Dan Stern has been a sports card collector since he was 7 years old, and loves to collect Derek Jeter and vintage Hall of Fame baseball cards. He’s spent his entire career in the technology industry, focused on big data integration, analytics and machine learning.
Dan is also the founder of fastslab.club (@FastSlab). FastSlab is the first card grading service with a turnaround time of seconds. It uses AI to grade both the front and back of your cards, and puts them in a digital slab. Collectors use FastSlab to pregrade cards before sending them to a traditional grading company, or to verify the quality of a raw card when buying or selling online. FastSlab is currently focused on vintage baseball and football cards (pre-1992) but plans to expand to all types of cards.
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Sports Card Grading 101
If you’re starting out collecting sports cards or getting back into the hobby, you’ll inevitably find yourself wandering into the realm of sports card grading. Understanding grading is crucial if you want to maximize your sports card collecting experience.
But the world of grading sports cards can be confusing. Many people lose both time and money trying to navigate the professional grading of their cards.
Here’s your definitive guide to grading sports cards. In this guide, you’ll learn:
- What is card grading?
- Why should I grade my cards?
- When should I NOT grade my cards?
- With whom should I grade my cards?
What is card grading?
Card grading is the process of submitting your sports card to a third-party service to verify the quality of your card. It’s similar to a jeweler verifying the value of a diamond necklace or a watch.
The third party services that grade cards will encapsulate your card in a case, or what’s known as a slab.
This protects the card from dirt, dust, and other wear and tear so that the quality of your card remains the same after getting it graded.
It’s important to note upfront that card grading is not an exact science. While grading criteria is mostly uniform across the major third party grading companies (more on that below), the final grade of the card is determined by the judgment of a professional grader.The industry generally grades cards using a 1 – 10 scale. A grade of 1 signifies that your card is in poor condition. A grade of 10 says that your card is in perfect condition and could not be any better.The four variables that go into the your cards grade are its:
There are a number of things professional graders are looking at for each variable, on both the front and the back of the card:
- Are the corners rounded in any way?
- Are the corners missing some paper?
- Is there whitening around the corners?
- Are the corners bent, even slightly?
- Are the edges (sides) of the card straight?
- Is there any perforation along the edges?
- Are any of the edges bent or have creases in them?
- Is there any discoloration on the surface, different from the card’s original color?
- Are the colors sharp or faded?
- Is there any debris or dust on the surface?
- Are there any printing errors on the card (i.e., any black dots or lines that were accidentally added during the manufacture of the card?)
- Are there any creases on the surface?
- Is the image of the player centered within acceptable thresholds both top to bottom and left to right? For example, the front image of a 10 (Gem Mint) needs to be within a 55/45 to 60/40 percent threshold, while the back needs to be within a 75/25 percent threshold.
You can find more detailed guides below from different graders on the exact criteria they use to evaluate cards. As you’ll notice, at the upper ranges, different third party services have slightly different grading criteria.
Remember that card grading is not an exact science. If you sent the same card to four different grading services, it’s possible that you’d receive four different grades back. There are also plenty of stories of people sending a card to a grading company, removing it from its encasing, and resending it back to the original grading company and getting a different grade!
That said, individuals can argue over what they expect a raw card to get as a grade, but when a third party grading company officially grades it, it now has a grade that can be accepted by multiple parties. It’s almost like a source of truth for the quality of your card.
Why should I grade my cards?
There’s a long answer here and a short answer.Short Answer: it makes your cards instantly more valuable than if they were raw (raw = a card that is not graded). Collectors are willing to pay a premium for a card that’s graded. If you plan to sell a card that’s in demand, chances are that you can achieve the highest return on your investment by grading it.
Long Answer: There’s a massive price gap between an identical card that’s raw and one that’s graded. The value of a card increases exponentially from one grade to the next. (See example graph below).
Many sports card collectors and investors are willing to pay a premium for a card that’s graded for a number of reasons, including:
- The quality has been verified by a third party. The buyer knows exactly what they are getting
- They can view the scarcity of the card in a population report put out by the grading company. This shows how many times a given card has been graded, and the distribution of grades its received over time
- They can resell it for a premium over a non-graded card
- The buyer simply enjoys collecting graded cards better
As owners of cards, many collectors are eager to maximize the value of their collection. Let’s look at an example of how getting a card graded could help us maximize its value.
We’ll take this 1960 Topps Willie Mays card. Imagine that we bought it on eBay at this winning bid of $152.49. This could be a good deal!
You’ll notice that in the listing, we don’t know the grade of the card. Experienced collectors can take a guess from the images, but it’s impossible to know until the card is in your hand.
For the sake of this example, let’s say we thought this card would achieve a grade of 6. The surface looks pretty good despite a few print defects, it’s centered well, the corners are slightly frayed (but not torn), and the edges are mostly intact
If we go to one available population report, we see that the average sold price for this card in a 6 is $513 (at the time of this writing).
