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The World Baseball Classic, Shohei Ohtani, and a Bright Future for Japanese Card Collectors?

The World Baseball Classic, Shohei Ohtani, and a Bright Future for Japanese Card Collectors?
March 24, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

The World Baseball Classic was a tremendous celebration of the sport - to the surprise and chagrin of many - but it ultimately belonged to Japan and Shohei Ohtani. Really though, it might have belonged to the Japanese fans, who demonstrated the extreme breadth of their might.

The statistics are jaw dropping. 62 million people in Japan watched the semifinal against Korea. For context, 113 million people watched the Super Bowl. That’s arguably our biggest sporting event here in the US. The game that 62 million people watched in Japan was a semifinal of a tournament that many didn’t think mattered prior to this year’s edition. 

Let’s frame it a different way: the population of the entire country of Japan was 125 million as of 2021.

Now, before going any further, let’s preempt the soccer outcry and acknowledge that the World Cup Final drew close to 1.5 billion viewers. Those numbers are from FIFA so take them with a grain of salt, because….FIFA. Incredible, though. Absolutely incredible. But today, we’re covering the focused passion of Japan baseball fans. 

For the quarterfinal against Italy, 48% of households in the country tuned in. That’s staggering! The quarterfinal and semifinal US games drew 2.26 million and 1.94 million viewers here in the States respectively. The final achieved a record 5.2 million American viewers. The semifinal and final were on FS1, and doesn’t that kind of say it all?

The focal point of Japan’s ravenous WBC consumption is Shohei Ohtani. Since the start of March, the dual threat has added 2.8 million followers on Instagram, becoming the most followed MLB player on the platform. That follower count pales in comparison to stars and even merely noteworthy players from some other sports, but its rapid ascendancy means he won’t be trailing most stars in any sport but soccer for very long.

Despite his outstanding production both at the plate and on the mound, Ohtani’s phenomenal status sometimes goes overlooked or underappreciated here in the United States. Perhaps that’s what toiling with the Angels will do. Ohtani won the AL MVP in 2021 and finished 2nd in the voting in 2022. While he was at it, he finished 4th in the voting for the 2022 Cy Young. For the analytics fans: last season, he finished 2nd in the AL in WAR….and 2nd in the AL in WAR for pitchers. We literally haven’t seen anything like this, and if you have, congratulations on living long enough to watch both Babe Ruth and Shohei Ohtani. 

And yet, despite all that, it doesn’t feel like this phenomenon is fully appreciated, but rest assured, if America isn’t taking sufficient notice, you can be damn sure that half of the Japanese population is well-attuned. 

Now, while America at large perhaps hasn’t caught Ohtani fever, the Hobby mostly has. In the last two years, the CardLadder Ohtani index is up a whopping 357%. His high-end cards are largely in line with those of his strongest contemporaries, and maybe you could argue that in-line is good enough considering “batting” and “pitching” prints often double the quantity of cards available.

Base cards have similarly enjoyed rapid appreciation. His 2018 Bowman Chrome (Batting) card, graded PSA 10, is up 168% over the last two years, but the vast majority of that appreciation took place in the spring of 2021. Still, it’s close to a $500 card, despite a PSA 10 population of 2,762.

Given the nature of the Hobby here in the US  - the familiar Topps and Bowman centricity of it all - it’s the cards from standard, accepted sets that make the most noise. Ohtani’s “rookie” cards date to 2018, and sure, that was his rookie season in MLB and therefore his first opportunity for inclusion in standard US sets. But Ohtani was no ordinary rookie, not to professional baseball or to baseball cards. 

Now is probably the time to note that, though it’s perhaps not quite as sophisticated, advanced, or popular as it is in the United States, Japan has a significant card collecting legacy. You could spend days learning about vintage Japanese baseball cards, and many US-based collectors have created an immensely fascinating niche in the category. 

But the Japanese card market isn’t solely a story of the past. In fact, American collecting businesses have recently bet on its present and its future. Before its acquisition by Fanatics, Topps reached an agreement in 2021 with the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league to produce licensed cards. That agreement was renewed for 2022. Card grading is not yet the Hobby staple in Japan that it is in America, but that’s changing as well. Back in 2018, PSA opened a Tokyo office to service that market. Today on prevalent Japanese auction sites and card shops, when you see a holdered card, it’s most frequently from PSA. They may not win that battle uncontested, though. CGC and CSG announced in August of 2022 that Brothers Co. Ltd., a card shop in Tokyo, would begin serving as an official submission center for grading. 

