The NBA Is Trying to Take the Sports Card Industry Into the 21st Century

Basketball cards have never had the massive market of baseball cards, but that doesn’t mean it’s a dying industry. While the card industry had several years of relative obscurity, collectors have brought back the pastime, and the NBA wants to get involved. It recently announced the TopShop, which is digitizing the market and bringing it to the 21st century. 

NBA trading cards: a history

A Beijing exhibit of NBA trading cards
NBA trading cards at the 2019 NBA exhibition in Beijing | NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

Baseball cards became all the rage as they began the early stages of the types of endorsement deals that athletes thrive on today. According to Sports Collectors Daily, the first known basketball cards involved a 1911 Murad set featuring college teams. A 1933 Sport Kings set included four basketball cards, too. 

However, without a quintessential league making the cards as valuable as baseball’s counterparts, NBA cards failed to reach a vast market. After the NBA formed in the late ’40s, everything changed. George Mikan and Jim Pollard helped usher in a new era, Over the next twenty years. Everyone from Bill Russell to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar helped grow the basketball market. 

The biggest boom, however, came in the ’80s. That was when Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and eventually, Michael Jordan helped make the league a star-powered affair in ways it never was before. The winds finally died down at the turn of the millennium. While it maintained a niche market and ploys like jersey cards helped keep it alive, cards became a relic of the past. 

Now, with cards making a comeback across sports leagues, the NBA has a plan to bring the hobby into the digital age. 

An investment opportunity

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The sports card market never fully stagnated, details Sports Collectors Daily. But its status as a hobby among young sports fans gave way to a more investment-oriented mindset among adult collectors. Cards continued to grow in value even as the market shrunk. This was for several reasons, but chief among them was the scarcity of certain prints. Whether they were forgotten cards of the ’80s or rare modern cards, the online market helped keep card-collectors happy. 

Much like fantasy sports, the card collecting industry became something of its own machine. People didn’t just want their favorite players; they tried to collect sets that could raise value with every passing year. The player-oriented brand that the NBA has built has made it a giant in a niche market. It’s a market that the NBA is looking toward to expand its reach and make its brand about more than just what happens on the court. 

The NBA Top Shop

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Taking a page from the sports card market and transferring it to something more akin to bitcoin, NBA TopShop is a service that provides digital reminders of players’ best moments. Trying to build value on digital card packs, TopShop aims to become a digital showcase that fans can proudly display. Ranging in price from $9 to over $200 at the start, the NBA Top Shop offers limited opportunity to seize on these cards and make a pretty penny in the process

Some cards, like a LeBron James highlight that sold for over $71,000, become investment opportunities for those lucky enough to snatch them up, reports NBA.com. Whether this will be another example of a cryptocurrency model gone awry or a new beginning for a floundering industry is unknown. However, the Top Shop shows that the NBA is going outside the box to reach markets it might not have already had.