When collegiate and professional sports were knocked out by the coronavirus pandemic last spring, Lance Lucha thought his business may be down for the count. As owner of Ball Hogs Sports Collectibles and More, Lucha banks on many sales being driven by games and events inspiring fans to hunt for cards of their favorite players or scoop up a rare gem to add to their collection. “I was worried that when there were no sports on that no one would come in,” said Lucha, who had to close his Reno-based shop for about two months after COVID hit. “Because you watch sports, and then you come buy the cards.” Lucha’s worry didn’t last long. With March Madness canceled, MLB Opening Day postponed, and the NBA season in jeopardy, fans began filling the void by doubling down on card collecting. “As soon as I opened back up, it took off,” said Lucha, who’s had lines outside his storefront on a number of occasions. “It’s been busy ever since — every day’s been a good day.” Lucha said it’s not only longtime collectors that are walking through his doors. Some are former collectors rediscovering the hobby during quarantine; others are jumping into the hobby due to stay-at-home boredom. “People were sitting at home with nothing to do and they started collecting again,” Lucha said. “When they couldn’t spend their money at the mall or they couldn’t go to a game, they had that extra income to spend on cards. “I thought it would maybe last a couple months, but it’s just been the whole year.” As a result, Lucha said his revenue in 2020 was double compared to 2019. And Lucha is not alone. Nationwide, sports cards are booming during the pandemic, with record sales of vintage cards, skyrocketing prices for new cards and an influx of collectors — old and new.
Lance Lucha, right, owner of Ball Hogs Sports Collectibles and More, and his son Deion, stand outside Lucha’s shop on Kietzke Lane in Reno. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW
COLLECTORS AND INVESTORS In January, a 1952 Mickey Mantle card in mint condition sold for a record $5.2 million. That topped the August 2020 sale of an autographed 2009 Mike Trout rookie card that sold online for a then-record $3.9 million. And just last month, a Luka Doncic rookie card sold for $4.6 million, the highest-selling NBA card in history. At Ball Hogs Sports, a collector paid $10,000 for a 1953 Mickey Mantle card last year, Lucha said. Truth is, investors who saw big returns on the stock markets last year also have begun to buy into trading cards as an alternative to equities, pumping up prices for the cardboard commodity, according to Lucha. In fact, Lucha said 70% or 80% of his customers are buying cards to invest and resell. “It’s not just collecting, it’s making money,” he said. He’s not kidding. Last year, from March through May 2020, sales of sports cards on eBay exploded. Basketball cards led the surge, with sales spiking 130%, followed by baseball and football, which saw sales jump 50% and 47%, respectively. With growing demand far outstripping supply, challenges are hitting card shop owners. Lucha said he’s unable to order as many boxes of cards from distributors as he could pre-COVID. In order to keep up with the steady clip of customers, he’s increased his ordering frequency from two times a month to as many as six orders every 30 days. “Now they allocate everything that you buy, which builds up how many people want it,” he said. “So, getting supplies and getting the product is the hardest thing now.” Still, Lucha has not seen a slowdown in business — and he doesn’t expect to anytime soon. “It’s way busier and it’s spread out during the day,” he said. “Before this (pandemic), we’d have maybe two good days out of five days. Now, it’s five out of five are all good days. It’s been that different.” POWER OF POKÉMON And the card-collecting craze extends beyond sports. At The Nest Cards and Collectibles in Carson City, products for trading card games are flying off the shelves. And Pokémon is the hottest cardboard commodity on the market. “Demand is insane for Pokémon,” Symberly Schuler, owner of the shop, said in early March. “We just got some new Pokémon products on the shelf today … they lasted for 15 minutes.” Specifically, The Nest recently sold 22 Pokémon products in a blink. And the Carson City-based shop would have sold more, but supply has been “decimated” due to the skyrocketing demand, Schuler said. “We are regularly selling out of every single one of our Pokémon products,” Schuler said. And like sports trading cards, the Pokémon boom appears to be fueled by people — in this case, Gen X and Millennials— feeling nostalgic during pandemic-related lockdowns, Schuler said. “People are going into their closets and pulling out their cards,” Schuler continued. “And some of these people are moms and dads who have kids that are probably around the same age they were when they started (collecting). And they’re showing them to their kids, and it’s creating a real big chain reaction.” All told, Pokémon cards have become so sought-after that some cards are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. In November 2020, a sealed box of Pokémon booster packs sold for a record $360,000 through Heritage Auctions, according to a report by Marketplace. Meanwhile, eBay reported that the market for Pokémon cards saw a jump of 574% in 2020 compared to 2019. For The Nest Cards and Collectibles, the shop has seen its sales driven by Pokémon more than any trading card game out there, Schuler said. And the demand has only increased this year, the 25th anniversary of the Japanese trading card game. “Our January (sales) were 50% higher than our December was, and our February was 25% higher than our January, and almost all of that is attributed to Pokémon,” she said. “I would be surprised if we trend anywhere in the downward direction the rest of the year. I’m not expecting the same exponential gains we’ve been getting, but I’m definitely expecting that we’re going to be seeing positive growth, month after month.” Schuler is relieved card collecting is seeing a resurgence. After all, she opened The Nest Cards and Collectibles early in the pandemic, launching an online store in April 2020 and a brick-and-mortar a month later, in May, when the state allowed retail stores to open to customers. Half of the location’s 1,600 square feet is a COVID compliant space for collectors to play in tournaments, an area Schuler feared would go unused early in the pandemic. Notably, the store also sells Magic: The Gathering cards, Yu-Gi-Oh! cards and more. “Because of our business being cards and collectibles, we focus a lot on playing and players,” said Schuler, whose shop can hold 16 players at a time under current state restrictions. “A lot of our fears were that we were unable to host our events at all. We had to live entirely off of hoping people were just going to buy our products without having the opportunity to play with them. But we found a way to safely organize our space to still allow for play.”