While Topps entered the NPB card equation, there are thriving brands domestically: BBM (Baseball Magazine) and Calbee among them, which brings us back to Ohtani. Ohtani made his professional debut in Japan in 2013 at the age of 18. As a result, he has a number of Japanese rookie cards from that year, and the facts and figures are interesting. 

Take, for example, the 2013 BBM 1st Version set. These were the first BBM Ohtani rookie cards to market. At present, the base card has a PSA 10 population of just 123 (total pop: 255) and most recently sold for $750 here in the US in August . Recall the Bowman base has a PSA 10 population of 2,762 and only sells for a couple hundred dollars less. 

“But, the pop of BBM cards must be growing faster!” You would be correct about the overall set. It is. But the surplus in growth isn’t as staggering as you might assume given the massive disparity in absolute population.

Note: PSA population only.
Note: PSA population only. "Gem" refers to Gem Mint PSA 10.

The grading growth rates (shoutout Gemrate!) aren’t crazy unfavorable to BBM versus Bowman Chrome, and in the case of Ohtani specifically, the numbers are actually quite favorable to BBM. It’s just one comparison between two specific cards, but the conclusions are difficult to ignore. 

Note: PSA population only.
Note: PSA Populations only. "Gem" refers to Gem Mint PSA 10.
Note: PSA populations only. "Gem" refers to Gem Mint PSA 10.

The Bowman has been vastly more trafficked, even disproportionately to the disparity in population. It has sold over 1,500 times since the beginning of 2019 (h/t CardLadder). We’ve identified just 13 stateside sales of the BBM 1st Version PSA 10 over the same period. While we don’t have exhaustive data on Japan, even if you were to say it changed hands equally as frequently, it would still be just 21% of the population as compared to 55% for the Bowman. So, they’re also surfacing for sale much less often. 

Perhaps that reduced availability is behind a less severe drawdown from peak for the BBM card. As of the most recent sale, it’s about 50% off its August 2021 high, while the Bowman is down 75% from its July 2021 peak. That resilience has allowed the BBM to finally eclipse the Bowman in value consistently over the last year. Despite the differential in supply, the BBM spent most of the prior two years beneath the Bowman in price, highlighting the brand strength of the latter, as well as the ability of increased supply to more rapidly capture changes in demand. While there is a gap in value between the two today, it appears to be narrowing rather than expanding at the moment.

Interestingly, the prices paid for the BBM 1st Version card on prominent Japan card commerce sites like Yahoo Japan or Mintmall are quite comparable to the prices paid in the US. The PSA 10 1st Version rookie most recently sold at auction on Yahoo for 100,000 yen, which translates to $755. The most recent stateside sale was in August for $750. 

If you’re a major believer in Ohtani’s unique greatness, you’re blown away by the Japanese dedication to the sport (as evidenced by the WBC), and you believe that fandom eventually translates to a more robust baseball card appetite in the country (as Topps and PSA have believed), wouldn’t you be inclined think that rookie cards from Japan might be particularly intriguing to that audience? That’s not to say the interest in the great American brands and sets can’t also rise, but it would (will?) be interesting to see how an influx of Japanese demand approaches the differing supply dynamics.

Of course, this conversation can extend beyond the pure base cards. The 2013 BBM 1st Version set features various foil and holo facsimile parallels, which trade at higher prices, but remain relatively subdued when they do surface. Sealed boxes from that set have more or less plodded along at the same level since the summer of 2021; there was a sale for $1,117 in July 2021 on eBay, while a box sold in November of 2022 at Goldin for $1,246. There are also team sets and rookie sets to contend with, as well as sets from other brands.

While history hasn’t necessarily favored cards that predate a player’s arrival in the pre-eminent league or that league’s system (see: Ichiro or 2016 Upper Deck Euroleague Luka), history also hasn't yet witnessed an influx of Japanese collectors into traditional Hobby grading and sales channels. That influx is no certainty - perhaps it's not even highly probable - but 60+ million Japanese citizens deeply engaged in the World Baseball Classic is enough to get the wheels turning about the possibilities for Japanese cards of a now globally-relevant phenomenon.

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