Who are the Best Card Grading Companies?

Collectibles

Unlike collectors of paintings, watches, and rare cars, trading card enthusiasts inherently embrace the gamble of their hobby. While those who display their Monets, Rolexes, and Model T’s knew exactly what they were purchasing at the time of the transaction, most collectors of baseball, basketball, and football cards embrace their inner-Detective David Mills, while risking big bucks to learn what’s in the box.

However, ripping the wax, foil, or cellophane off a pack of sports cards to learn what unique treasures lurk beneath is only the first leg of the journey. To maximize the full potential and, in some cases, profit of their newly acquired commodity, trading card hobbyists must moonlight as financial masochists, gamble again by doubling down, and pay to have their cards professionally graded.

Once the pandemic of 2020 ignited a swathe of boredom around the globe, those who had collected cards as kids quickly dusted off their childhood and started researching how much their cardboard gems were worth. They soon realized the hobby had changed significantly and that if they wanted to earn the highest return on investment, those precious momentous needed to be slabbed, slang for graded.

This realization was amplified by social media channels, Reddit threads, and Discord chats, and led to the top two professional grading companies in the United States, PSA and Beckett Grading Services (BGS), suffocating under an avalanche of submissions. The avalanche metaphor is not hyperbole, we’re talking millions and millions of “grade my card” requests.

This unexpected surge turned the hobby upside down overnight and forced this facet of the hobby to rethink its business models. We’ll touch on that more in a second, but first want to dig into the nooks and crannies of how and why sports cards have sold for record highs over the past six months.

Kevin Durant BGS Graded Card

How The Grading Process (Is Suppose) to Work

At its core, the trading card grading process is supposed to evaluate the overall quality of the card on a 1-10 scale. Using a jeweler’s magnifying loop, grading specialists at PSA, BGS, and the like are typically assessing four different areas of the card:

  1. Centering – is the card centered top-to-bottom and left-to-right?
  2. Corners – are the corners razor-sharp or is there softening, whitening?
  3. Edges – are they clean or are there signs of chipping (common on cards with dark edges)?
  4. Surface – is it clean and clear of imperfections like dimples, creases, and scratches?

Unlike veteran industry peers PSA and SGC which provide the overall grade 1-10, BGS offers customers the option to display sub-grades on their slabs. So, while the overall grade of a BGS card could be 9.5 (out of 10), it might have earned a 9-grade on the surface sub-grade. It simply provides more transparency to the quality of the card.

Also, with more premium cards autographed these days, grading companies offer customers the option to have not only the card graded, but the player’s signature as well. Most autographs earn a 10-grade, sloppy handwriting where the autograph flies off the side of the card or is smudged in any way will earn a lower grade and, unfortunately, negatively impacts the value of the card quite a bit. Bottom line: you don’t want to earn an auto-grade of 9-or-less.

What Makes a Sports Card Valuable?

This is a loaded question without an easy answer because, for some, ‘valuable’ is defined by the individual and not dollars and cents. However, after gambling on the pack or box of cards and gambling to have a card graded by professionals, let’s assume the “valuable” we speak of in this instance is *checks notes* straight cash.

Let’s break down the factors, in no particular order, which can make a sports card valuable:

  • Featured player(s)/athlete(s) – if it’s a Mickey Mantle rather than a Mario Mendoza, the trading card is going to be worth more. Profound, I know.
  • Rookie Badges – while rookie cards have always been coveted, only over the past decade have collectors been particularly drawn to a prospect’s card featuring the “RC” badge somewhere on the front.
Fernando Tatis Topps Rookie PSA 10
  • Scarcity – the trading card market was flooded with products during the mid-to-late 1980s and early-1990’s, leaving most cards of the era practically worthless. Card manufacturers learned some lessons from oversaturating the market and found new ways to make certain cards scarcer. Modern trading cards are often serial numbered anywhere from 1-of-499 copies in the entire world to the highly coveted 1-of-1, which is typically an amazing design that high-end collectors pay a premium for at auction.
  • Card Grade – circling back to the topic du jour, cards graded by PSA and BGS, and to a certain extent SGC, are worth more than a card in their raw, ungraded condition. The caveat to that increased value is of course the grade the card received. In most cases, you want a PSA 9 or 10 and/or a BGS 9, 9.5, or 10 for the card to be worth more than the raw version. If your card is graded an 8.5-or-lower by either company, chances are you lost some money on the investment. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare.
  • Elements – modern-day cards started inserting game-used jersey swatches, pieces of a player’s shoe, and even gold bars to create unique aesthetics collectors would crave. These additional elements can boost the value, but also keep an eye out for language on the back of the card that insinuates “player-worn” versus “game-worn” because the dollars-and-cents difference is significant.
  • Design – I’m one of those collectors who view certain trading cards as works of art due to the creative design used in the card’s creation. Case in point, Panini’s Kaboom series that debuted back in 2013-14 embraces a comic book hero motif and has enjoyed a surge in market value in recent months. With the popularity of the Marvel and DC movie franchises at the box office, it’s no surprise.
Lebron James Kaboom BGS 9

Best Card Grading Service

When it comes to grading sports cards, ‘best’ is relative. Just like in sports, tribalism plays a huge role in assessing the pros and cons of the industry leaders in the space. As somebody who rekindled their love of collecting back in 2013 and has followed the hobby at an unhealthy level for the better part of the past eight years, PSA was once considered the preferred grading company of vintage trading cards, while Beckett carried the grading torch of modern cards.

