KING OF CARDS
Bloomberg Businessweek|June 14, 2021
Sports trading cards are having a moment. And no one promotes the industry like Ken Goldin
Lucas Shaw
KEN GOLDIN ARRIVED AT HIS OFFICE in Runnemede, N.J., at about 8:30 p.m. on March 6 and ordered a Philly cheesesteak with pizza sauce from Luigi’s restaurant. Goldin is a former triathlete and normally a health freak, but he’s also superstitious, and the pizza steak—no onions, extra sauce on the side—had brought him luck recently. In November his company, Goldin Auctions, sold $16 million worth of sports memorabilia, a personal record at the time. In January he booked $36 million, more than he’d done in all of 2019.

For March, Goldin had a bigger number in mind: $40 million. Thousands of potential buyers had started placing bids that week on more than 2,000 items, including a bat used by Cal Ripken Jr., sneakers signed by Michael Jordan, and at least five trading cards Goldin thought could earn more than $1 million each, including rookie cards featuring LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Roberto Clemente.

On auction day, Goldin speaks with only a handful of buyers and sellers, serving for those VIPs as part financial adviser, part therapist. He sets expectations for sale prices, counsels on when to bid and hold, and calms nerves as prices escalate. One buyer, who agreed to be identified by only his first name, Spencer, wanted to discuss three cards: the Bryant, the Clemente, and a 1952 Mickey Mantle. Spencer started buying from Goldin two years ago, initially spending $40,000. Now he’s up to about $3.5 million. “You’re going to make sure I get something?” Spencer asked. Goldin assured him he would.

Spencer landed the Mantle, though he was outbid for the biggest prize of the night, Bryant’s 1996 Topps Chrome Refractor card, which shows the former Los Angeles Lakers star driving to the basket, surrounded by chrome edges that refract the colors of the rainbow. Bryant’s cards have long been among the sport’s most coveted, because of his Hall of Fame career, but their prices have soared since his untimely death last year. This one was especially valuable: It had been graded 10 out of 10 by professional authenticators, one of only two of that particular card to achieve that rating. Cards are graded on how pristine their corners, surfaces, and edges are, and how perfectly the photo is centered. Scratches, stains, or anything else affecting the overall “eye appeal” lower the rating.

Bidding on Goldin’s live auction site had started at $250,000 and passed $1 million before he took a bite of his pizza steak. Soon a bidding war erupted. Someone offered $1.26 million. Moments later, a rival bid $1.36 million. The first person countered with $1.5 million. The value of the card had jumped $500,000 in two minutes.

But 10 minutes before the auction was scheduled to close, customers started calling to say they couldn’t place bids. Goldin went live on Instagram to blame SimpleAuctionSite. com, his tech provider, vowing never to use it again. (Chief Executive Officer Bob Freedman says his company, which supplies more than 150 businesses with auction software, was hacked. “We’ve hired a security firm,” he says. Goldin still uses the platform.)

The site was back online about 30 minutes later, and by the time the extended bidding session closed just before midnight, Goldin had sold $41 million in cards and memorabilia. The Bryant card went for $1.75 million, the highest sum of the evening. “My little company running on 2002 software is one-quarter the size of EBay,” he said on Instagram at about 1 a.m., referring to the volume of his sports memorabilia sales. In a late May auction, Goldin surpassed $50 million in sales, putting the company at $200 million for the year and on pace for $500 million. It keeps 20%.

Goldin, who’s 55, has been buying and selling cards since 1978, when he traded some electric racetrack cars for his friend’s collection of about 5,000 baseball cards, including ones featuring Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Nolan Ryan. Over the next four-plus decades, Goldin became the hobby’s most vocal ambassador, appearing on HSN, QVC, CNBC, and any other station that would let him talk up the industry. He started his auction house in 2012, and today he streams live on Instagram at least once a week for up to an hour, opening packs from a full box of cards—a “break,” in industry terms— while taking questions with his son, Paul, who’s 7.

As they stream from their home, Paul identifies the rookie cards of promising young stars. Goldin interjects to grab certain players, show them to the camera, and place them in protective plastic sleeves. In the past year, his following on Instagram has increased from about 1,000 to more than 38,000. Pro athletes including Cleveland Indians reliever Bryan Shaw and Philadelphia 76ers guard Seth Curry have joined the streams to discuss the market; Curry even invited Goldin to a game. In February, Goldin opened a box of Pokémon cards with YouTube star Logan Paul. “We have something the hobby has never had before,” Goldin says. “All of a sudden, we’re cool.”

The sports memorabilia industry is on track to see almost $10 billion in sales this year, most of which will come from trading cards. Just as investors with too much time and cash on their hands during the pandemic have bought cryptocurrencies, nonfungible tokens (NFTs), music rights, and other alternative assets, they’re funneling cash into cards.

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