Sports Highlights & How They Affected the Trading Card Hobby in 2020

2020 has been full of surprises that no one, not a single one of us, has ever asked for.

Every year typically has a few defining moments, but this past year has contained so many world-changing, paradigm-shifting developments that it’s getting hard to believe we’re not in a simulation that’s running every possible scenario at once.

Against the backdrop of the global Coronavirus pandemic, the events of 2020 brought new challenges no one was prepared for, changing the way we live and how we connect with each other. 

This year has taken many things from us — birthday celebrations, live concerts, and simply hugging the people we love. But COVID-19 cannot take our love of trading cards.

It can be said that 2020 was the year of the trading card hobby boomed during a pandemic. It was a year that saw wax and online exclusives from trading card manufacturers sell out instantly, and retail card aisle shelves empty shortly after each restock. 2020 also saw the hobby embrace purchasing fractional shares of trading cards, giving collectors a vehicle by which they could own a part of a trading card grail they could never own otherwise.

In many ways, this year saw more growth in the trading card hobby than any year before. Even the boom of the junk wax era of the mid-80s and 90s could not hold a candle to the explosion that we witnessed this year. There were many events that helped drive that increased interest in the hobby this year: some from the sports world, others from hobby influencers, and others born out of tragedy. This is a look back at all of those events, and how they shaped the biggest trading card boom ever.

Kobe Bryant’s Death

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2020 started off with what can be described as a national tragedy. On the cold winter morning of January 26th, the devastating news began to spread that NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, along with his oldest daughter Gianna, several of her teammates, coaches, and friends, had all perished in a helicopter crash just outside of Los Angeles, California. 

Sports fans began to flock to anything that helped them to connect to Kobe, including his basketball cards. Kobe’s legacy lives on through the fans he inspired, and he will be officially inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in May 2021.

The Last Dance Effect

As winter turned to spring, so did the attention of the sports world to another NBA icon. In ESPN’s documentary series “The Last Dance”, basketball fans got a closer look at Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 NBA championship team.

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Originally scheduled to premiere in Summer 2020, ESPN made the decision to move up the premiere of the series to April in light of the pandemic. It provided a way for sports fans to re-live one of the greatest championship runs in sports history during a time when the return of live sports was still taking shape.

Michael Jordan was already an icon within the sports card hobby. His 1986 Fleer rookie card is considered by many collectors as one of the holy grails of the hobby. The Last Dance fueled even more interest in his legacy, leading to unprecedented all-time highs in his cards’ values.

Zion-Mania Takes Off

Looking to basketball’s future stars, “Zion-mania” had the hobby in overdrive chasing rookie cards this year. Zion Williamson, the New Orleans Pelicans’ #1 overall pick out of Duke, may have had the most highly hyped and sought-after basketball rookie cards since LeBron James. The chance of pulling red-hot Zion rookies sent unopened wax of the newest releases into never before seen heights.

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Zion was just one of many talented rookies in a 2019-20 class which also featured Ja Morant and Tyler Herro. All of a sudden, collectors and flippers alike were buying up hangers, blasters, hobby boxes, and more in the hopes of pulling the next hot rookie they could flip for profit. It drove the prices and demand for new releases sky high and left many collectors wondering if they would be able to even find or buy any basketball card products at retail prices again.

Panini Mosaic Emerges

Another factor driving the basketball trading card fever was Panini revamping Mosaic Prizm to a wider release as the standalone Mosaic product. Mosaic Prizm Basketball had been released as a limited-edition online product since the 2016-17 season. The re-configured 2019-20 release of Mosaic Basketball brought a new spin on the product to a much larger audience, including blasters and hanger packs which flew off of retail shelves.

Panini followed up the success of the new Mosaic Basketball with 2020 Panini Mosaic Football. The fervor for this product was driven by the rookie cards of three quarterbacks: Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert. Just as with Mosaic Basketball, the product was impossible for many collectors to find on retail shelves.

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The Ups & Downs of Topps Project 2020

Even as plans for a 2020 MLB season were still up in the air, Topps ignited the market for baseball cards with its Project 2020 set. Partnering with some of the best-known modern artists from around the world, Topps had created a way to marry the cutting edge of art and design with classic baseball cards.

Topps picked 20 of its most iconic cards and had each of the 20 artists chosen for the project recreate them in their own style. Two new cards were released each week and were only available for a 48-hour period on Topps’ website. Topps would print as many of the cards as customers’ ordered, and the initial print runs hovered around ~2,000 copies of each card.

