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    Sports card store turns into a score for collectors

    Three years ago Matt Thomas left his job in the State Department to spend his days opening packs of baseball cards.

    At least that's what he tells people at parties when they ask him what he does for a living.

    "I gave up a very good job at the State Department to come here and do this, and I tell you it's probably the best decision I ever made in my life," said Thomas.

    The Sterling resident is the director of operations at Blowout Cards-The Fantastic Store in Chantilly, a sports card and memorabilia store.

    Last Thursday he received an order for a box of cards that cost $550. The patron, a gentleman from Texas, was hoping he could bust open a pack with a card in it worth enough to pay for the rest of the package and then some.

    At around noon Thomas sat down to broadcast the product opening on Blowout TV, his almost daily program where he opens patrons sports card packs or boxes for them and broadcasts it live on YouTube.

    One of the cameras faced him, while the other faced whatever product he was opening.

    Thomas chattered away to the clients as he opened packages and held the contents up to the camera.

    He paused occassionally if a valuable card was about to be shown to add gravity to the moment.

    At one point while going through the cards he paused. A card flashed on screen.

    The card was autographed by three-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James and one of the games past greats, Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway.

    Thomas agreed that the card is worth thousands, possibly $5,000.

    For years Thomas was one of Blowout Cards' largest customers, organizing group card openings on his own.

    Thomas Fish, the owner of Blowout Cards gave him some products on consignment and eventually they talked about Thomas working full-time.

    "Eventually it grew to a point where we were doing such a tremendous amount that we opened the store," said Thomas.

    About a year after Thomas became a full-time employee, Blowout cards opened the brick and mortar location in Chantilly so they could order products direct from the manufacturers.

    From kids to collectors

    To understand how sports cards went from a kids endeavor, mostly found in bubble gum packages, to a commodity bought and sold like stocks, one must first understand the history of the industry.

    Initially baseball cards were seen as a fun item for kids to play with, there was no forethought about pieces of cardboard with players on it eventually becoming valuable.

    Cards were thrown away or destroyed as most kids' toys were. The cards that made it through the decades without getting destroyed became rare, the main component driving value in collectables.

    In the 1980s and 90s, baseball card manufacturers saw the value that was placed on cards from decades prior.

    People went to the stores in droves. According to the book "Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an Obsession," in the early 1990s sports card manufacturers produced enough cards so that there were nearly 325 per person in the United States.

    "Everything was so mass produced in the 80s and 90s. It is worthless now. It's not even worth the cardboard it's printed on," said Thomas.

    As explained in "Mint Condition," "Kids felt overwhelmed. The industry started to cater almost exclusively to what a Beckett Baseball Card Monthly employee described as 'the hard-core collector,' an 'older male, twenty-five to forty-five, with discretionary income.'"

    Some time in the early 2000s, card companies began experimenting with cards pre-autographed and inserted into regular packs.

    Another popular option was game-used jersey cards, where the actual jersey a player wore in a game was cut up and placed inside the card.

    In order to gain access to this kind of memorabilia, card companies had to pay some athletes millions of dollars to sit for signings, driving up the price of a box of cards substantially.

    Because the price of a box of cards was so high, it was simpler to get a group of friends to go in on a case together. It was called case breaking.

    Each person buying into the set was basically guaranteed to get cards from each case. Some got lucky, like Thomas' Texas customer, and others lost out.

    Card manufacturers like Upper Deck, Topps and Panini fabricate rarity by producing cards with an athlete's signature or making only one of some types of cards.

    By making rare cards and mixing them in with regular content, the rarer cards can be worth thousands of dollars to some collectors instantaneously.

    In effect, they are creating a market for certain cards that once took decades to create.

    Volatility might be even more prevalent in the sports trading card business than in the stock market.

    Consider this: According to Thomas, one of the rarest rookie cards is of Robert Griffin III, the quarterback for the Redskins for most of this season. It may have gone for $10,000 at the height of its value.

    Because of injuries and uncertainty about his future, Thomas thinks the value of that card might be worth $5,000-$6,000 less, just a year later.

    Long gone are the days when baseball cards were something fans collected out of Tobacco cartons or bubble-gum packs.

    Now unless it has a jersey or an autograph, it "isn't worth the cardboard it's printed on.

    The most valuable baseball cards in the world

    1. A Honus Wagner card sold at auction for $2.8 million. In the early 20th century baseball cards were inserted in tobacco cartons as a promotion, something Wagner refused to allow because he didn't want his likeness associated with tobacco. The few cards that were produced using his likeness are extremely rare.

    2. Babe Ruth's rookie card from his minor league days with the Baltimore Orioles cost $517,000 at auction in 2008.

    3. A Joe Doyle card sold at auction for $329,000. A printing error had him incorrectly named as pitcher Larry Doyle. The few cards that were printed before the error was caught are very rare.

    4. In 2008 a 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card which had a perfect 10 out of 10 rating for quality from Professional Sports Authenticator, one of the leaders in the field, sold at auction for $282,000.

    5. A mint condition 1933 Lou Gehrig Card pulled from a Goudey Chewing Gum package sold for $275,000.

    Source: Rankings according to website Celebrity Net Worth.

    A package of Panini Gold Standard cards shaped like gold bars. They retail for $165, one of the more moderately priced options in the store. - Times-Mirror Staff Photo/Ben Hancock
    Matt Thomas, the director of operations at Blowout Cards, stands in front of cases of cards and boxes. He opens boxes of cards worth thousands of dollars on a routine basis. - Times-Mirror Staff Photo/Ben Hancock
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    Loudoun Business Journal - Summer 2014

    Loudoun Business Journal - Spring 2014