How baseball card mania is colling with the NFT boom to revive Topps and change the game for dealers

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TPT-GBTopps baseball cardsAri Levy | CNBC

On a recent family ski trip in California, my kids and I popped into an old baseball card shop in the city of Sonora, a former gold mining town in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

As a former rabid card collector, I lit up when I saw the sign for BJ’s Cards and Collectibles on the town’s main drag. With baseball season about to begin, I bought each of my sons, ages 5 and 8, a pack of 2021 Topps cards.

Before ringing me up, the owner, Bill Wiley, was apologetic in informing me that each pack was $5.50. That’s more than a 100% markup from pre-pandemic levels. During the lockdowns, he said, the popularity of sports cards had soared and small dealers like BJ’s were having to pay top dollar to distributors to get inventory. It didn’t matter whether you were talking about single packs or the rarest of collectibles.

“This is the busiest since I can remember,” Wiley, who opened the store with his son in 1992, said in a phone interview this week. “I closed down for nine weeks and when I reopened, there was incredible demand for sports cards.”

Those $5.50 packs I bought my kids in February would now cost $7, according to Wiley, who said he’s paying $148 for a box of 24 packs to make $20 in profit. At the other end of the market, a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card sold for a record $5.2 million in January. A month later came the most expensive basketball card transaction in history — a rookie trading card of Dallas Mavericks star guard Luka Doncic was purchased for $4.6 million. And in April, a rookie Tom Brady card was bought at an auction for $2.25 million, a record for football.

Wiley, 68, said buyers today are much different than they were during the heyday of the industry in the 1990s, when collectors would come in and spend hours looking through boxes of random cards.

“A lot of these people are new to the hobby and looking at it as a form of maybe a