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What started off with little to no fanfare would grow to become one of the biggest stories of the hobby this year. As the hobby began to take more notice of Project 2020, collectors sought after the initial card releases such as the Ben Baller Ichiro and Ermsy Trout. Cards that were originally sold through Topps website for $19.99 were being sold for hundreds and sometimes even thousands of dollars on the secondary market. Once collectors and flippers saw these incredible returns, they started ordering more and more of the newest releases directly from Topps, pushing the print runs from less than two thousand to tens of thousands of copies. Project 2020 saw its peak print run with Keith Shore’s version of the 1989 Topps Ken Griffey Jr. rookie: 99,177 copies!

Those elevated print runs would ultimately be the downfall of Project 2020. As flippers bought more cards, the scarcity of the cards evaporated, and so did the profits. Project 2020 officially wrapped up in December 2020 and has left the hobby community with many valuable lessons and exciting questions. Will we see more on-demand card releases in the years to come, and will the hobby continue to cross over into art and culture?

Baseball is Back…Maybe

Although it is hard to remember, traditional spring training was just getting started in February prior to the impact of the pandemic. Players began to gather at their teams’ spring training locations, all while keeping a close eye on the news about COVID-19, and wondering if their season would happen at all.

This year’s baseball season came with a lot of hype, and high expectations for several young budding superstars. All eyes were on Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. following his fantastic sophomore season in 2019. Baseball fans and sports cards collectors everywhere were ready for him to have truly superstar season.

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Collectors’ eyes were also on two potential future superstars in the Nationals’ Juan Soto and the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. Soto’s 2019 season ended with a World Series win for Washington, and Tatis Jr.’s rookie season in 2019 had many collectors seeing flashes of a player who could become one of the game’s biggest and brightest future stars.

The interest in all three players had collectors scooping up 2020 Topps Series 1 cards as fast as Topps could print them, in search of both these superstars and the next wave of talented rookies. The hype heading into the 2020 season also saw an explosion in collectors chasing any high-grade versions of superstars’ cards. From autographed cards, relics, and more, collectors could not get enough of baseball’s superstars.

2020 also saw a continuation of a hobby trend that picked up speed in 2019. More and more collectors were paying top dollar for high-grade cards of the hottest superstars across all sports that were not the players’ traditional rookie card. Before in the hobby, collectors were only willing to pay top dollar for players rookie cards, but now collectors were willing to pay big bucks for top graded cards of players second, third, fifth, eighth-year cards, and more. 

Love for Panini Prizm Continues to Grow

2020 also saw the continuation of the trend of collectors flocking to a player’s first Panini Prizm card as well. The love for Panini Prizm cards is no secret in our hobby. Collectors have the yearly Prizm releases for individual sports marked on their calendars. The chase for players’ Prizm rookie cards became increasingly competitive both upon release and in the secondary market, leading to desolate retail shelves shortly after each restock and rising online sales activity and prices.

Another important trend was the chase for veteran players’ first Prizm card with a specific team. An example is card #129 in 2019-20 Prizm, which is LeBron James’ first Prizm card picturing him in his Lakers uniform. Though the card is from LeBron’s 17th season at the time, high-grade parallels of that card have sold for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. This led collectors to chase other superstars’ first Prizm releases such as the 2014 Prizm World Cup soccer cards of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s a trend that exploded in 2020 and could grow into 2021.

Soccer Cards Surge

Speaking of soccer, or as our friends around the world would say “football”, no other sport experienced the level of exponential growth that soccer cards did this year in the hobby. Prior to 2020, soccer had been considered a distant 5th place among the most popular sport among collectors, but this status quo has been disrupted.

Thanks to several young stars and 2022 World Cup hopefuls, the fervor for soccer cards took the hobby by storm this year. Young superstars Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland, and Jadon Sancho each set the soccer card world on fire as collectors worldwide chased after the limited quantities of their cards available. American players such as Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, and Weston McKennie impressed fans as international competition resumed, fueling excitement for soccer’s future in the United States.

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As 2020 comes to a close, soccer cards are argued by some to have passed hockey cards as the fourth most popular sport in the hobby this year. With the next World Cup looming in 2022, the surge in soccer card sales likely isn’t stopping anytime soon.

Pokémon’s Return to the Spotlight

Talking about growth in the hobby this year, raise your hand if you foresaw the unprecedented growth and resurgence of Pokémon cards? It seems like every day a Pokémon card is selling at a new record price thanks to celebrities continuing to showcase their high-grade collections.

Recent Pokémon releases featured stunning full-art and holographic cards of Charizard, and collectors chased after increasingly rare sealed boxes and packs of the original Wizards of the Coast releases. As the saying goes, “everything old is new again,” and this could never be truer than for Pokémon cards in 2020.

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Collectors who were captivated by the original cards as children are now in their twenties and thirties, and are paying top dollar to “catch them all” decades later. If you still have a Pokémon collection from your childhood, you should check to see if you have some of the iconic cards driving the Pokémon market, such as holographic Charizards and the elusive Gold Star rares from the EX series.

