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Chasing Cardboard: How a North Idaho man turned in corporate burnout for a life of high-stakes sports card-trading on YouTube

Apr. 20—The setting may be a living room instead of a board room, but Ty Wilson is still cutting deals.

Wilson gave up a professional livelihood negotiating seven-figure contracts for software companies, uprooting his family from their home in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2021 to settle in the shadow of Schweitzer Mountain in Sandpoint.

Wilson's focus now is his YouTube channel, Chasing Cardboard, where he and his team produce episodes documenting his travels around the nation, including in the Inland Northwest, in the pursuit of high-value sports cards and collections potentially worth tens of thousands of dollars.

"We knew this didn't exist, that was the key thing," said Wilson, who partnered with cinematographer Matt Coleman of Dallas to start Chasing Cardboard. "Most sports card content (on social media) is all about opening a card or a pack or a box and flipping a camera around and making it all about them. But what if we told stories just using the cardboard as the mechanism?

"Most of the time when you're watching an episode, you forget it's about the sports cards. The people we're talking to are fascinating stories."

Boom or bust

Wilson leverages his "strategic advantage" as a high roller who scoops up entire collections that can consist of hundreds of thousands of cards and other collectibles.

"When I'm buying, I have an advantage most guys don't have — a normal guy can't go spend $50,000," he said. "But they have to because I can spend $40,000, and I have an extra $10,000 from the audience we have. We buy knowing we have a very strong advantage."

The scale of Wilson's purchases is orders of magnitude greater than those of the average collector, but so, too, is the boom-or-bust nature of the enterprise.

"Before we started filming, I put an ad in the (Bonner County Daily Bee) in Sandpoint and probably got 20 calls from 50-, 60-plus-year-old men who said, 'Hey, I've got stuff if you're paying cash, trading guns or ammo or a tractor.' It was very North Idaho, and it was my first year up here. I was not ready for any of that.

"I went to see a gentleman in Kootenai (Idaho) ... and he goes to his safe and pulls out an entire run of Mickey Mantle cards — every year except the 1952. He goes, 'I'll sell them all to you.' Nothing is graded. He just had held on to them for 20 years. I was blowing the dust off of them. I asked, 'How do you want me to price these for you?' He said, 'Take them home, look them up and tell me what you think.' There was that trust in 20 minutes.

"I went home, snapped pictures of them all, put a spreadsheet together, came back a couple days later. 'Here's what they're probably worth, here's what I'll pay.' ... He goes, 'If you can do that in cash, we'll do it right now.' Sure, done deal. That was my first 'Whoa, shoot, there's really good opportunities even in the Pacific Northwest.' That got me very excited."

Not all transactions are as fortuitous, of course.

Wilson noted the time he bought a 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan rookie card — one of basketball's most sought-after cards — and discovered it had been trimmed, perhaps with scissors, only after he had sent it in to be graded. The card was authenticated but "didn't even get a grade on it, so it just kills the value," Wilson said.

Wilson has learned pre-screening potential sales doesn't ensure the desired cards discussed earlier will be there upon his arrival.

"That's happened three times now," he said.

In an episode on YouTube, Wilson negotiated for a sports card collection with a man who expressed the need to pay off urgent bills. Wilson was unwilling to meet the asking price until the man's wife pitched in her considerable assortment of Funko pop-culture collectibles.

"That was the biggest mistake I've made in recent collections," Wilson said. "I didn't make a good deal on that. I got super emotionally attached. It's hard, right? Someone's looking at you like I need this money for this bill — some of that wasn't even on camera — and I'm there, I feel the obligation to do it. I'm recording in your home.

"I thought I could move into that Funko audience. Totally different world, man. Such little overlap there. I was selling well below even recent auction (prices) because I didn't have that audience. Never again."

The challenges he encounters on the road make for compelling video for his YouTube audience, and Wilson said the purpose of the channel is to share others' personal stories.

"If it's to make money or to flip or to buy the next thing or the next big card, we usually stay away," he said. "If it's to fund something in your family, if it's to save a situation, we're all ears. ... Cards are great, and I hate turning away good cards, but we can buy cards anywhere. I'd rather have a good story."

