Blast From the Packs: How I use eBay to buy sports cards

A $20 Topps Project 2020 art card for $5? Don’t mind if I do.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on using eBay, but I’ve been successful in the last month or so tracking down affordable boxes of old sports cards; grab bags of random packs of sports cards; and single cards of favorite players, including rookie cards (actually, they’ve mostly been rookie cards). I’ve learned a few things that have helped me along the way and wanted to share with anyone reading who might be starting to explore the hobby.

1. If you’re into the quick-ish fix, ‘buy it now’

eBay was built on the auction: Bid items up, set maximum bids, watch the clock, snipe away. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.

But honestly, that all kinda sucks most of the time. And in the categories I’m looking at, it seems like auctions quickly get out of hand, and rarely deliver much in the way of value. Yes, occasionally I’ll see an auction piece with just a few hours left that seems drastically underbid, and I’ll put it on my watchlist/put down a minor bid on it to keep an eye on it. And occasionally that will even pay off, as it did this morning when I got a four-pack of Ja Morant rookie cards, including the one I REALLY wanted, for only slightly more than the one I REALLY wanted was going for on the low end of “buy it now.” It was literally a last-second snipe, as someone else was clearly bidding in the final 30 seconds as well. Drama! Excitement! But that would have been annoying if I’d lost.

Buy it now, or BIN, though, is what I’ve used to find practically all the cards, boxes, and packs I’ve purchased, and usually for right around the trending price or less. Sure, some people set their BIN prices ridiculously high, like $900 for a card you can find just a couple listings down for $50 or less, but that’s easy enough to scope out if you’re looking through a list of similar or identical items.

The reason I say “quick-ish” above is because, well, it’s easy to get seduced by something you really like and then buy the first one you see that seems like a decent price. I speak from experience. The better route is to find something you really like and then do a little digging to confirm that you’re getting the best item at the best price. You may just be surprised when something that seems to be trending at $50 or $60 can be found for $10 or $20 with a more focused search.

2. Set your terms

My method starts with the search term: I search for the item I’m looking for, like “Ja Morant Luminance,” and immediately set the filter for BIN only. The more specific the better, but if you’re just looking for a certain player or brand of card and you want an idea of what’s out there, going more general at first is a good idea, and then once you’ve identified some cards or product that you want to zero in on, do a new search with the more specific info. If you’re really locked in, you can even add the set number of the card, or the specific variation you’re looking for (like “Ja Morant Luminance pink”).

If nothing else, this kind of specificity, coupled with sorting by lowest price (then generally raising the minimum price a bit to sift out the strange and usually fruitless “pick your card” listings that mention a bunch of hot players and start at 99 cents, thus ensuring their appearance at the top of this filter), will help you get a good idea of the market pricing for a certain card.

3. Use saved searches and watchlists judiciously

You may not necessarily want a million emails and notifications a day for these, but if you’ve really got your eye on something that you want to make sure you’re getting the best possible price on, set your search up the way you like it with the right terms and filters, then set it as a saved search. By default, you’ll get an email first thing in the morning each day with the new listings that satisfy your search terms, and you can quickly click to the full listings from that email, sort/filter, and browse again. You can also turn off the emails and just check your own saved searches directly from the website or app whenever you’re in the mood to hunt. Over the course of even a few days, you will start to get a feel for how “hot” a card or set/box/etc. is by how those prices move up and down. In sports cards especially, the market seems to be pretty active.

You can also watchlist individual listings, whether BIN or auctions, for different reasons. I’ve watchlisted individual BIN listings before just so I could remember “this is a card I want, and the price seems right, but I’m out of card-buying budget now, so I’ll revisit this later,” and then within a couple of days, I’ve received an email informing me that the seller is offering a discount on the card to those of us who are watching the listing. At that point, it’s up to you whether the savings are worth it, or if you’re feeling pressed by the fact that there are 10 other people watching the card who also just got this offer, but it’s a nice feature. I’ve also watchlisted auctions that had a few days remaining because I didn’t want to bid yet, but I also wanted to be reminded as it got closer to closing in case the bidding stayed low. Many times I’ll be reminded and notice that there are now 40-some bids and the bidding is well beyond what I wanted to pay, so I delete it from my watchlist and go on with my day. It can be worth it if you’re not in a hurry (and my advice to you is to be in as little of a hurry as possible in this hobby).

4. How much is it REALLY worth, though?

Most of the time, I find a card I like, I do the stuff mentioned above, I find a price that feels agreeable compared to the other prices I’ve been seeing, and I pull the proverbial trigger. I don’t really care if I’m paying over “book” or whatever it’s listed for in Beckett, because for me, eBay prices ARE the value. If I get a card for $10 that’s mostly going for $20, and then I can turn around the next day and sell it for $20, does it matter if it’s only listed for $6 in a price guide somewhere? Not to me.

