So you’re getting back into sports cards after a 20 year hiatus, huh? There’s no way to hide it, sports memorabilia is back and in a big way. There are a lot of reasons for it. The emergence of the fractional space is certainly a big one. People are discovering sports cards again and it’s a lot of fun. Before I answer the question in the title, please read this article. I wrote about sports cards as an investment about a year ago. As someone who already lived through a sports card bubble once, I’m being cautious. If you currently find yourself feeling the MJ mania, let’s dive in together and see if wax boxes are a good deal.
The easy answer is, it depends. I know, great reveal, right? This is my simple answer because I don’t think it’s fair to make blanket statements to apply to every wax box or pack that you may come across. Unopened wax boxes are appealing because they carry the possibility of untouched, ungraded cards that could be very valuable if graded. Ungraded cards don’t have the same value as high-grade cards. That is the pivotal distinction. High grade cards are where the bids are. Knowing that, how much value can we apply to these mystery boxes if we ultimately plan to get the sought after cards graded? To properly answer the question, we need to be able to do a few of things. First, we need to assess the market for what could be in the box. Second, we need to project a probability for what the box will return. Finally, we need to overlay complementary costs and generate a real potential return on investment. Let’s pick a specimen and get started.
One of my favorite cards growing up was the 1991-92 Upper Deck Michael Jordan #44. I had several of them. Meticulously cared for and stashed away in top loaders. Of course, they were part of my card collection liquidation some time ago. If only I had just waited… Woulda coulda shoulda. Can’t do it. I bring up this card because wax boxes of this set are fairly cheap on eBay compared to other boxes. As of writing, there are some auction style lots for under $50 and some buy it now options for under $100.
Are these wax boxes a good deal? Let’s find out. First, some specifics. There are 500 cards in the 1991-92 NBA Upper Deck set. The box above has 36 packs of 12 cards. That gives us 432 cards in the wax box. A little short of the full set assuming no duplicates. How sad. Truthfully, we don’t care about almost all of the cards. Which ones do we actually want to pull? Generally speaking there about 4 cards in this set that I view as targets.
The good people at PSA have a pricing database that is amazing. It aggregates sales data from numerous sources including eBay and premium auction houses. I want to pull cards that are going to net at least $100 on resale to justify the box purchase. With this particular set that means we pretty much have to get a PSA 10 Jordan. As I said above, there are four cards that fit this criteria with sufficient market transaction history. Essentially, I want to see $100+ sales from several months ago. Not just yesterday. The four cards I want are #34, #44, #69, & #452.
The card that’s probably jumping off the page is that $1,025 purchase of the Magic vs MJ #34. While that auction did indeed take place, it does require some significant scrutiny. An examination of the bidding is pretty interesting.
I look at this and I see actual bidding in more of the $400-500 price range. Four figures looks like scam behavior. We had two bidders take it from $530 to $1,025 in the final moments. And their combined feedback score is 12. This was almost certainly a scam perpetrated by eBay anarchists who have no intention of paying for it. Point is, I wouldn’t be shocked to see this card relisted and ultimately sold much lower.
This is why it’s so important to look at average pricing and not last price when we try to project value. I included card #452 even though it didn’t quite make my $100 PSA 10 threshold in average. But at just 12 cents shy, we can round up. There are two takeaways from this pricing exercise. It is clear that PSA 10s are what we’re looking for. PSA 9s are okay but only if its the #34 or #44. We don’t want PSA 8s. So we know what we want out of this box. What can we reasonably expect to pull?
Have I mentioned yet I love PSA? Well, I do. Not only do we get pricing information but we also get population information as well. The wealth of data provided to the public at no cost is actually incredible.
The four cards mentioned above actually have a pretty good chance of being graded 9 or better. We have a 74.3% chance the #44 will be a 9 or a 10. This is great insight and it allows us to build a pretty reasonable projection to determine whether an unopened wax box is a good deal or not. The four cards we want represent 0.8% of the total 500 card set. But since we’re getting 432 chances, odds are we will pull 3.5 of them out of the box. When we factor in the probabilities of PSA grades we are likely to receive, we can project a box value.
Now, this is a good start, but we’re not done yet. We think we’ll get 3.5 cards. We don’t know how they’ll grade or what they’ll fetch. The best we can do is use the grading probabilities. To highlight a PSA 10 #44 as an example of the math, we know they’re fetching $353 on average and about 35% of the ones that are submitted get the 10 grade. That gives us an implied value of $144.80 if we pull #44. Now, it should be noted 85% of that MJ #44 value is derived from a 10 grade which I view as significant. We get to $301.17 rather than $347.88 because statistically we’re getting 3.5 cards, not 4.
Cost to Grade
I wish it were as simple as buy a box, get a Jordan, get it graded and boom, $300 in profit. It ain’t. And that’s precisely why these box sellers are selling them instead of opening them. Lets pretend you just got into sports cards again because everyone is talking about graded cards. You’ve never had a card graded before, but how hard can it be? If you’re a first time grader looking to score an MJ PSA 10 out of a wax box, there are more costs to consider.
Based off our projections, we’re underwater just by submitting a minimum order and we haven’t even bought the wax box yet! You have to be a PSA member to submit for grading. That’s $59 at lower tier. You have to pay to ship the cards out. Then you have to pay to have the cards shipped back insured. That’s $35. You also have to submit a minimum of 20 cards on each order. Submissions for modern era cost $12 per card!
So are wax boxes a good deal?
If you buy a wax box with the dream that you’ll pull a PSA 10, you better already have a PSA membership and other cards you want to get graded on the same order. Otherwise, you have to come up with 16 or 17 additional cards from the box to submit. Which isn’t impossible. There are other hall of fame players in that set who could conceivably help cover the cost of grading at resale. Bird, Magic, Barkley, Malone. But you’re going to probably need 9s at minimum just to cover the cost of grading. There is also an MJ checklist people seem to like.
At the end of the day, wax boxes are a bit like scratch off tickets. The expensive ones probably have a higher potential for payout. If you’re not a PSA member and you’re looking to score valuable pulls, the odds aren’t in your favor that you’ll come out ahead. Even if you are a PSA member already and have other cards ready for grading, the value of the box is highly dependent on card #44 grading 9 or above. If your box yields just three PSA 9s, none of which are card #44, you potentially come out behind after grading costs and the actual purchase price of the box.
As a PSA member, I’m not buying these Upper Deck boxes. Don’t forget, we’re probably in yet another card bubble. There is no guarantee these PSA 10 prices are staying as high as they are now. Wax boxes remind me of the investment advice I gave in the article linked at the very top. Here it is again. In the end, wax boxes are more about the hunt than investing. If you get enjoyment out of opening packs and view wax box openings as fun moments shared with your friends and family, then knock yourself out! Just don’t expect to get rich overnight.
Standard Disclaimer: not investment advice. Not necessarily the views and opinions of CLNSMedia.com. This article was originally published on faybomb.com. For more investment insight, consider subscribing to Mike’s Special Delivery newsletter. Topics range from stocks and Wall Street to alternative assets and personal finance techniques.