The Basics of Trading Card Grading

Scott Hoyt
MLB Analyst

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What a strange and wild year 2020 has been so far. One thing this chaotic year has brought us which no one expected was the resurgence of the Trading Card industry, or better known as #TheHobby. With that new flood of collectors (myself included) comes a long list of questions about the childhood hobby most forgot about. One common question that gets thrown around a lot is, “how much is this card worth and how do I find out?” When I first started down that rabbit-hole of trying to figure out the answer, I stumbled upon “graded” cards. I figured I would write about what I found out and hopefully answer some questions people might have about this process. I wanted to keep it simple since this can actually be a complex topic so I decided to answer the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How about card grading in relation to trading cards.

What:

In simple terms, getting something graded starts with getting a card or piece of memorabilia inspected for authenticity and condition by a third party company and then receiving a “grade” on some sort of scale. Typically, cards are ranked on a 10-point scale or the condition of the card ranging from very poor (1) to gem mint (10). Some grading companies like Beckett will have specific “sub-grades” on the card like corners, surface, edges, and centering to give a more in-depth grade. Once given a grade, the card is typically put in a sealed case, given a label with a serial number, and then sent out to the customer. You can also get your card authenticated to prove its legitimacy, oftentimes with in-person autographs. You can get a variety of things graded such as a ticket to a game or even a comic book, it just depends on the company and what they are willing to offer. 

Why: 

There are many reasons why someone would want to get their card professionally graded, but the main reason is the increase in value associated with a graded card. This is where it can get tricky because you enter the realm of perceived value. What I perceive to be the value of a card with the grade of an 8, could hold completely different values than say someone who wants just Gem Mint 10’s. There are also some people who want to get the raw ungraded card “slabbed up”. Which is a term used by people in the hobby to distinguish that the card has been graded. It also makes it so the card can be considered “tamper-proof” since it is sealed in a case and can no longer be tampered with. But more times than not, graded cards hold more value than a raw ungraded card and that is the most common reason why to get your card graded. One important thing to know, and I cannot stress this enough, just because you are getting your card graded doesn’t mean it is going to automatically increase in value. Good example is a Mike Trout rookie card that is raw, might get you somewhere near $750. But a low graded Mike Trout rookie card like a 6 or 7 is going for $400-$500. Moral of this story is do some research on the card you are wanting to get graded and learn the value of that card. 

Who: 

There is a laundry list of different companies that offer graded card services. You can actually start your own grading card business for pretty cheap. The problem is building a reputation with collectors and gaining trust within the Hobby. How reputable these companies are is often up for debate, but for this article, I will highlight the common big-three of the trading card industry: 

PSA: (Professional Sports Authenticator) https://www.psacard.com/ NASDAQ: CLCT

Without getting into numbers, I would say PSA is the most common and most popular grading card company out there. If you google graded cards and look at the pictures tab, nine out of 10 are PSA graded cards. They have grown a lot since their inception in 1991 and with that came a lot of growing pains. The main gripe people have with PSA is the time it takes to get the order sent back and the lack of communication with that. I go into further detail in the “How” section, but essentially they were not getting the cards graded and returned in the paid upon turnaround time due to an insane increase in volume. Bulk orders that were submitted were going months without any progress and made a lot of people, rightfully, upset. But outside of that, PSA is pretty well regarded as the industry standard for graded cards. 

BGS: (Beckett Grading Service) https://www.beckett.com/ 

The only other company I think PSA considers competition currently is BGS. You can get into the differences and preferences of the overall look of their cards, but BGS offers something PSA doesn’t — subgrades. They offer the option for customers to have their subgrades listed on the card as well as the overall grade. These subgrades include Centering, Edges, Corners, and Surface. These subgrades give the customer a better understanding of how their card received the overall grade it did and some people believe this brings more value to the card. Currently, many collectors in the Hobby view BGS 9.5 as equal to a PSA 10, while a BGS 10 is often valued higher than a PSA 10. Many believe that BGS is harder on the grading of the cards and have higher standards for what grades they give out. This is where that perceived value I was talking about also comes into play. 