But sometimes, it’s worth doing a little extra digging inside and outside of eBay to get a better idea of what a card is really going for. Inside of eBay, there’s a neat trick where you can take whatever search you’re doing and look in the filters for the “Show only” category, then select “Sold items.” From there, you can sort like you normally would to find the highest, lowest, or most recent prices. This is a nice way, when you find a card that seems to have a million listings for a wide range of prices (or high starting bid prices but zero bids), to get a feel for what people are actually paying. I did this for an old Michael Jordan Skybox card recently because I was seeing list prices ranging from $7 to about $120. It turned out it was closer to that $7 end.

You can also go to the aforementioned Beckett website and search for the card you’re looking for in the top search bar. You can either subscribe to the magazine/online price guides, which are pretty danged expensive for amateurs collecting in multiple sports (like me), or you can purchase a month of pricing for individual cards for 50 cents a piece (minimum purchase of $5; if you only want one listing now, you pay the $5 and essentially have credits to use for more listings down the road, so that’s kind of nice). You can also sometimes “cheat” the system a little bit if the card you’re looking for is listed on the Beckett Marketplace. When you search for a card, any listings for the card on the marketplace show up right next to it, along with their condition grades. You’ll notice, usually, that there’s a high degree of agreement among listings for a given card, so the more listings there are, the more helpful this information is.

Hmm, I’m getting a feeling I shouldn’t pay much more than $6 for this card.

For higher-value, more sought-after cards, you may be able to Google the card and find it listed at other auction sites, or for sale by card shops across the country. Even for lower-value cards, it’s worth the 15 seconds or so it will take you to run that search and see what comes up. Whether you end up buying it at eBay or elsewhere, this is all good data to collect when you’re trying to find the bottom end of a card’s price range, or determine whether there’s much movement in its value over time.

5. Check the photos and re-check the listing

The other day I got excited because I saw what I thought was a massively undervalued Joe Burrow rookie card, so I clicked buy it now and completed the sale, only to notice this card was only available for “local pickup” meaning no shipping, and the seller was in Massachusetts. I am 700 miles away. Whoops. When I contacted the seller to let him know I’d made an error and request a cancel on the sale, he also informed me that this was a digital card for an online card collecting game by Panini. Double whoops. That’s what happens when you get excited and hurry!

I’ve seen a lot of digital cards for sale, and while they’re usually only a buck or two, some of the more “rare” ones, which also have real-world rare equivalents, can be as much as $50 or more (I can’t fathom paying any real-world money for digital cards, but that’s me). So be careful and check listings for words like “digital,” “Topps Bunt,” “Panini NBA Dunk,” or “Panini NFL Blitz,” among others.

I also checked the photo for that listing and should have noticed that it didn’t look like a physical card, it looked more like a stock photo. Like I said, I was excited in and in a hurry, clearly! I check the photos on every listing I’m interested in so I can do a little amateur card grading. Most of the time, the photos are actually focused and high-resolution enough for me to be able to do some evaluation on the corners and edges of the card at least, and if I’m able to see a stubbed corner or a flaky edge on the photo, I can safely figure that the condition of the card isn’t great (of course, when you bid on slabbed/graded cards, this isn’t an issue). Sometimes the listings are pretty honest about the card having some damage, and are “priced accordingly,” but most of the time people just say the card is “pack fresh” or “brand new” or “near mint,” which doesn’t tell you a lot. If the photos are crummy but the price is right and you really just want the card for your collection, caveat emptor, I guess. I’ve been pretty lucky so far, but I’ve also not gotten to the point of having any of the cards I’ve purchased professionally graded, so we’ll see how discerning my eye really is when that happens.

6. Have fun and don’t go broke

There’s something about buying stuff online that can be addictive like drugs for a lot of people, myself included. I can’t deny I’ve had to work pretty hard on self-control to keep myself from overspending on eBay finds, because it feels really good to A. find something I like B. for a good price and C. receive it in the mail a few days later. It’s fun and interesting, and I’m learning more about how the industry works, what sets are the most sought-after, what players are the hottest, why certain cards spike in value while others lay dormant, etc. etc., on and on, so it’s really a double-dopamine hit of learning and buying stuff.

It may sound like I’m joking around a bit here, but honestly, if someone is predisposed to gambling or addiction, a hobby like this could quickly spiral out of control. Do your best to set a budget for yourself and stick to it, try to limit how much you look at eBay or your chosen auction/shop sites, and don’t be afraid to seek help if you feel like you are losing control. The Shulman Center offers help for people with compulsive buying/shopping behaviors online or over the phone, and there’s even a book you can buy (ironic, sort of) that you can read to start recovery on your own.

Thanks for reading and if you’ve got any tips or information on how you participate in sports card collecting online, feel free to drop it in the comments below.

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