Michael Jordan rookie cards soar to new heights after 'The Last Dance'

As you’ve probably heard Michael Jordan is having a moment — which isn’t all that surprising, because after so many, what’s one more.

And you know who’s loving it? Anybody who owns a Michael Jordan rookie card.

Amid MJ Mania — what is this, version 3.0? — his famous rookie card sold for $51,600, a new record. You know the one. Jordan has his tongue slightly hanging out as he flies toward the basket. It’s that young, hungry Jordan we saw in the first two episodes of “The Last Dance” when it debuted on ESPN to record audiences last weekend.

This particular record-breaking card was a Gem Mint 10, which basically means it’s pristine in every way, the best of the best. But even the not-quite-immaculate cards are reaching new heights. Earlier this week, a Jordan rookie card graded as a 9 by PSA, the leading trading card grader, sold for $11,285 only to be eclipsed by another 9 the next day for $12,500.

Our current conditions might be creating a perfect storm for collectors. We’re all cooped up because of the coronavirus. Nearly all the attention in sports lately — save for the NFL draft — has been focused on Michael Jordan. Meanwhile, people who collected cards back in the 1980s have the time and renewed interest to pull them out and see what’s been hiding. And people who have the means are also perusing eBay or auction houses while they get caught up in Jordan nostalgia.

“I think we already knew that Michael Jordan was pretty good before ‘The Last Dance,’” says Joe Orlando, the president and CEO of Collectors Universe, the parent company of PSA. He’s one of the leading experts on sports cards and their values. “But now it’s like throwing gas on the fire.”

Why Michael Jordan rookie cards are different

In the summer of 2018, a guy named John in New Jersey saw a story on the news about a 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card that was expected to fetch $3.5 million at auction. He was pretty sure he had some of those. Sure enough, he went into a box that held his baseball cards from years ago and there were five of them. This discovery by John — he never released his last name — made headlines and eventually sold for more than $1 million. His cards weren’t in the same good shape as the $3.5 million card, but that’s still quite a windfall.

The point is, sometimes it takes big mainstream news coverage for people to remember what they have stored away in their garage or attic. “The Last Dance” and the hype around Michael Jordan could send former collectors back into their garages looking for their old treasures.

“There are people who were very active in that time that were very familiar with the Michael Jordan rookie card,” Orlando says. “You have these people who were collectors back in those days that have become disconnected with the current market. They may still have this card. That’s what’s exciting about this.”

Unlike modern collectibles, where top dollar goes to 1-of-1 cards with autographs or memorabilia attached, the ‘86 Fleer Jordan is just a regular card. It’s No. 57 in the set. But it’s *the* Jordan rookie card. Just like the 1989 Upper Deck is *the* Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card.

“Simplicity matters,” Orlando says. “Even people who are not advanced collectors know that that’s the card.”

What’s so interesting about the Jordan rookie card vs. the Mantle rookie or other famous old rookie cards is that MJ’s isn’t particularly rare. As Orlando told Yahoo Sports, his company has graded 311 Gem Mint 10 Jordan rookie cards. PSA has graded 2,703 Jordan rookies that rate as a 9 and sell for more than $10,000.

What’s more impressive, Orlando said, is that these cards are still rising in value, despite not being particularly hard to find in the market.

“I don’t care if you’re talking about Mickey Mantle or any other player,” Orlando said. “I don’t know that there’s as much depth to a single card as the 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan.”

Prices of Michael Jordan rookie cards are going up after ESPN's "The Last Dance."  (BPS/VM/SB)
Prices of Michael Jordan rookie cards are going up after ESPN's "The Last Dance." (BPS/VM/SB)

Do you have a Jordan rookie sitting around?

If you haven’t followed sports cards in the past 25 years, it’s an entirely different ballgame. What used to serve as cardboard for kids to put in their bike spokes in the 1950s and 1960s turned into mass-produced, get-rich-quick-schemes that fell flat in the 1980s and 1990s. Now it’s more like a stock market.

Rookie cards, the best ones at least, are a commodity. The serious collectors knew which Zion Williamson rookie cards to hunt down before he even played a game.

So if you’re one of those bygone collectors with a Jordan rookie card sitting around, you might not recognize the sports card market these days. Any card worth a substantial amount of money has to be graded. PSA, Orlando’s company, is the leader in that. You mail away your card to PSA, which grades it based on its condition and that automatically puts a value on it.

Gem Mint 10s sell for a specific price. So do 9s, 9.5s, 8.5s and so on. This is true whether we’re talking about the Michael Jordan rookie, Zion Williamson rookies or those fabled Mickey Mantle rookies.

Orlando expects other Jordan memorabilia to see a similar spike. Autographs, for instance, are something he says are on the rise. Normally, the law of supply and demand would tell you that the more rare the autograph, the more valuable it is.

This is another case where Jordan seems to defy convention.

“Standard autographed products, like signed jerseys or balls, a lot of those products range from several hundred dollars to $10,000,” Orlando says. “That’s substantial considering he’s still alive and he signed a considerable amount of autographs in his time.”

Remember there are four more weeks of “The Last Dance” and Jordan nostalgia to catapult the collectibles market even higher, so expect all the prices to keep rising.

“He’s Michael Jordan,” Orlando says. “What else is there to say?”

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