However, if we’re strictly speaking brass taxes, PSA has separated itself from the rest of the pack as the grading company that provides the highest financial return should the card grade out a 10. PSA 10’s have sold for more when compared to a BGS 9.5 True Gem Mint – meaning all the sub-grades were 9.5-or-higher. Most collectors subscribe to the notion that a BGS 9.5 True Gem Mint would crossover to a PSA 10, thus creating an equal playing field.

Note: BGS Pristine 10’s and BGS Black Label 10’s, when the sub-grades are all 10’s, are exceptions to this rule because they are extremely rare compared to PSA 10, which some believe are awarded too often.

PSA

Founded in 1991, Professional Sports Authenticator, better known as PSA, not only grades cards, but is also the industry leader in third-party autograph authentication. If you get a player’s autograph at a ball game or special event, PSA will guarantee its authenticity should you ever want to sell it. The company is the standard-bearer in this niche of the hobby.

No company endured 2020’s avalanche of grading submission like PSA. On top of the surge, PSA’s offices are located in California, which was shut down for weeks during the early days of the pandemic, thus causing the company to fall even further behind on orders. Late last year, PSA, a publicly-traded company, was bought out by a private equity company.

In an effort to catch up on the grading backlog, the new owners made the tough decision to suspend services for the most popular grading tiers. Only high-end grading requests would be accepted, those being Super Express, which costs customers $300 to have their one premium card graded, and same-day walkthrough at $600 per card request.

PSA’s million-card backlog forced the company to cease their “Express” service, which costs customers $150 to have one card graded. Imagine how good business is when you’re turning away customers willing to shell out $150 to have one card graded.

This decision — made back in late-March — bought PSA time to catch up. Their goal is to have all service levels back up and running by July 1.

Beckett (BGS)

Founded in 1984, Dr. James Beckett started a monthly trading card price guide publication while a professor at Bowling Green State University (Ay Ziggy!). Over the years, the company evolved into an industry leader in many areas including card grading and, like their competitor PSA, autograph authentication services.

And like PSA, Beckett made an announcement recently that they would not be providing Express, Standard, and Economy grading services due to the heavy volume of orders received throughout 2020 and on into 2021. The hope is to get caught up by the time the National Sports Card Convention begins in Chicago July 27 – 31st.

Beckett Grading Services

SGC

Founded in 1998, SGC’s “tuxedo” black slabs often featured tobacco cards of the early-1900’s and were also leaned on as PSA-light for other vintage graded cardboard requests. However, with PSA and Beckett playing catch up, SGC has seized the moment, lowered their grading prices, and have noticed a significant uptick in business over the past two months. Based on customer feedback on Facebook forums and other social media channels, SGC’s turnaround times are quicker than expected and final product embraced.

HGA & CSG

Founded in 2020, these two companies have attempted to carve out their own space in the hobby as an alternative to the big three grading companies.

HGA’s unique slab designs that can be customized to match the design of the card in addition to the use of artificial intelligence, deep learning software, have earned them significant business and positive feedback from those who have used them over the past six months or so. However, their grading process and brand notoriety still needs the experience to challenge the big dogs. Based on eBay sales, HGA slabs cards will sell, but not at the prices enjoyed by owners of PSA and BGS graded cards.

CSG’s simple slab design has earned negative commentary from the masses, but for some collectors on a budget, their lower prices and quick turnaround times are worthy of consideration if looking to protect your PC (personal collection, a.k.a. not selling).

When is it Worth Getting a Sports Card Graded?

Aside from “what is my card worth?” the most common question among new (and old) collectors is “should I get this graded?” To that, I typically respond “to each his/her own.”

At the end of the day, if you’re prioritizing selling over collecting,my advice is to get your best cards graded. Those cards that possess one or more of the What Makes A Card Valuable factors mentioned in the section above are the best candidates for a grading submission. Just remember, the grading process is a gamble in itself.

There are no guarantees of a PSA or BGS 9 or 10 and the pain felt after receiving a low card grade mimics earning an “F” on that final exam. It happens to collectors all the time and the wounds are real. So, when evaluating your “best” cards, be sure to do your due diligence when reviewing the card’s centering, corners, edges, and surface. The time spent before could save you from heartache later.

Parting Thought: New Hires

Both PSA and Beckett have issued press releases over the past year stressing their efforts to expand and hire more graders to handle the heavy order flow. At face value, this appears like a good thing. PSA’s office expansion in California and eagerness to add more eyeballs to the process is appreciated. However, are we – as collectors – sure we want novices handling and grading our cards that could be worth hundreds, thousands, or even tens-of-a-thousands of dollars?

I have a buddy who owns a tool sharpening manufacturing business in Northeast Ohio. In order to learn how to run the machines that sharpen the burrs and mills, new hires must adhere to an on-site apprenticeship of sorts. He told me it can take up to 1.5-2 years for new employees to learn the process. Some of the veteran employees have been there for decades and know the ins and outs of every machine.

What I’m getting at is how will PSA’s and Beckett’s new hires apply grades versus the veteran staff members who have more experience? Whether or not you want to admit it aloud, grading is a unique and gifted skill. If it wasn’t, cards wouldn’t be selling for five-and-six figures at auction houses. The person behind the graded slab matters and hopefully these two industry leaders – in their rush to get back to business as usual – don’t baptize these new hires by fire.

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