The sports trading card business exploded during the coronavirus pandemic due to a combination of boredom, nostalgia, and speculation. The escalation of card collecting has sent the value of some sports cards to the moon, as Jason Howarth, the Vice President of Marketing of Panini America, the exclusive card maker for the WNBA, explained to us.
“Everyone used to always talk about the Honus Wagner card, the T-206, and know how valuable it was [at] $3 million dollars,” said Jason during a podcast interview. “Now we’re getting cards of modern-day athletes that are selling for $800,000 and $1.3 million. These players have been in the league for five years, 10 years, sometimes even less than that. It is incredible.”
The WNBA has not been left behind by this trend. Sabrina Ionescu has driven some of the mania as variations of her rookie WNBA card typically sell for hundreds of dollars and autographed ones go for thousands. But the high prices aren’t limited to Sabrina. Elena Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Jonquel Jones are among players with four-figure Prizm cards on eBay. One seller is asking for $1,200 for a one-of-a-kind autographed Cheryl Miller card chronicling her time as the Mercury’s coach. Prices for older rookie cards of legends such as Cynthia Cooper and Tamika Catchings are also soaring.
The WNBA card boom is a sign of the league’s growing impact and popularity as it enters its 25th year. However, the W still has a ways to go in the card space. Panini produces between 30-32 NBA products each year. The WNBA only got one product. Some notable players including Azurá Stevens and WNBA Rookie Of The Year Crystal Dangerfield were left out of the Prizm collection.
The league is getting more popular every year and, according to card experts, trading cards are as well. The twin rise of cards and the WNBA in 2020 has already been lucrative for manufacturers and collectors. If you’re looking to start your WNBA card collection, expand it, or start making a little cash from cards, this article will have some answers for you. Let’s start by exploring the history of WNBA cards.
WNBA trading cards history
WNBA trading cards came on to the scene when the league was founded in 1997. Pinnacle Brands held the exclusive rights to the W’s inaugural card sets. The company seemed excited and committed to their WNBA product, especially since Pinnacle did not have a contract with the NBA. While the Pinnacle WNBA cards are beautiful in their own right, these cards are most remembered for coming in a can. Buyers needed to use a can opener in order to see their cards.
Unfortunately, Pinnacle only made two sets of WNBA cards. The company went bankrupt in 1998 before being bought by a corporation that would later become Panini, who owns the rights today. Importantly, Pinnacle Brands owned Donruss, one of the most recognizable trading cards brands in the US.
Before the 1999 season, Fleer/Skybox took over the license for WNBA cards. The company is one of the most recognizable brands in the business. Fleer was actually the first company to successfully manufacture bubble gum in 1885 and helped popularize trading cards by pairing cards and Double Bubble in the 1930s.
Fleer promised to improve on Pinnacle’s product, which suffered complaints about “flakiness.” As someone who owns some of the 1999 Fleer set, the cards are certainly sturdy and glossy even 23 years after their release. The cards came out under Fleer’s iconic Skybox brand that had a distinctive recognizable design.
The brand brought that design to the WNBA and created really interesting beautiful cards. The 1999 set celebrated the league’s short history with flashbacks to the last two playoffs and bright future with rookie cards of “future phenomenons.” The biographies on the back of these cards are also unique. It’s almost as if the card maker was writing a short letter to each player.
Fleer held the rights to WNBA trading cards until the company went under in 2005. Many of the league’s legends have Fleer rookie cards, including Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Lauren Jackson, and Diana Taurasi. While a Sue Bird rookie card would be very valuable regardless, Fleer created more value for their sets by making fewer prints of rookie cards and employing redemption cards for rookie cards, which the buyer would have to trade-in for a real rookie card. The redemption cards were only valid for a few years after the set was printed, so purchasers now can’t get them. Basically, you’ll probably be in the money if you find a Fleer WNBA rookie card.
Rittenhouse Archives took over and printed its first set during the 2005 WNBA season. Rittenhouse had only made science fiction and fantasy trading cards before acquiring the WNBA card rights. The cards took on a more understated design and, frankly, lack some of the creative aspects of previous sets. Still, there are some gems throughout Rittenhouse’s sets from 2005 to 2018. Maya Moore, Brittney Griner, and Breanna Stewart all had Rittenhouse rookie cards. Lisa Leslie’s 2007 card may be a truly unique card because it depicts a pregnant superstar, which probably never happened before.
[picture of Leslie card]
Panini’s WNBA cards
Panini picked up the rights to WNBA cards in 2018. For most current WNBA fans, Panini is known for two things: soccer stickers and NBA cards. The Italian company has been making soccer collectibles since the 1960s and their popularity in the United States grew as Americans discovered soccer. In 2006, Panini’s sticker sets for the World Cup created a mania among younger fans.
