The Topps Company is the undisputed Godfather of trading cards, with over 50 years of sports cards that have taken their place in sports memorabilia lore. In 2000, Topps started a new and bold venture which combined the modern technology of the internet, the market concept of Wall Street, and sports cards.
Called eTopps, the program offers internet exclusive sports cards that collectors can buy and collect online. No need to buy complete sets or packs of cards; now collectors can purchase only the players they want. eTopps operates on the idea that collectors would like to build a portfolio of valuable cards to buy, sell, and trade. Like a portfolio of stocks, collectors do not physically hold their cards, but they manage their portfolio online. Like the stock market, you have to decide which cards to buy that have the best chance to go up in value.
BUYING AN IPO
To participate in eTopps, a collector will need to open an account at www.eTopps.com (it’s free), which provides a portfolio to hold cards. During baseball, football, basketball, and hockey seasons, eTopps offers cards from players from those respective sports for a limited time. Called an I.P.O. (initial player offering) much like a stock’s initial public offering, the cards are only sold for a set time, usually a week, and then only a limited number of cards are offered. At the end of the week, collectors who placed an IPO order find out if they get a card, or cards if they order multiples. Sometimes, eTopps receives more orders than they have cards available, so cards are often allocated by a percentage; if more than one card was ordered, only a portion of the order may be allocated. If by chance, fewer orders were placed than cards offered, eTopps only prints enough cards to meet orders. This sometimes creates a unique situation in which cards that were under ordered are in such short supply, the price of the card goes up significantly.
Once a sports card is purchased, it is placed in your online portfolio, and your card, or cards, are placed in cold storage at Topps. Cards are encased in plastic, tamper-proof sleeves that protect your card. If you decide to physically own the card, eTopps will send it for a shipping fee.
SELLING YOUR CARDS
If a collector decides to sell a card, he places it for auction on ebay. There is a special category on ebay just for eTopps cards, and only registered eTopps users can use it. Your online portfolio is linked to ebay, so once you designate the cards you want to sell, you set up your ebay auction, set a price, and ebay automatically posts all of the card’s information, including pictures, in the auction for you. If your card sells, you don’t have to worry about shipping, all you have to do is log into your eTopps account and transfer ownership to the winning bidder. Topps still holds the card, the only thing that has changed is the ownership.
Of course, you can also buy sports cards on auction at ebay, but you must have an eTopps account/portfolio so that, in case you win the card, it can be transferred to your possession.
eTopps tracks the final auction price of each card sold on ebay. These prices are then averaged out to get the latest true market value of the card. eTopps allows collectors to view the current value of their cards, as well as any other card produced by eTopps. You can also track the value of the card over time, to see if the prices are trending down or up, just like a stock.
TRADING YOUR CARDS
eTopps offers a trading board on their website, which allows you to offer any cards in your portfolio for any other eTopps card from any year. Other eTopps members can then review the offers to see if they want to take your offer. If your offer is accepted, eTopps transfers the cards to their new accounts for you.
TAKING DELIVERY OF YOUR CARDS
If you decide you would like to have your cards in hand, you can request a delivery from eTopps. There is an initial base charge plus an additional cost per card, usually under $1.00. You can also have your cards shipped at a reduced price to a Topps Preferred Card Dealer for pick up. The only drawback is there are only a handful of Preferred Dealers in the country, so chances there is one near you are small.
Once you have had your cards delivered to you, you cannot use the online services eTopps offers for them, including the ebay auction category and the trading post, since they no longer have possession of the cards. You can, of course, list the cards on ebay (in a regular sports card category, not the eTopps category), and sell or trade them yourself. This has pluses and minuses. Most eTopps collectors prefer to deal with cards still in a portfolio with eTopps. On the other hand, eTopps cards sold in person and even online at ebay seem to garner better prices. For example, a 2004 Alex Rodriguez eTopps card has a market value of about $2, but the same card available “in-hand” from a dealer brings in over $4. A quick survey of cards shows that many cards double their value if they are sold in person. This may be because the sports cards, which often feature a chrome-like finish, look great in person, and in addition, many non-eTopps collectors may be willing to buy specific cards on sight.
INVESTMENT OR HOBBY?
While many sports card collectors were initially lured to eTopps with the idea of making money, many have seen that dream fly away like a Barry Bonds home run. Most eTopps cards do not rise significantly in value. Only a handful see significant rises. During the first few years of the eTopps program, cards were fairly limited, in most cases, print runs averaged between 500 and 2000, with most being around 1000. Prices on cards rose across the board, for all sports. eTopps became greedy, however, and between 2002 and 2004, print runs were much higher, between 2000 and 5000, and, in the case of the much-anticipated 2003 Lebron James rookie card, eTopps offered, and sold, 10,000 cards. This oversupply of cards flooded the market, and prices dropped. Today, many of these cards are worth less than $1, after being sold by eTopps initially for as much as $9.50. Even the 2004 Rodriguez mentioned earlier was initially sold by eTopps for $6, so even the best price today is far below what it was purchased for. This dramatic drop caused many collectors to leave the eTopps program.
In recent years, eTopps realized the error of their ways and cut back production numbers, and values for many cards have held steady or risen, but there are still enough “duds” to keep many collectors gun shy. Today, it is not unusual for current card IPOs to average about 750 cards. Recent rookie cards of players like Prince Fielder and Dan Uggla have benefited from the short run and large demand, easily doubling and tripling their value on ebay.
It would seem that the rookie card is the best chance for a good return on investments. A 2001 eTopps Albert Pujols rookie initially sold in 2001 for $6.50; today, it sells for nearly $100. The 2003 Lebron James rookie, offered initially for $9.50, today sells for over $30, even with 10,000 cards printed.
As mentioned before, small print runs do also affect price. In 2001, eTopps decided to print a card for new Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Banks, who had signed as a free agent. Unfortunately, the week the card was offered, the Cowboys had already announced that rookie Quincy Carter would be the starting quarterback over Banks. Collectors saw no need to buy a card for a second string quarterback, and when the final orders came in, only 186 cards had been sold. Even though Banks is not a fan favorite, because of the short supply, the price shot up to over $200 – not bad for a football card initially priced at $6.50. The price has stabilized at around $175, mostly because of the mystique that this is the rarest eTopps card ever. Just in case collectors think that could never happen again, consider the fact that in early 2006, eTopps offered a baseball card of San Diego Padres manager Bruce Bochy. Total orders for the card were only 281, making it the second rarest eTopps card of all time. It now sells for nearly $30 after an initial price of $6.
With so many hits and misses, it is hard to determine whether eTopps will have future viability as an investment source. Obviously, the program was made for investors, not collectors, but the drop in prices has made it much easier for fans to get sports cards of their favorite players. Card collectors who are not as interested in returns may buy, if prices are not too outrageous. For now, the future of eTopps remains unclear. It must continue to appeal to investors by offering good returns, but also bring in new collectors who want a chance at rare sports cards at prices that do not scare them away. Either way, it will be rare to find these trading cards flipping around on bicycle spokes.