Rookie cards are usually the most important — and valuable — cards printed for any athlete. They are the first time the world meets the player via a small piece of cardboard. The better the player does, the more value the card gains. A scarce rookie card can fetch a considerable price. There are few things as rare as a 40-year-old rookie card of a superstar in pristine condition. Such a card is up for auction online right now, a pristine NBA rookie card of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
The card in the 1980–81 Topps set was the first issued with Bird. Since they were rookies the same year (1979–80), it was also a first for Magic. It was also a three-panel card; between the two rookie stars was a third Hall of Famer, Julius Erving. A pristine card from more than 40 years ago featuring the rookie images of not one but two Hall of Famers? With a third legend of the game thrown in for good measure? That’s going to take more than the change from the couch cushions — a lot more.
The auction house, SCP Auctions, estimates the winning bid will come in at more than $500,000. That’s a lot of couches, baby.
The sports card industry has experienced a renaissance of late
Sports cards have been around since the late 19th century. But in the 1980s, collecting became big business. According to a 2010 article by Dave Jamieson of Slate, investment advisers recommended cards as an alternative to stocks. The rookie card was the biggest prize of all. But trouble was ahead.
It was like the real estate bubble in the early 21st century; the card market deflated rapidly. Estimates say some 81 billion cards were being printed annually by the late 1980s and early 1990s. It’s hard for something to be rare if there are millions of copies of it. Older cards, such as those from the early Larry Bird-Magic Johnson era, held onto some of their value. But there was still a dip.
The industry rebounded in 2020, however, and is experiencing a historic boom. Per Yahoo News, seven of the top 10 sales of individual cards have happened since July 2020. When the country shut down in the spring of 2020 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, live sports stopped. Into that gap, bored fans rediscovered their old collections of cards. The market took off from there, and it responded with 21st century digital versions of the old cardboard standards.
Per CNN, a Michael Jordan rookie card sold for $738,000 in an early February auction. A few weeks earlier, the same card — not a similar one but the very same item — sold for $215,000. That is a 243% increase in value in a matter of weeks.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson on a single card?
A Larry Bird rookie card would have tremendous value. He’s one of the best players of all time, with a case full of awards to go with multiple championship rings. Magic Johnson is no different.
Having Larry Bird and Magic Johnson on a single card, though, is like Christmas, a birthday, and summer vacation all rolled into one for kids of a certain age.
To understand the attraction to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, one must remember it was a vastly different sports environment in the late 1970s and 1980s. The NBA was not universally popular. It wasn’t even particularly popular domestically. CBS, which owned broadcasting rights to the NBA, aired weeknight NBA Finals games on tape delay. After the late local news.
But Magic and Bird spearheaded a surge in popularity for the game. Their meeting in the NCAA championship in 1979 remains the highest-rated college basketball broadcast in history.
Thanks to perforations, the card is split into three individual cards. However, the card at auction with the three legends is still in one piece. The separated cards are worth only a fraction of the three-panel original.
As of 5 p.m. Eastern on July 8, the high bid for the Bird-Johnson card was up to nearly $354,000.
The NBA today looks very different than it did when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered
By the end of the 1980s, thanks mainly to the popularity of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Jordan, not only were NBA Finals games broadcast live on network television but so were the conference finals.
The proliferation of cable and later streaming platforms has divided the viewing audience, but the NBA is a valuable part of television programming.
How long the current sports-card boom will last is uncertain. But someone will pay a lot of money to get their hands on a rare item. As Larry Bird and Magic Johnson have a joint legacy, it’s almost natural their rookie cards would be as well.