Three years later, Panini bought the exclusive rights to NBA trading cards. An Italian soccer-focused company taking over NBA trading cards caused some concern among collectors. But Panini found someone to mollify their fears: Kobe Bryant. Kobe grew up with Panini trading cards as a teen in Italy and the company made him a global brand ambassador right after they got the NBA rights.
Kobe and Panini were a match made in Heaven, according to Jason Howarth. Kobe saw the value in these cards and would sign thousands of autographs every six weeks. The relationship with Kobe gave Panini credibility not only to fans around the world due to his international fame, but also to younger NBA players who Panini enticed into exclusive deals with signed Kobe merchandise. Jason believes that Kobe also embedded the company with his Mamba mentality.
The company grew rapidly over the next decade. Panini acquired the Donruss trading card company, which gave them American infrastructure and relationships. Rights for NFL, collegiate teams, and NASCAR followed the NBA. At the moment, Panini is on top of the trading card manufacturing industry despite lacking rights to Major League Baseball cards.
Panini released its first WNBA collection in 2019 under its classic Donruss brand. With the Donruss collection, Panini not only created a beautiful set to bring back WNBA card mass production, but also they made a big step to honor WNBA legends. The 2019 Donruss set has a 43-card Signature Series featuring Ticha Penicheiro, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, and Lynette Woodard among many others. Jason told us that this commitment to featuring older players will be consistent in all Panini’s WNBA sets.
In October 2020, the company stepped up with the first-ever Prizm WNBA collection. “Prizm is by far the hottest brand that you can get in any sport, whether that be NBA, NFL, English Premier League, or the WNBA,” said Jason.
The WNBA Prizm cards are proving just as hot as any other sport. Buying these cards in big box retail stores is almost impossible, and buying them on secondary markets can be incredibly expensive. One reason for Prizm’s popularity is the different color parallels for each card.
The normal Liz Cambage card, known as the base set, comes in silver and red (her team’s color). But multiple different Liz parallels exist including the green one pictured below. Certain colors are also short prints to create value by scarcity. The blue Kristi Toliver parallel below is the 105th blue Kristi Toliver parallel made of 149 and the purple Seimone Augustus parallel is 121st of 125 purple cards of Seimone.
Buying and selling WNBA cards
The trading card market seems to be in the midst of a bubble. Many observers expect the market to crater and investors to lose their shirts. The conclusions may appear logical, after all the collectible market increased by 100% depending on how you define it. However, trading cards have been steadily increasing for years and card producers have committed to creating scarcity in the market, which could keep values high.
If you want to get in on the hobby either to make money or just have fun, here are some things we’ve learned about card collecting (and a good starter’s guide for the card market from folks with more experience).
The best places to shop for cards are Ebay or your local hobby/card shop or sometimes Amazon. But, you can buy cards in a few different ways. There are boxes of cards from manufacturers and resellers. For example, the 2021 WNBA Prizm Hobby Box (Panini’s most extensive product) comes with 12 packs per box and 12 cards in a pack for a total of 144 cards. Hobby boxes exclusively contain the best cards, so you’ll only be able to get the Color Blast cards and certain autograph cards from the very expensive hobby box.
Buyers can also get packs from big-box retailers (although many have stopped selling cards due to high demand and scalpers) and at card/hobby shops. Packs typically contain anywhere from 30 to 4 cards and sometimes feature rare inserts.
Of course, you can find boxes and packs or individual cards on the secondary market. Prices are often higher and buying individual cards can get very pricey. Resellers will often repackage their collections into smaller chunks called lots. WNBA buyers can get unopened full sets from earlier years.
For example, the 2002 Fleer Ultra hobby box were selling for about $40 in early 2021 and provided fans with unique and fun inserts, such as Lisa Leslie’s Summer Love insert with a piece of her jersey from the 2000 NBA All-Star Game 2ball competition. This card may not be extremely valuable (or at least not yet), but collectors get a little piece of obscure basketball history.
The beauty of this hobby is that you can collect cards in whichever way you want to. Some fans love opening packs and getting cards that they like to look at. Some people like the investing aspect of buying something for a quarter and selling it for a dollar. Others try to complete specific tasks like getting every Satou Sabally Prizm parallel. There’s no wrong way to collect cards as long as you respect the hobby, your fellow collectors, and the players whose cards you collect.
5 Most valuable WNBA cards sold this year
There are lists out there that purport to rank the most valuable WNBA cards. However, these sites lack evidence and are dated at this point, especially considering the recent boom. So, we performed our own study on the subject. Is this a scientific study of WNBA card value? No. But we did look up cards that have sold on Ebay this year and this should help you if you ever decide to get into card collecting and selling. Looking for sold items on Ebay is a helpful step in buying or selling cards. In truth, it’s hard to know the value of a card without seeing what it has sold for recently.
