The NBA Draft is just around the corner and there’s still a lot of debate over who is the best player available. However, in the world of card collecting there’s an obvious choice: LaMelo Ball is king, and everyone else is playing for second place.
Sports cards are undergoing a major renaissance in recent years. A blend of nostalgia, social media interest, and big-money investors have pushed cards back in the forefront of interest among collectors. When it comes to cards, basketball is king, and last season pushed things to ludicrous levels with Zion Williamson and Ja Morant cards fetching five, and even six figures on the secondary market. Initially you might justify that with the belief Williamson and Morant could be generational players who completely alter the course of the NBA, but a year later the market is still strong with the next big rookie to enter the league: LaMelo Ball.
Card collectors and investors are playing with the same risky speculation teams are before drafting a player. They’re banking on prospects living up to their lofty billing, and when it comes to cards, keeping a close eye on availability of signatures. As early as February collectors were monitoring how many cards Ball was signing for Panini, trying to gauge the market of how big the boom around LaMelo would be. We now have the perfect storm where one of the best players in the draft also has an entire brand built around him before ever stepping on an NBA court. Like it or not, there’s huge interest in the entire Ball family — and the arrival of LaMelo to the NBA is only stoking that flame.
If early returns are anything, we’re seeing a continuation of the Williamson/Morant phenomenon this year. A LaMelo Ball Prizm Gold Auto 5/5 recently sold on eBay, with an original asking price of $20,000. Similar cards for Williamson and Morant from 2019 sold from anywhere between $8,000 and $12,000. Basketball minds will debate if LaMelo or Ja is the better point guard prospect, but the card market is already speaking.
There’s a huge appetite for Ball’s star power, even if his evaluations on his game remain all over the map.
Collectors care so much more about scarcity and exclusivity than how good Ball actually is. Gone are the days where you’d aim to get Michael Jordan cards on the schoolyard, instead replaced with huge money signature cards selling for as much as a car, just because there aren’t that many of them available. People are aware how many cards there are in circulation, and how many there will be, with coveted “one of one” cards being the crown jewels in a set.
If this all seems ludicrous, it’s because it is. Sports cards have always been a popular niche market, but things changed in recent years. Investors started moving liquidity into cards as the stock market became less certain, treating cards like commodities, rather than collectibles. This in turn caused demand to vastly out-strip supply, and as a result it’s near-impossible to find popular sets like Prizm at MSRP. Instead, boxes routinely sell for 3-4 times their price, causing chase cards to skyrocket. This is fundamentally different to the world of Magic: The Gathering, and Pokemon cards, which aren’t garnering the same interest in newly-released cards, but where the value of vintage cards has shot through the roof.
The big question on draft night for card collectors will be which teams the top players go to. The majority of big-money openings come in group breaks, where up to 30 people split the cost of numerous boxes, even cases — paying for a team slot and being given every card from the chosen team. The Pelicans slot was the most highly sought after in 2019, with collectors paying hundreds of dollars to secure the slot — hoping the boxes cracked might contain a Zion card. Almost akin to gambling, this played out on YouTube and other video services as people watched content creators open the packs, hoping they might hit it big on a major card. For the person making the video they were playing with house money: the combined slot cost would often exceed what it cost for them to obtain the cards, then they made money off YouTube revenue on the back end.
LaMelo Ball’s team will be the slot collectors want in 2020. It doesn’t matter which team takes him. The slot will be available and sold in droves, with investors hoping that whichever team selects the point guard he have a future star. They’re shelling out thousands for cardboard, and that risk could be worth it — especially if LaMelo makes an impact in the NBA.