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Unpacking the Rise and Fall of the 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan Rookie Card

Unpacking the Rise and Fall of the 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan Rookie Card
March 16, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

On March 26th of 2020, just weeks after COVID lockdowns began in the United States, a PSA 10 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan rookie card sold for $45,100 on eBay. A few weeks later, on April 19th, The Last Dance premiered to an audience of 6.3 million people. The next time a PSA 10 sold was on May 7th. By then, 5 more episodes had aired with an average viewership of 5.7 million people.

The May 7th sale at Heritage more than doubled the previous sale, reaching $96,000.

Just like that, the Jordan rookie became the "postercard" for the early stages of the sports card boom. During those dark, locked down months, people bonded over many things. Among them: nostalgia, cards, The Last Dance, and how freaking good Michael Jordan was.

In the late spring and early summer, prices remained elevated above pre-pandemic and pre-Last Dance levels, but the hysteria hadn’t fully taken hold, and the sports card craze had yet to fully ignite. After receding in value briefly in the summer months, the card “finally” reached six-figure territory for the first time in early September. 

Just months after it broke $100,000, it broke $200,000. Just weeks after it broke $200,000, it broke $300,000. Just days after it broke $300,000, it skipped over $400,000, $500,000, and $600,000, crossing into $700,000 territory when two different examples sold for $720,000 in late January of 2021 at Goldin. 

While some were just waiting for the furious march to reach seven-figures, $720,000 would prove to be a short term peak. A new high of $840,000 was set in July of 2021 at PWCC, but that was completely anomalous relative to results at the time. Price activity since January of 2021 has largely been negative, with values slowly bleeding lower over the course of two years. In fact, an early March 2023 sale at $144,000 was the lowest since November of 2020. 

Many will have decried the persistent availability of supply as a culprit for depressed values. Nearly every marquee auction of the last several years, it seems, has played host to a PSA 10 Jordan rookie. Since the beginning of 2020, the card - which carries a population of 317 - has sold 110 times per CardLadder. 

At face value, you might assume that more than a third of the population has turned over. While listings/records aren’t available for every single one of the sales today, we dug in to see how much of the activity came from the same cards. You might be surprised to learn how few verified duplicate sales have take place. 

Only 11 cert numbers have been verifiably sold multiple times since the start of 2020, accounting for 26 of the 110 sales. Those 15 sales that were repeat sales of a cert previously sold during the period were executed at a $37k loss on average. Only five were made at a gain. Still, you could likely assume that nearly the entire balance of the 110 sales were gainers, given the low market value pre-2020.

In total, how many different certs have been sold since the start of 2020 is somewhat of an unknown. There were 16 eBay sales in 2020 where the cert number is now not easily identified. If you assume that none of those (or any of the other handful where listings are no longer available) were sold again to date, then the 110 sales would have taken place on 95 different certs. The likelihood is that a handful of those unknown certs did likely sell again, but in any case, you’re probably looking at 27-30% of the population that turned over in the last three years.

Said differently, approximately 67-70% of owners of the card watched it skyrocket from just under $40,000 at the beginning of 2020 to a peak of $840,000, with countless intermediate stops of enticing value, and they abstained from selling (at least publicly). That figure might also raise questions about just how much of the population is actually in circulation or really available for sale - i.e. how many are either currently with owners who are insistent on keeping it as part of their collections forever or are lost in some capacity.

Either way, the appeal of sale for the current ownership base has declined with prices, and the decline is quantifiable. There’s a metric that you often see used in analysis of Bitcoin called MVRV. It’s a ratio that compares the current market cap of the asset to the realized value of each asset in circulation. The realized value refers to the price at which that specific asset was last bought, and those are summed across each coin or asset, serving as the denominator of the ratio. 

Market cap is easy enough to calculate for a sports card - it’s simply the most recent price multiplied by the population. For realized value, we know that figure for each cert that sold since the start of 2020 from our analysis above. For those that sold before 2020, we’re going to use an assumption for their purchase price. You could tweak this according to your preferences or your hypotheses, but we’re using an average of the last price of the year in 2019, 2018, and 2017 (which is approximately $26,000 for what it’s worth). The likelihood is that this mildly overstates aggregate cost basis, as there are some owners who got in very low many years ago, but it’s a reasonable approximation, and the calculation is ultimately more influenced by the cards that sold at much higher levels from 2020 onward. 

As of the end of 2021, when the card sold for $360,000, the MVRV stood at 4.6x. That means that the card was worth 4.6x what the average owner had paid for it. Today, with the card at $144,000, the MVRV is just under 1.5x. You’ll notice the MVRV reduces by a greater proportion than the value; not only has the numerator been reduced, but the denominator will have also increased year-over-year, with more cards coming out of hiding and achieving a higher realized value. 

This is a metric we’d like to evaluate more over time to understand how it has behaved in other cards and if/how reaching certain levels has led to outperformance or underperformance. Admittedly, on its own in this one scenario, its usefulness is limited. However, it does provide a more nuanced understanding of how an ownership base might view price levels. And suffice it to say, at these price levels, it’s far less attractive for much of the owner base to sell than it was a year ago.

That being said, we’d also estimate that only about 22% of the ownership base is currently underwater. With the way so much of the base held through higher prices though, the pool of prospective sellers may be drying up, even if slightly.

The high-end fascination with Jordan hasn’t subsided, as evidenced by a plethora of eye-popping memorabilia sales. While there may be more desirable Jordan cards of lower populations, the Fleer Jordan still stands as the most recognizable, entrenching it as a grail. There are only 317 copies available. Sure, populations get higher as you move down the grading scale, but if you believe in rising values and rising audiences in the Hobby, it’s hard to dismiss the gravitational pull of the PSA 10. Perhaps a return to the more steady, pre-2020 upward trajectory is on the way. 

In the five years prior to 2020, the card appreciated at an annual rate of just under 23%. Had it stayed on that pace, the card would have been at approximately $70k at the end of 2022. So the card remains ahead of schedule today….but that schedule is based on a pre-2020 Hobby. Undoubtedly, the audience and general awareness have both grown; the question is to what extent does that growth elevate the card’s trajectory?

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