Price: listed at $28,000, best offer accepted.
Sabrina Ionescu is the hottest Prizm rookie card on the market and the black gold parallel is one of the hottest parallel colors for the Prizm brand. Black gold parallels are numbered to 5 and are the second most-rare parallel (only one black parallel exists for each card). The card probably didn’t sell for close to the $28k it was listed at, but it likely went for a big number. Sabrina’s current fame and this card’s scarcity will keep the price high relative to other Prizm cards, but Sabrina will have to grow into a Hall of Famer to make this card extremely valuable.
Maya Moore may be done with her WNBA career, but that just means the GOAT’s rookie card is appreciating. Maya has also gained more popularity in non-WNBA audiences for her work in freeing Jonathan Irons. Rittenhouse created a bit of value by numbering her rookie card to 225. Maya’s cards will get more expensive when she enters the Basketball Hall of Fame and we get further from her playing career. Don’t be surprised to see this card sell for much more in the future.
Price: listed at $1,999.98, best offer accepted
Candace Parker’s rookie card is valuable because it’s Candace Parker. After she graces the cover of NBA 2K22 and potentially wins a title in Chicago, Candace’s stock will only increase. While this card was also sold for an unknown offer, we can safely assume that the offer was close to the listing price because of what Maya Moore’s card went for. The PSA rating also increases this card’s value. Professional Sports Authenticator, or PSA, is a service that verifies the authenticity of cards (and autographs) and grades their condition. A 9 PSA rating means that the card is near perfect condition and will keep its value longer.
Price: listed at $1,500, best offer accepted
This card likely went for less than the listing price, considering that an autographed Breanna Stewart rookie card went for $1,277.55 recently. Breanna already has a Hall of Fame resume at age 26. So getting her rookie card now is a good investment since she’ll either end up as a great one or the greatest ever.
Price: listed at $1,399.98, best offer accepted
Sue Bird’s rookie cards are hard to come by. The 2002 Fleer Ultra set had a redemption system for rookie cards in which a buyer would have to get a redemption card in a pack and send it back to Fleer for a rookie card. The opportunity to redeem for 2002 rookie cards expired on May 30, 2003. It’s unclear what Fleer did with the unclaimed rookie cards, but Sue Bird’s is certainly valuable regardless of how many exist.
The Future of WNBA Cards
Despite the recent surge of popularity, the WNBA is far from equal representation in the card market. The WNBA is limited to one card brand whereas the NBA has many different sets every year. However, the WNBA card market will grow and Panini plans to make sure it does.
“We’re in year two of the WNBA relationship. We’re not going away on that side,” said Jason.
“We’ll continue to build and develop that [next] generation of WNBA collectors.”
WNBA Prizm’s next installment will be released on August 25th, 2021 and will feature l00 cards. The main addition to this year’s set is ultra-rare color blast inserts, including one of Sabrina Ionescu. Color blast inserts are truly gorgeous cards and resell for ludicrous prices on Ebay.
As Panini builds up its WNBA brand, other card makers have found ways to fill the gap.
After Crystal Dangerfield won the Rookie Of The Year Award without a Prizm card, Matt Peek of Parkside Collectibles saw an opportunity. Matt founded Parkside in 2018 and quickly found a place in “niche” markets by making cards of Major League Lacrosse and National Women’s Soccer League players. The Parkside team got in touch with Crystal’s representation and made a card of her for their Founder’s Choice series.
The card has no WNBA or Minnesota Lynx trademarks since Panini owns rights to those marks. But it does have a picture of Crystal with a big smile and her autograph. If Crystal continues to perform like she did in 2020, the $20 card will be worth a lot more at some point. More importantly, the card is a “really simple, tangible way to chronicle [Dangerfield’s story],” as Matt puts it.
On her end, Crystal was slightly irked by being left out of the Prizm collection, despite understanding the economics, and wanted a card of her own. But mainly, she understood that WNBA fans are starved for merchandise.
“As far as merch, I say no deal is too small if it’s going to help grow our game in that area and give fans of our’s opportunities to have something that represents us,” said Crystal.
Both Prizm cards and Parkside’s card of Crystal are instructive in terms of where the WNBA is as a league. If the Prizm collection shows how much the WNBA is growing, then Crystal’s Parkside card shows how intimate the league can still feel and how the league is at an inflection point.
Looking forward, big things are ahead in the sports trading card market, as Dibbs, a real-time trading platform that allows users to invest in fractions of physical sports cards through nonfungible tokens is raising $13 million in funding, with investors including the Phoenix Mercury’s Skylar Diggins-Smith. Big things should be ahead for WNBA cards, too.
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