It's noon on a Wednesday as Steven Wrate sits at his desk and turns on his webcam with sealed boxes of Bowman baseball and Prizm basketball collectors cards waiting to be opened.
Wrate greets his online customers who join the chat ready for their treasure hunt as he soon will open boxes of cards they have purchased that will be shipped to them or be available for pickup after being opened during the live stream videocast. One customer has tuned in all the way from Hong Kong, while others are from Houston, Minnesota and just miles down the road from All Star Sports Cards off Highway 58 in Chattanooga.
With Wrate doing personal "case breaks" from noon to 6 p.m. each day of the work week, he lets Kevin Bajraszewski handle interactions with customers in the store. Wrate's wife has also joined their team to help during what has become the busiest time in the store's history.
As the breaking starts, Bajraszewski handles a checkout with an excited customer who has brought basketball cards in to be sent to Beckett's grading service in hopes of receiving 9.5 or higher ratings on the 10-point scale. The customer shows pride in his cards as he displays his Zion Williamson rookie autograph that he says has been selling for $3,000. He also has a Kobe Bryant card worth nearly a grand.
Even with Major League Baseball and the NBA not in action due to the coronavirus outbreak, business is booming like never before — even through a pandemic. While buyers are turning into investors of sports cards, there has also been a large increase of collectors who are returning to the hobby.
"We continue to see more and more people who collected in the '80s and '90s and now they are getting their kids into the hobby," said Wrate, who opened his shop in 1992. "Some have told me they were stuck at home with their kids for two months during quarantine and got tired of them playing video games, so they pulled out their old cards and started collecting again with their kids."
Good time for collectors
Just like the staff at All Star Sports Cards, Scenic City Sportscards and Collectibles in Ooltewah loves providing thrills for customers and helping fans collect cards of favorite players such as Ronald Acuna Jr., Michael Jordan or Peyton Manning. Both stores offer vintage baseball cards for those looking for much older items.
They have cards of past and present superstars that are very affordable, and then some that are more pricey.
"The sports card industry is more popular than I have ever seen it. It's sort of had the perfect storm the last couple of years with great young players," said Scenic City owner Robert Sciulli, who has more than 40 years of experience in the business. "Players like Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies have sparked a local interest, while nationally we have had guys like Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge take off in baseball.
"In basketball, Luka (Doncic) has been the spark with Zion being the gas."
The latest boom of the sports card industry could seem crazy to some, but with a high demand, lower print runs and more collectors than ever, it starts to make sense.
Sciulli noted the dramatic rise of a 1990 Score card featuring Bo Jackson in which the two-sport star holds a baseball bat on his shoulders while wearing football shoulder pads. Originally the card sold for $5 to $8, but 30 years later the card, if in great condition, sells for more than $200.
Cards are graded base on the condition of their corners, edging, surface and centering. Beckett and PSA are the major two grading companies, and SGC looks to be joining the top three as a trustworthy and more affordable grading company.
At Marty's Sports Card Exchange Superstore at 6851 Lee Highway, store owner Marty Davis has been a big name in the business for quite some time as a distributor and is a regular at card shows across the country.
"The hobby is bigger than it was even when (Shaquille O'Neal) was a rookie or when LeBron (James) was coming into the league," said Davis, who has a large inventory of boxes, packs and signed collectibles at his shop. "The hype around the hobby right now has never been matched and has drawn a lot of attention."
Panini Prizm rookie base cards have been the ultimate desired cards for basketball collectors. The shiny silver cards have skyrocketed in value — Giannis Antetokounmpo's 2013 rookie card sells for $800 ungraded. Stout NBA rookie classes the past two years included Trae Young and Doncic in 2018 and Williamson and Ja Morant in 2019.
"Another huge boost to the industry, and one a lot of people don't realize, is how big the international market is," Wrate said. "I don't know the exact statistics, but Panini probably only sells 30-40% of their basketball cards out of the United States. There has been a huge international boom of people collecting within the last few years."
Media — social and traditional — has also played a hand in the astronomical rise. ESPN's 'The Last Dance' documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls helped blow up his card prices. Jordan's 1986 Fleer rookie card now sells for thousands even if damaged. A PSA-graded 10 of that Jordan rookie recently sold for more than $60,000 online.
Online hype has also lifted the prices in this year's set by Bowman, which has been the go-to baseball card company for prospect and rookie autographs in the 21st century.
Then there is the interest created by special collections such as Topps Project 2020, which features 20 artists' interpretations of 20 classic cards apiece.
Around the hobby, people have been on the hunt for 17-year-old New York Yankees prospect Jasson Dominguez. Nicknamed "The Martian," the switch-hitter from the Dominican Republic is expected to be a five-tool player. His base rookie card has sold for outrageous amounts, with his autographs worth well in the thousands.
Fortune, fun or both
When it's time to open cases, hitting the top players during "breaks" for customers is fun for all.
All Star's Wrate had tremendous success in his customer breaks last year as he hit a red first Bowman autograph of Wander Franco, one of only five available in the set. One of the same cards sold for $56,000 during an eBay auction last August. Also last year, he pulled two of the 10 gold Prizm rookie cards of Doncic, which are worth a mini fortune.
Scenic City's Sciulli also has started to do more personal breaks and hit big when he opened a box for a customer that had a rare rookie card of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. that was signed and had a patch of his jersey on the card.
While some of the big cards can turn into a fortune, local card shop owners still feel the same thrill they first felt when collecting baseball cards and autographs in their childhood years.
"You have to have fun with it," Sciulli said, who grew up going to Forbes Field, where he collected autographs of Pittsburgh Pirates players. "I get so many kids who come in my shop. Their parents will bring them in for birthday parties and let all the kids get a pack or a card of their favorite player.
"Mr. Eddie also comes in every Friday to the shop, and he is a Vietnam veteran. People love to come in just to see him and talk sports. It's neat to see people of all ages collecting again, seeing the hobby grow."