One of the first sports cards to come through the mailroom of Certified Collectibles Group was a 2003-04 Topps Chrome Refractor LeBron James rookie.
It’s a rare card, a desirable card, one it’s hard to find for less than a few thousand bucks. But the Sarasota company’s expert graders who examined the card’s corners, edges, surface and centering determined that everything on it looked perfect, or close to it. They gave the card a grade of 9.5, or “gem mint.”
That was huge. Weeks later, in March, the card’s owner sold it on eBay for $98,100. And Certified Collectibles Group’s new sports card grading arm was off and running.
“Since February, we’ve received hundreds of thousands of sports cards,” said Certified Collectibles Group president Max Spiegel. “That’s shocking, considering it normally takes time to build a grading service. That just shows how hot that market is.”
Hot doesn’t begin to describe it. The sports card boom of 2021 bears little resemblance to the early ’90s, when Boomers shelled out big bucks for the Mantle and Mays rookies their moms threw out in the ‘60s; and a glut of new products flooded (and ultimately devalued) the market.
Today’s sports card industry has more in common with the art market, as ultra-rare, ultra-high-end cards command small fortunes at auction. In August, a 1-of-1 Mike Trout autographed rookie card sold for a record $3.9 million. Last week, an autographed Tom Brady rookie sold for $3.1 million, a record for a football card. The market’s gotten so heated that Target recently stopped selling trading cards to discourage shoppers from fighting for packs.
The desire to fetch top dollar, especially online, has led to an explosion in demand for grading services. Certifying a rare card’s condition as gem mint can multiply its value by leaps and bounds. That’s led to monthslong backlogs at renowned grading companies like PSA, Beckett and Odessa’s GMA Grading. some of which have stopped accepting new cards in order to deal with current orders.
Enter Certified Collectibles Group. Founded as a coin grading service in 1987, the company began evaluating comic books in 2000, paper money in 2005 and stamps in 2017; and started authenticating estate items — such as those once owned by Neil Armstrong — in 2018. Last year, they added trading cards like Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering.
Launching a sports card arm, Certified Sports Guaranty, was a no-brainer, Spiegel said.
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“We had been eyeing it for a couple of years, and we just saw that the market kept growing, and the existing grading services just could not service that demand,” he said. “We have so much experience grading other collectibles that we thought we could take our experience and our expertise in all these other categories, go out and find the best sports card experts, and just build a whole company around that. It’s really taken off much faster than any of the other companies we’ve started since 1987.”
Spiegel points to a few possible reasons for this. People were stuck at home during the pandemic, perhaps sifting through their own old collections, then turning online to buy new cards. Cards that sell for millions lead to hype and headlines that can draw in curious, moneyed sports fans looking to diversify their investments.
To build out its grading company, Certified Collectibles Group hired two well-regarded graders from a competitor, then began training more. Spiegel likens grading to a craft. A keen eye is crucial, as is a passion for what you’re evaluating, but much of what you need to look for, you pick up through apprenticeship. Expert graders can pull in six-figure salaries.
The LeBron rookie isn’t Certified Collectibles Group’s only huge score from the past year. The company graded a rare, prototype Blastoise Pokemon card that sold for $360,000 in January. On the coin side, Spiegel said the company has already certified 10 coins worth more than $1 million this year.
Not every card needs to be graded. Collectors can pay more than $125 to have a premium card evaluated and returned in a week, which might be more than the card is worth. As bulk orders bring the cost down, the wait times go up. Certified Sports Guaranty’s turnaround for bulk orders is currently around 200 business days, which is a long time to be without your potentially valuable collection.
But if you’re seeing graded versions of a card you own sell for thousands on eBay, the investment might be worth it.
“If you want to sell your card online, which is basically how everything’s getting sold nowadays, no one’s going to trust it if you’ve graded it yourself,” Spiegel said. “With us or with another grading service, we’re impartial. We don’t buy and sell; we just tell you what the grade of the card is. That makes it very trusted, and it makes it very easy to trade these cards online. They’ve essentially become a highly liquid commodity.”
Over the years, the Certified Collectibles Group has operated quietly, courting little public attention, given the value of the items that pass through its Lakewood Ranch headquarters. Spiegel said the private company has about $100 million in annual revenue, with dozens of employees in London, Munich, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
But the sports card market has forced the company to open up a bit. Like other industries, the grading business is facing a hiring shortage, as companies struggle to keep up with demand. Certified Collectibles Group is looking to add about 100 employees to its staff of 400 in Sarasota, from graders to accountants to mail clerks. It’s dangling a $2,500 bonus for those who sign on and stay for at least six months.
“With graders, because it’s a specialized position, and because there’s so much demand, we will hire anybody who’s qualified,” Spiegel said. “Once you find them, you don’t want to lose them.”
Especially the longer the sports card market stays this hot.
“We always knew that it would rebound,” Spiegel said. “Where it’s at today, I don’t think anybody could have predicted. This is just really unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in any of our collectible categories.”