if questioning if he should reveal a trade secret. “He reviews the ‘feedback - left for others’ tab by these offerers on previous transactions. If the person making offers is a troll that drops negative feedback regularly, we never take their offers seriously. Some of us block those troll buyers to keep them out of our ecosystem. And that is what he (billvan23) bases his decision on who to sell to, or not. And that’s why eBay is the best selling platform online for big-ticket sports cards, in my honest opinion.”

That’s the market as it stands. But some collectors think they have a line on the future. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, “are ownership [rights] of a digital asset,” John Thompson explained to me on October 6. “That asset typically comes with certain rights or perks.” Thompson is a San Diego native who, with his sister, used to run baseball-card shows in Encinitas. In early September, Thompson purchased a Petco Park NFT from the Major League Baseball Stadium Series. “I bought one of 492 Silver Petco Park Steel NFTs for $150, including the minting cost.” Minting an NFT is the equivalent of garnering a stock at an initial public offering price. But “instead of a stock, you receive a digital asset with all rights defined by the creator,” Thompson continued. “The purchase of the NFT is recorded on the blockchain, which basically is a transaction ledger distributed across many computer networks.”

An NFT can be a video clip, a digital photo, a video-game character, or an in-video-game item. Recently, the San Diego Padres’ Facebook page gave visitors a look at The MLB Stadium Series 1-of-1 Gold Edition Petco Park NFT, a video clip depicting a 3D card spinning in a circle. One side of the 3D card shows a photo of Petco Park with the San Diego Padres logo graphic up top. Underneath the baseball field’s image is a caption that reads “PETCO PARK SAN DIEGO CA / OPENED 2004,” with the Major League Baseball logo shown towards the bottom. In the video, the 3D card spins around, and on the backside is a graphic of the Western Metal Supply Co. structure that’s embedded within our downtown stadium.

Unlike the gold edition spinning NFT, Thompson’s steel edition depicts a 3D card as stagnant, a still digital photo of Petco Park. Thompson, a lifelong Padres fan, proudly displays his NFT in a digital frame in his office. But if someone were to pull a heist on Thompson’s digital frame, it’d be worthless to the thief, because the right to ownership of the file is still under Thomson’s name. “Once you’ve bought the NFT, you have access to the high-resolution file,” Thompson continued. “It’s higher quality than right-clicking the images and saving them. That is often brought up by newbies who do not understand the value beyond the digital file. The NFT can then be transferred to your digital wallet of choice for better security.” With the gold edition Petco Park NFT, the Padres threw in a VIP game day experience. (An additional perk in owning sports NFTs is “often voting rights on future NFT drops,” added Thompson. A “drop” is the time, date, and minting price of the NFT.)

OpenSea, SuperRare, Raible, and Foundation are four popular NFT-online marketplaces, but the Petco Park NFT is sold on Bitski’s Candy platform, which is a developing “ecosystem for official Major League Baseball collectible NFTs where fans and collectors will be able to purchase, trade, and share officially licensed NFTs.” Opined Thompson, “Many NFTs will be worth five times to 100 times the value immediately after minting. You do see this movement with the gold version of this MLB drop. I think the Padres’ NFT went for around the equivalent of $6K, while other teams’ gold NFTs on this drop went for $30K plus.”

Underneath the Padres’ Facebook post about their Gold NFT drop, some Padres’ fans booed the offer. “I don’t want an NFT of anything,” commented one person. “If I cannot physically touch any piece of art, etc., it has zero value to me.” But Thomson’s $150 investment has the stats to back up its worth. “The market for non-fungible tokens (NFTs) surged to new highs in the second quarter, with $2.5 billion in sales so far this year,” reported Fox Business in July, “up from just $13.7 million in the first half of 2020, marketplace data showed.”

As with the uptick in sales and physical sports card prices, NFTs gained popularity when art lovers could not physically enter art galleries due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “[Our] sports NFTs are not there yet, but will be once fans understand NFTs,” Thompson said. “Growing up in the Tony Gwynn heyday, I see the similarities today with Tatis Jr., Machado, Myers, and a great all-around squad. I know AJ Preller, the Padres’ GM, and Josh Stein, the Assistant GM, work Elon Musk-type hours all year long trying to put together a winning team; Padres NFTs will increase in value with wider adoption and success in the coming years.”

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