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Sports Cards: Navigating Through Your Choices

Weekends are for errands. For me, one of them is to go to the gas station and fill up my gas tank for the upcoming work week. While I’m out I like to stroll by the nearest Target or Walmart and see what kind of sports cards are available. At times it can be hard to navigate through sports card choices.

Sports Cards Decisions!

If you’re new to collecting have you ever been to a retail store to buy some packs or blaster boxes of cards only to find yourself overwhelmed by the number of choices that are available to you?

You may get that same feeling inside a card shop or card show but at least in these types of venues, you’ll have a person there to assist you on how to make heads or tails of what seems to be endless choices of card manufacturers and their various brands.

I Know the Feeling

In 2004, I quit collecting primarily because there were over 50 different brands, I was really discouraged by the amount of product released and it seemed like the hobby was squeezing the little guy out and catering to millionaires.

I remember asking myself, “how do they expect collectors/card dealers to keep up with all those different brands?” And there was my error! I was pre-conditioned to think I had to collect everything.

The reason I thought this way is because I started collecting in 1981 and there were three manufacturers at that time – Topps, Donruss, and Fleer. Each produced one set a year split up in two series.

Many of us built sets and the goal was to complete all three sets, this is how I grew up. But slowly, surely, and subtly in the coming years, more manufacturers emerged: Upper Deck, Score, Pinnacle, Pacific, etc.

Retail Store Card Selection
Target Store – Card Selection – May 2018

The result of all these manufacturers and their various brands to choose from has led to this; in 2016 there were 76 different card brands to choose from and that’s only baseball!

So how can we navigate through sports card choices available to us today? Well, I propose to you that sports cards are very similar to filling up your gas tank.

Regular Unleaded

This type of gasoline is what the majority of American cars use. It contains no lead and has an octane rating of 87 which measures a fuel’s ability to prevent engine knocking.

Likewise, with sports cards. “Regular Unleaded brands” is what the majority of collectors purchase. Some of them are geared and priced for children, ie. Topps Opening Day, Topps Bunt, and yet others are geared towards the average collector, ie. Topps, Bowman, Donruss to name a few.

Similar to Regular unleaded gasoline they are typically the most affordable with packs costing anywhere between .99 to $2.49 a pack.

Typically, there are little to no “hits” in these types of brands meaning it is somewhat unlikely that you will NOT pull an autograph, relic, serial number, etc.

Although, it seems as of 2018 this trend is changing a bit as manufacturers are including what appears to be more of these hits in packs.

Mid-Grade (Plus)

This type of gasoline has slightly more additives and has an octane rating of 89. It has a slightly cleaner burn than Regular unleaded so it burns slower and may provide a little more power during the power stroke of an engine.

Another benefit is that you may (or may not) see a slightly better fuel economy. In other words, a little more bang for your buck.

Likewise, with sports cards. “Mid-Grade brands” offer a little more bang for your buck. For starters they typically have better card stock quality, better photography, smaller set size, and a much greater chance at pulling multiple autographs, relic, or serial numbered cards.

Packs at this grade typically sell in the $2.99 to $7.99 price range. Few of these brands make it to retail stores. Some exceptions are Bowman Chrome, Topps Chrome, Heritage, or Contenders which do make it to retail outlets.

However, most of the Mid-Grade card brands can be found at your local card shop (LCS) or online supplier.


There are some major differences between regular and premium gasoline. Premium type of gasoline has many more additives in it than the Regular unleaded gasoline. Higher octanes of 91 or 93 accompany higher prices per gallon.

Some luxury automobiles such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz have high-compression engines and require the use of premium gas to prevent engine knocking or damage.

Topps Triple Threads – Premium Product – $130.00 Per Pack!

Likewise, with cards, the “Premium brands” have much more additives in their packs than the Regular and Mid-Grade counterparts do.

Typically, cards are beautifully designed with the finest quality of card stock and materials, much like luxury cars.

With Premium packs, you’ll have a much higher chance of pulling autograph/relic cards of elite ballplayers and/or Hall of Famers. The serial numbered cards can be extremely low in quantity too, ie. 1 of 25, 1 of 10, or even a 1 of 1.

The photo above is a high-quality autograph – bat card, serial-numbered to 18 of Hank Aaron! This is the type of stuff you may (or may not) pull from packs of Premium products.

Like luxury cars Premium product sports cards are pricey, ranging between $9.99 to $100.00+ for a single pack!

Questions to Ask Before Making a Decision

For automobiles, it is best to open up the owner’s manual and read the recommended fuel type for your vehicle.

A way to navigate through sports card choices is to do some reading also. Doing your homework on what a product offers is the one thing that would be very helpful to you.

Another way to navigate through your sports card choices you should ask yourself a few important questions:

  1. What brands do I like? Know your options and see what appeals to you. Multiple publications give you this information. I personally appreciate the website which gives a wealth of information on product releases.
  2. Why do I like it? I like them all but I have to narrow down my choices. Knowing why I like a certain product helps me make better choices on my purchases of sports cards.
  3. What is my budget? This is an important question to answer and also helps us make the right decision when trying to navigate through all the variety.

My frustration doesn’t exist anymore because I know what I like and why I like it. I’ve done my homework and at times I float between all three card types.

I’m also strategic, intentional and I’ve realized that manufacturers are not trying to squeeze the little guy out but instead they’re trying to give collectors variety. They make a brand for every type of collector, we just need to know what type of collector we are.

Asking yourself these self reflecting questions are crucial for long-term sustainability in the hobby. For a more information on this topic I highly recommend Being a Wise Collector.

Maximizing Our Card Collecting Experience

Lastly, which is perhaps my biggest concern, it’s very easy to get confused and discouraged in the hobby of sports cards collecting. This is why we should talk to experienced collectors.

A way to do this is by searching YouTube for sports cards content. There is a ton of it available and can be very helpful in learning current products and trends in the hobby.

There is a community of experienced collectors that are friendly and would be more than willing to answer any questions you may have, and often times will review and open packs of new product.

My biased opinion says that the hobby of sports card collecting is the best. However, it is a hobby that takes time to learn all the nuances to it.

Getting connected with a community of hobbyists will help maximize your card collecting experience.

Happy Collecting Collectors,

Learn. Collect. Enjoy.