Down to a science

Wilson, an avid skier, relocated to North Idaho with his wife, May, and their seven children. Wilson said he met his wife — they have been married 18 years — through Campus Crusade for Christ in college, and missions in service to their faith sent them to China, Hong Kong, Thailand and Mexico.

Wilson spent more than a decade in sales roles at various companies in and around Kansas City.

"The phone is never off," he said. "You're always trying to close a deal or hit the next meeting. Constant. Just 10 years of constant."

He said his wife's commitment to their family made his career transition possible.

"To manage seven kids is a bigger job than I have, right?" he said. "She feels like her calling is the kids, so that helps a ton in what I do. She supports it a ton. Me being in the corporate world so long, she knew I was burned out and stressed. She knew what my passion was. She is the one that encouraged me to take a shot at this."

Their oldest son, Jackson, is 15 and assists Coleman with filming and editing, experience he'd be unlikely to get elsewhere as a teenager.

"I think it's something I would want to do professionally, too: video editing and film work and all of that," Jackson said.

Wilson said he employs his kids' help with sifting and sorting cards, and the business has "become very much a family affair."

He added: "It's so integrated in our life, we are working harder and harder to divide these days, these nights when we're not doing things with cards and can focus on other things, focus on each other."

Wilson credited James Mize with assisting with the processing of hundreds of thousands of cards to be made available for sale online within days. Mike Moynihan, who specializes in vintage cards, and prospects expert Tyson Banker help Wilson determine the value of cards.

"We've got it down to a science," Wilson said. "We can take half a million cards and know in about a week exactly what 2,000 or 3,000 we need to grade or sell. All the rest, we offload them. We'll sell them in bulk to local card shops."

Wilson said Chasing Cardboard made 35,000 transactions on eBay in 2023 but is increasing its footprint on Whatnot, which Wilson described as "the largest live auction marketplace for sports cards."

"The problem with eBay — fees for sure — but it's just a title and just a description," Wilson said. "There is no personality behind that jersey. I go to a live auction (like Whatnot), I can take 200 cards in a night, show them off, talk about them, relate them to a story, and I get 10, 20, 30% more than I would on eBay and move it right then."

Wilson said he would like to open a card shop to sell Chasing Cardboard's inventory, but Sandpoint likely is too small to support one. The Spokane market is too saturated, he said, and card shops are already established in Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls.

On the road

Wilson's affable personality stands out in front of the camera, as does Coleman's polished work behind it, with panoramic drone shots and strong production value. Wilson said Coleman has been producing videos for 25 years, and the two first connected during the coronavirus pandemic. Coleman was getting back into the hobby and reached out to Wilson, who was hosting a podcast about collecting in Kansas City. After teaming together for a project, Coleman approached Wilson with the idea for Chasing Cardboard.

"He said, 'Hey, I have an idea I've been thinking about for a long time, let me pitch it to you,' " Wilson said. "We went and filmed the pilot together in Houston. It was OK. Then we went back and refilmed the pilot in Houston and got it done, and that ended up becoming episode one.

"It's evolved a lot, but we took that episode ... and then pitched it to the networks. For three months, we pitched it to History Channel, we pitched it to A&E, we pitched it to Magnolia Network. We tried anybody we thought was a good fit. The constant response was, sports cards are not big enough of a niche to be on broadcast. Two of the three were like, 'Go build up YouTube and prove to us you can build up a big enough audience. Show us consistency in the view count. See if you can last.' We took it as a challenge."

Chasing Cardboard has produced episodes from 17 states, as well as Canada. Wilson said revenue made through YouTube pays for traveling expenses.

"When recording, we try to combine multiple episodes into one trip," Wilson said. In February, "we took a trip and got six episodes done in 10 days. Four or five states, combine them all, get the team, the gear and go. ... We try to do that for the sake of all our families."

Wilson said he is aiming for at least 50,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, which currently has more than 34,000, by the end of the year.

"Our goal when we started this was to be the first 1 million-subscriber channel in the content creator world," he said. "It became a personal goal once they said the sports card world is not big enough to support broadcast. ... The good thing about what we do is, it's raised the bar for everybody else. Everybody else has to create better content to do super well."