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Tepid Sports Card Market Reaction to Mahomes, LeBron, Brady Achievements

Tepid Sports Card Market Reaction to Mahomes, LeBron, Brady Achievements
February 16, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

This article was featured in abbreviated format in our newsletter, Alts & Ends. Click here to subscribe for free and receive the best collectible market insights straight to your inbox on a weekly basis!

"I'm going to Disneyland!"....but his cards aren't feeling the same magic.

Breaking a major record. Retiring as the GOAT. Winning a Super Bowl. In more euphoric market conditions, big achievements can act as catalysts for sports collectible prices. The price spike, though, is typically short-lived and more of a boon to sellers than to buyers.

Over the last two weeks, three incredibly significant events transpired for three of the most important figures in modern cards: Tom Brady definitively called time on the best career in NFL history, LeBron James broke the NBA's all-time scoring record, and Patrick Mahomes won his second MVP and second Super Bowl.

The collective card market reaction?

Somewhere between an animated yawn and a sarcastic thumbs up.

Since the turn of the year, Tom Brady's CardLadder index is down 5%, LeBron's is down 19%, and Mahomes has seen his fall 8%. And for what it's worth, it's not like any of them had strong 2022s - in fact, quite the opposite.

You can't even really point to relative outperformance here. The basketball and football indices are down 11.5% and 6.5% respectively in 2023. These landmark events barely register as a bump on a price chart.


They're priced in.

Tom Brady put a seventh Super Bowl ring on his finger years ago. His career status as the "GOAT in the clubhouse" was perhaps solidified long before. Officially calling it quits, then, has little impact on values, particularly when he already got a retirement bump after 2022's announcement. Can't wait to see what early 2024 brings when Tom hangs 'em up even harder!

LeBron catching Kareem, barring catastrophe, has been an inevitability for years. Despite an impressive 30 point-per-game campaign accelerating the realization of the record, breaking it changes nothing about the LeBron card thesis relative to the day before. It didn't magically save him from getting booed mercilessly at the Super Bowl just days later either. Someday, LeBron, someday...just not yet.

As for Mahomes, the way his cards are valued, some would argue he has to fill an entire hand with rings to justify it. What's priced in has defied reason for the better part of two years. His achievements this season are a massive step towards fulfilling those lofty expectations, but they're not enough to send a massive surge into an ultra-modern card market still licking its wounds from the irrational activity of the past.

While a relatively sour card market plays its part in stifling upside momentum, the market itself has grown more efficient. It prices in available information more quickly. The manic and perhaps inexperienced activity of prior boom years is significantly reduced, even if you'll still find some cards popping higher if you look long enough. In that regard, the relatively subdued action may be a sign of healthier, more stable foundations for the card market going forward.

But there's more at play here.

It's important to note the CardLadder Indices are price-weighted, meaning more expensive cards carry more weight. When you segment each player's cards into buckets of those valued above and below $5,000 (shoutout CL Custom Indices), there's a stark difference in performance in the build-up to these events.

Since the end of 2022, LeBron cards valued over $5,000 have fallen almost 20% while cards valued below $5,000 have lost only 3%. High-value Mahomes cards are down 10%, while low-value is up nearly 6%. High-value Brady cards are down 5% while low-value is effectively flat.

In general, 2023 has been less kind to high-end cards than it has been to cheaper ones, but not to the same degree as exhibited for these three players.

It seems most of the whipsaw, speculative "fun" is being had in more accessible cards, while bigger money takes a more cautious approach. We hesitate to say the bigger money is unequivocally smarter money; anybody who's caught our Failed Flips of the Week in recent months can understand why. Still, the immediate lead-up to a milestone event has rarely been the best time to buy.

We can look to recent history to see how this activity has more recently diverged. When Brady retired the first time, in 2022, his index increased 21%, but it was almost entirely led by high-value, which rose 23% while low-value was up a mere 1%. High value Mahomes also led the way in the lead-up to the 2021 Super Bowl. High-value increased an astonishing 135% from Jan 1 of 2021 to February 7th, the date of the game. The increase in low value was a "mere" 47%. Oddly, the opposite was true for Brady. Low-value increased 89% over the same period, while high-value was up just 25%.

These were the months leading into the absolute peak of sports card mania, and Mahomes was one of the landing grounds for deep-pocketed modern speculators. Brady, on the other hand, didn't see his high-end market take off in earnest until the months after the Super Bowl, which was in part a reaction to how illogical the delta to increasingly-expensive Mahomes cards seemed.

Since the beginning of February, the contrast in performance has reversed (or at least weakened in LeBron's case), as lower-end volumes rise and prices struggle with the rush towards the exits for speculators.

Look, if a quick path to higher prices is what you were hoping for, you should've just jarred some sand from Tom Brady's retirement video and sold it on eBay, because card markets are no longer falling for the same old tricks.

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