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With PSA Grading on Pause, Card Collectors Have a Special Opportunity

As the industry leader suspends almost all grading services through June, the trading card hobby gets to be a hobby again. And that’s a serious gift.

As trading card transactions and valuations reach levels the market has never seen before, the hobby’s No, 1 grading authority was forced to suspend the majority of its services to keep up with the massive demand.

In early March, PSA announced that it would be raising its grading prices in an effort to manage submissions, but following the announcement, collectors scrambled to send in as many cards as possible before the increase went into effect. PSA reports that they received more cards in three days than it had in the preceding three months combined.

Record-setting demand is a good problem to have. But it presented a challenge.

“Given our growing backlog, it would be disingenuous for us to continue to accept submissions for cards that we will be unable to process in the foreseeable future,” said PSA President Steve Sloan. In a flash, the grading of 97% of PSA submissions was temporarily halted as the focus shifted to high-value cards.

During the suspension, PSA is vastly expanding its capacity and remains hopeful that they will begin to process all submissions again by July 1.

However, PSA’s pause leads to some bigger questions about the future of card grading. Of course, PSA will always be a leader in the industry, but as the hobby expands, room is opening up for competitors.

Beckett Grading has long been a popular but secondary option when it comes to getting cards evaluated; most other options out there offer little to no added value with their own card grades. Certified Sports Guaranty (CSG) and Hybrid Grading Approach (HGA) are hoping to change that, announcing their own grading service offerings in early March.

HGA offers a unique spin on the grading process, using a computerized, software-driven approach to certify and score the cards that significantly reduces subjectivity. Additionally, they hope to gain popularity through color-coordinated slabs that match the jersey worn by the featured athlete and the design scheme of the card itself.

There could also be intrigue added to the equation by trading card marketplaces like StarStock, which do not assign a specific numeric grade, but a letter grade instead. While this scale may come off as a bit more vague than an out-of-10 score by comparison, it is more reliable than, say, buying raw cards on eBay or in certain private transactions in which the buyer can only rely on photos taken by the seller.

If PSA’s struggles to meet demand continue into the back half of 2021, there would seem to be two foreseeable outcomes that would shake up the trading card market: either card-grading will become more politicized and inconsistent than it once was, or other grading services will emerge to offer collectors a full marketplace of worthy options all pushing each other to innovate.

But in the bigger picture, this moment presents a separate opportunity for card collectors that has nothing to do with grading at all.

Now that the vast majority of ungraded cards out there are set to remain that way for at least a few more months, the hobby gets to go back to being a hobby again.

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While trading cards have emerged as true alternative assets within a broader investment portfolio, collecting is meant to be fun. It’s a pastime. It’s a way for parents to connect with their kids and pass something onto them. It takes the athletes and teams that we already enjoy and gives us more ways to enjoy them.

If the hobby exists on a spectrum, with “collecting” on one end and “investing” on the other, we’re being presented with a chance to take a deep breath and embrace the good things that come with the trading card game shifting away from the latter and back towards the former for a while.

The emergence of alternative grading services means there’s room in the market for more than just PSA and Beckett, but time will tell if these alternative outlets contribute to enhanced growth for the trading card industry. In the meantime, we’re being presented with a chance to get back to the values that got us into collecting in the first place as kids.

If the card boom has taught us anything over the last year, it’s that many aspects of it are unpredictable. What can be counted on, however? No matter what the future holds for card-grading in 2021 and beyond, collectors who got into the hobby for the right reasons will never be disappointed.