SGC: (SportsCard Guaranty) https://www.gosgc.com/

SGC on the surface seems like a grading company that is fairly new on the scene but they were actually established in 1998. They are the smallest of the big-three and are known more for their graded vintage cards, but are starting to gain popularity with newer cards and newer collectors. One thing that sets them apart from PSA and BGS is the thick black border on their case. I personally think this makes the card stand out versus the clear cases, but some people don’t like them. They are also cheaper and often times quicker than the other two. They also have the perceived best customer service out of the three, but we will see if that continues as the company grows. This is mainly because they don’t process as many cards, but it means you won’t be stuck on hold for hours with SGC. They claim to be “Changing the Game” and look to get in with new collectors as being the cheapest and fastest way to get your card graded. The current problem is that they are still building their reputation within the Hobby, and some of the older crowd isn’t too favorable to the new guy on the block. 

When: 

Go ahead and add another wrinkle into getting your card graded. Timing can be very critical to the value of a card and what your card might be worth. It’s important to note that grading your card isn’t always an instantaneous process. Though if you have enough money, you can do same day grading in person. But let’s take Dak Prescott for example. Before his freak ankle injury this year, Dak was leading the league in most passing categories and was on pace to possibly break some all-time records. The value of his cards before the injury were going through the roof! But that all came crashing down in the blink of an eye due to the uncertainty of his health and what his future might hold post-injury. It happens and it sucks, but it is something that you need to be aware of when trying to figure out the value of your card. This is the part where cards get compared to stocks and knowing when to hold and knowing when to sell. Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but these are things you are going to want to consider. The other factor to “When” is how long the turnaround is for getting the card graded. Most companies use a tier system for pricing. An example would be $50 per card for a 20-day turn around. Plain and simple, the quicker the turnaround, the more it’s going to cost you. 

Where:

This can be the most stressful part of getting your card graded as you are essentially trusting that your cards are going to get to the grading company and returned to you without any damage or theft. There are a lot of outside factors that can contribute to this but it is stressful nonetheless. This is the part where I need to clarify that this is a rarity, but it can happen. There are also some ways around this. One option is to schedule an appointment with the grading company to drop your cards off in person. Typically this costs a lot more than sending your cards in, and it’s done frequently. Pre-Covid, there was also the option of going to card shows and going to the grading card companies booth if they had one. Typically these companies are at major card shows and will have a representative on site that would do an in-person grading. Obviously with the card shows getting put on pause for the most part, this is something that I think could see a resurgence once those shows get going again. 

How:

Different grading companies have different protocols, but for the most part you are going to need some basic supplies. First thing you will need is a top loader or card saver to put your card in for protection. Once the card is in the top loader, it is recommended that you put two pieces of cardboard on each side of the card(s) to give extra protection during travel. Then once you have your card(s) properly secured you are going to want to put them in the box that you are planning to be sending off. It is important to fill all the empty space in the box as best as you can with bubble wrap or some sort of soft filler. After you have your boxed all nice and packaged up, you slap the labels on it and it’s ready to ship off. The next part of this process is where the grading companies make their money. Before sending your card(s) in you select the level of service you want done on these cards. The service is typically dependent on how fast you want the card graded and sent back. The quicker the turnaround the more it is going to cost you to get graded. For example with PSA, if you are sending in just one card, it costs $50 per card for a 25-day turn around (Non PSA member price). Same day walkthrough for one card is $500 with PSA. There are a ton of different options depending on the type of card and the declared value of the card, so it is important to do your own research on pricing and what you are looking for. It is also something to note that currently those turn around times are being impacted by Covid and sheer volume that some of these grading card companies are experiencing. The Hobby is booming and these guys are just getting caught up, so set expectations accordingly. 

So as you can see, there is a lot that goes into getting a card graded, and there is so much more that I didn’t cover in this write up. Most importantly, I wanted to provide people with the basics of Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How on getting something graded. I want to reiterate that it’s important to know that if you are going to get something graded that you do your own research and know the process for that company. This was a general overview and some companies might do things differently than I described here. Remember that getting your card graded can be a great thing for many card collectors, but getting your card graded doesn’t mean it instantaneously increased in value. I hope this write up helped shed some light on a growing industry and provided insight to something that could bring value to people. Happy Collecting and best of luck with the grades! 

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