Chasin’ Jasson

As with every year, collectors are always seeking and hunting for the next big thing in the sports card world. 2020 was no different, with this year’s future star card chase revolving around one of baseball’s biggest prospects in Jasson Dominguez.

Collectors had good reason to be excited about Dominguez. He’s a power-hitting outfield prospect for the Yankees, one of baseball’s most popular and perennially competitive teams. At the time of 2020 Bowman’s release he had just turned 17 years old and had yet to appear in a professional game, but scouts were reporting a bright future and high ceiling.

His 2020 1st Bowman Chrome card and its autographed parallels became must-have baseball cards upon release. As collectors pulled more of the cards and got them graded, the prices only continued to rise, with some of his high-grade cards selling for five figures at their peak.

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Without a minor league season in 2020, we have still yet to see if Dominguez’s hype will translate to on-field success. Although he’s likely a few seasons away from his major league debut in the Bronx, his minor league debut in 2021 is anxiously anticipated by card collectors.

Balling in a Bubble

In an effort to complete the 2019-20 NBA season that was put on hold earlier in the spring, the NBA decided to resume play in July for a shortened finish to the regular season in a “bubble” in Orlando, Florida. The games were played in one location to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

There were 22 teams that were invited to the bubble: the 16 teams in playoff position and the six teams within six games of playoff position. With less active teams and higher stakes games, there was a mad dash to buy and flip any and all players that performed well in the bubble, with surprise breakouts including Bol Bol and T.J. Warren.

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All in all, the NBA Bubble created the perfect storm for collectors during a pandemic and exemplified just how volatile the trading card hobby has become. With little to no other sports to distract collectors, all of the hobby focus was on the bubble games.

We Finally Got a Shortened Baseball Season

Last but not least on our 2020 hobby journey is the MLB Playoffs and the World Series. Much like the NBA, Major League Baseball decided to play the World Series from one location and showcased the Rangers’ brand new Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

Compared to the NBA Bubble, the MLB Playoffs were fairly quiet amongst collectors. Even with superstars such as Mookie Betts, Fernando Tatis Jr, and Ronald Acuña Jr. in the pennant races, collectors were less engaged game to game. That was until rookie right fielder Randy Arozarena broke out for the Rays in the American League Division Championship Series.

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Randy had a fairly quiet regular season, but he would leave an everlasting mark on the playoffs and the World Series. He would set the record for the most hits, total bases and home runs in a single postseason run. After his ALDS breakout to help the Rays get past the Yankees, the hobby was clamoring for his cards.

Since Arozarena had been so under the radar, very few of his cards had been graded and those that had been became like gold to collectors. He was featured in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform in both 2020 Topps Series 1 and 2020 Chrome, so the few cards of him in a Rays uniform at that point were also sought after.

Thanks in large part to Randy’s record-setting performance and late-game heroics, the Rays were able to stretch the heavily favored Los Angeles Dodgers to a sixth World Series game, before eventually losing as the Dodgers finally captured their first World Series since 1988.

It will be interesting to watch Arozarena’s sophomore performance this coming season and see the hobby’s reaction. Was his 2020 postseason dominance lightning in a bottle, or the beginning of a great career?

What a Year 2020 Proved to Be

So how do we sum up 2020, what has been the strangest year in all of our lives, when it comes to the trading card hobby? It was first and foremost a year of tremendous growth for the hobby. Some say the hobby grew by 3 times, 5 times, and even 10 times in size this year. 2020 was the year with more active collectors than ever before engaging in the hobby. Some of these new entrants were true rookies to the hobby, while others returned to the hobby after years or even decades away from cards.

This year saw the hobby make the news again in print, on the airwaves, and across the internet. Newspapers, magazines, and more media outlets excitedly reported the hobby’s phenomenal growth amidst the pandemic. The hobby received TV coverage on ESPN and cable business news channels as well. As cards become mentioned more and more alongside stocks and other tangible investments, the great debate amongst hobbyists continues as to whether or not trading cards are true investments.

If 2020 left us with anything, it left us knowing that our hobby is stronger than ever. The passion collectors have for the hobby was on full display this year. We are all the caretakers of this hobby we love and enjoy. Let us remember to take care of it, take care of each other, and together we will enjoy this hobby for many more years to come. 

About the Author:

Andy is the COMC Marketing Manager, bringing a wealth of marketing experience combined with a passion for trading cards. As an active hobby investor, he enjoys collecting and selling trading cards, especially football cards. Andy’s energy and enthusiasm are shared with the local community through his volunteer efforts at the theater and shouting from the stands at the University of Tennessee football games.