The market for sports memorabilia is booming, with cards, jerseys and equipment selling for huge sums – and not only in the United States, although the country remains the epicentre of the business. A 1952 Topps baseball card of Mickey Mantle changed hands for $12.6 million in August 2022; a year earlier a specialist investment fund had paid $5.9 million for a 2009 card featuring current basketball star Stephen Curry. Could it be time to see what you have in your attic?
Sporting memorabilia has always been valuable, but in general it needs an association with an iconic player or event. At the top end, a Babe Ruth baseball jersey was sold for $5.64 million at auction in 2019. A replica Liverpool football club home shirt from 2004-05, when the club won the UEFA Champions League, and signed by the team’s squad, was available for £1,895 in mid-2023. Even some box-fresh trainers can double in value.
What is believed to be most expensive item of sports memorabilia is a 1952 Topps trading card of Mickey Mantle, who hit 536 home runs during a 17-year career with the New York Yankees, sold in 2022 for $12.6 million. Not far behind is Michael Jordan’s 1998 NBA game 1 jersey, which changed hands for just over $10 million.
The most valuable items cover an eclectic range of sports: Diego Maradona’s 1986 World Cup final shirt was sold for $9.28 million, Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic Games Manifesto, a 5,000-word, 14-page document in which he set out his original plans to revive the ancient Games tradition in 1892, fetched $8.8 million, and Muhammad Ali’s 1974 WBC Heavyweight Championship Belt $6.2 million.
The US sports memorabilia market, excluding digital assets and sports cards, was estimated to be worth as much as $12.2 billion in 2021, and has been forecast to grow by an average of 15.6% a year up to 2032, while the trading card industry was calculated to total $13 billion in 2021, and the online auction market was reckoned to generate more than $500 million.
There are both big-ticket and small-ticket items. For example, there is a buoyant market in second-hand sports shoes. They must be in pristine condition, but resale platform StockX recently reported that the Air Jordan 4 line of trainers had doubled in value since January 2020. Nike Air Max 1’s have also seen a substantial rise in price.
But the sector is no stranger to boom and bust. It crashed spectacularly during the 1990s, when the US market was flooded with new and overproduced collectibles that caused a glut in the marketplace and resulted in most trading cards from that era being virtually worthless.
Sports memorabilia is very much an off-exchange market. Prices are often determined by how badly a collector wants something.
Sports memorabilia is very much an off-exchange market. Prices are often determined by how badly a collector wants something. However, various elements are liable to increase the value of individual items. A shirt, for example, tends to be more valuable if it is ‘match-worn’ by a player – as opposed to the shirt of an unused substitute – especially if the team has won. Rarity is always a factor in price, as is condition.
It helps if an item has a ‘story’ attached. An autograph on a glove or a shoe will tend to have more value than a conventional signed shirt. An original contract for a star footballer or a shirt from a player’s last career match are also likely to be worth more.
It is possible to obtain free valuations for sports memorabilia, although sellers need to be careful how much of their profit they are willing to cede to an auction house or trader. As with any valuable item, it is worth getting a number of quotations and looking at selling prices for similar examples.
Where should I buy?
There is a rich online market for sports memorabilia, including trading platforms such as Firma Stella or Exclusive Memorabilia. Auction site eBay is a popular choice for investors who know what they are looking for and have a good idea about pricing.
There are also sports memorabilia platforms such as Rally, an app from a New York-based company that enables users to buy and sell equity shares in sports memorabilia and other collectibles. In June 2023 Rally opened a museum at its Broadway headquarters featuring items open to investment, ranging from an original 1955 Porsche Speedster and a complete Triceratops skull to an original full set of pristine first-edition Pokémon cards.
Sporting bodies are increasingly making use of non-fungible tokens to create and distribute sporting memorabilia. Transactions are saved on a blockchain, which serves as a record of ownership. However, potential investors should take note of the recent drop in prices of NFTs along with other digital assets.
NBA paves the way
Top Shot, a scheme devised by the US National Basketball Association, the players’ association and a consumer blockchain company, offers officially-licensed video clips of great sporting moments. A single, 12-second-long highlight of a LeBron James shot in the NBA finals resold for more than $230,000, and the site saw more than $1 billion in sales between its launch in June 2020 and the end of 2022. But most sporting moments sold on the site are relatively low-cost and can be readily traded on the platform.
They may offer more pleasure for sports fans than investors; the average sale price of an NBA Top Shot highlight peaked at $181.81 in March 2021, and had fallen to $12.83 by December 2022. Nevertheless, other US sports are following the NBA’s lead by setting up their own NFT digital memorabilia platforms.
Investors can also trade on marketplaces such as Dapper Labs and Candy Digital. A more conventional way to buy sporting memorabilia is at auction, which gives buyers some protection and transparency. As long ago as 1997, Christie’s auctioned a 1907 World Series programme with a guide price of between $4,000 to $6,000, achieving an eventual sale price of £8,625.
Potential investors should always be careful. The sports memorabilia market goes through peaks and troughs, which always attracts fraudsters, and some purchasers have complained about fakes. Those interested in memorabilia need to understand the provenance of individual items. A replica shirt will be worth a fraction of the genuine article, but it can be difficult to tell the difference. Using a reputable dealer and obtaining an authenticity guarantee goes some way to addressing the problem.
A single, 12-second-long blockchain video highlight of a LeBron James shot in the NBA finals resold for more than $230,000.