Getting our card graded could add $361 to its value, an increase of 235%!! This is the easily definable value that a third-party grading company provides to our card.
Subtracting the grading fee cost of $30-50, getting our Willie Mays graded seems like a great idea if we want to maximize its value.
When should I NOT grade my cards?
One of the hardest parts about grading cards is knowing if you should grade your card in the first place. Because of grading fees and the amount of time you might spend preparing your cards for grading and shipping them, getting your cards graded is not always the best idea.
The most important thing for you to do is your own research to find out if your card is worth grading.
There are two main pitfalls to watch out for when thinking about getting your card graded:
1. Your card is not as high quality as you think
2. Your card is not very valuable to begin with
In case number one, you might think that your card is of high quality, but a professional grader might see issues with it that you overlooked. As we saw above, even a drop in two grades can drastically reduce the value of your card.
For case number two: you could have a beautiful card of your favorite player, but it may have been so overproduced by the manufacturer or graded so many times by other collectors that it’s simply not rare or desired, and therefore not valuable to begin with.
Let’s continue with our Willie Mays example, and dive into what happens in the first pitfall.
Imagine we expected to receive a 6, with an average sale price of $513. But the professional graders at the third party company disagreed with us; instead of receiving a 6, we ended up receiving a 2, with an average sale price of $62. That’s a big difference!
Now we’ve lost about $91 on our purchase of the card.
We purchased the card for $153, but it’s value is only $62. ($62 – $153 is negative $91).
This also does not even include grading fees, so we could have as much as $100 out of our pocket.
The math here is simple: if a card receives a lower grade than what you were expecting to receive when you bought it, it’s possible that you will not recoup the value of what you paid for the card. Especially after you factor in grading fees.
Now let’s take a look at pitfall number two: your card does not have high value potential to begin with.
One of our favorite cards is this 2001 Upper Deck Derek Jeter, going for $3.75 on eBay.
You might think this is an amazing deal for a Hall of Fame player if it’s excellent quality!
If we check out the population report of this card, with a grade of a perfect 10, the average sale price is $14. The grading company creates an additional $10.25 of value for your card, bumping your card almost 4x in value! ($14 sale price – $3.75 paid for the card).
Unfortunately, after factoring in grading fees and your time preparing the card for grading, you may not see any ROI after going through all of that effort.
Most of the cards you’ll come across fall into this category: they aren’t as desirable to collectors, so the time and money you spent getting them graded will not be recouped.
Again, to reiterate, it’s crucial that you do your own research to find out if your card is worth grading.
Here are some resources we recommend to get you started:
- Cardboard connection has a great guide on how to find the value of your card using eBay.
- PSA or SGC Population Reports to find recent and average sales.
Companies like CardLadder that help you track daily changes in prices
With whom should I grade my cards?
So you’ve done your research and think your card is worth grading. Now, how do you decide who to go with?
PSA is by far the biggest and most well known; because of this, most (not all) collectors prefer PSA because across all sports their slabs command the highest prices.
Some key factors to consider when choosing a service to use:
- Turnaround times. This is how fast a company can receive, catalog, grade, and ship back your cards to you. Recently, because of increased demand, some service levels have seen turnaround times of over a year. Of course, not many collectors are happy with this. Many of the companies are now scrambling to figure out how to use technology to grade cards faster (similar to Fast Slab).
- Pricing. Different companies charge different prices per individual card graded. There are usually a few different service levels from which you can choose. The most expensive service comes with the fastest turnaround time. If you choose an economy or bulk option, the price will be the lowest per card, but the turnaround times will be longer.
- Slab design. Some collectors care quite a bit about the design of the encasing (or slabs) that the grading company puts the cards in. Newcomer HGA has made noise because of their unique designs.
- Card Value. It always comes back to value. Buyers will pay a premium for a certain type of card depending on the company it was graded by. See the links below for examples and comparisons.
This was just a high level overview because there are so many great resources out there to help you choose. Here are our recommendations to look at when deciding:
- PSA vs. Beckett
- Video comparing Beckett, PSA, and HGA
- PSA vs. Beckett vs. SGC
- SGC vs. PSA: A Study
- PSA, SGC or BGS?
As you can tell, there’s quite a bit of nuance when deciding to grade your cards! Ultimately it boils down to:
- the type of card you’re submitting
- it’s potential value
- what YOU value most
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to do the research necessary when deciding to get your cards graded. It’ll help you save time and money down the line, and over time you’ll become an expert in the hobby. The more you read and the more experience you get, the decisions on whether or not to grade and what to grade will become easier. Soon you’ll find yourself giving tips and advice to your friends and family new to collecting!
An adaption from the original article to be found Here