Grading Sports Cards And Condition

November 21, 2020

Condition.  It can be the difference between a $100 card and a $1,000 card, and often the visual discrepancy is indiscernible.  Let’s take a look at why the condition is so important, how to grade sports cards, and how to use knowledge of grading to further your collecting and investing goals.

Scarcity and Sports Cards

The appeal of condition is intuitive.  Cards that look better are more valuable, just like a well-maintained car is more valuable than the rusty equivalent.  It’s inherently more appealing.  But for collectibles, the condition is far more important than that. The condition provides an additional layer of scarcity.  For example, there are 100,000s of 2020 Topps Luis Robert base cards (#392) while there are only 1,616 graded PSA 10 at this time.  The PSA 10 (gem mint) example is far scarcer, and several times more valuable. 

How To Start Grading Sports Cards

Set yourself up in a well-lit space, and take the card out of its sleeve so you can look at it directly.  If you need more light, get a 2-4x magnifying lamp.  Evaluate the card mostly with your naked eye, but sometimes you’ll appreciate the magnification to take a closer look.

Next, prepare yourself with reasonable expectations.  Most cards, even fresh from a pack, are not gem mint.  Blame the manufacturer, the distributor, the middleman, or whoever you want.  But that’s just the way it is, you’re likely to find some defects. 

Self-Grading Step-By-Step

Inspect each of the following aspects of the card.

  1. Centering.  PSA requires centering of 65/35 or better to receive a Mint 9 grade.  BGS is stricter.  Both top-bottom and left-right centering matter.  Use the visual examples here to estimate,  or use a measuring tool.  If you’re looking at a digital scan of the card, you can measure centering with a tool such as PixelZoomer.  Just be aware that if the scan or picture is skewed, your measurements will be as well.  Centering of the backside matters as well but only centering 75/25 or worse is noteworthy.
  2. Corners.   They should be sharp and clean.  Corners that look like they were bumped or bent is a major offense.  If they have a hint of white showing, it is a minor offense.  Corners that are sharp but have a hint of extra cardboard fuzz hanging off the end of them are fine.  PSA can be extremely strict on corners, whereas BGS is somewhat more forgiving.  
  3. Edges.  Check at all four edges for inconsistencies in the cardboard.  White, where it should not be, is bad.  Look for chips, wavering, or anything inconsistent.
  4. Surface.  This is the hidden foe of most new graders.  Most defects will only be detectable if you hold the card at an angle to the light and tilt it slightly.  Look for scratches, indentations, bumps, and print lines.  Use a microfiber cloth to gently wipe anything away, including fingerprints. 

A typical modern card out of the pack has one or two very minor imperfections and is considered NM/MT – Mint.  This is the condition you should expect when looking at an ungraded card.  If the card is perfect, it’s potentially a Gem Mint example and you may want to send it in to be graded by PSA or another third-party grader.  If it has more than 2 minor defects, the defects should be noted when selling or trading the card.  For examples of cards at all different grades, use this visual guide from PSA. 

If you pulled a highly defective card out of a pack, both Panini and Topps offer a replacement program.

Eye Appeal And Grading Sports Cards

A graded test form with red scoring pencil indicates acheivement and success in education.

A card’s condition and attractiveness can be entirely different.  A perfect card that has a pin hole in it is in Poor or Fair condition, but it will look far better than a typical Fair conditioned card.  Cards with eye appeal that outshine their technical grade are more valuable than other cards of that grade.  Some consignment houses will even grade the eye appeal

Assessing Cards Online

When you purchase a modern card online, it should be NM/MT to Mint or otherwise noted.  Do the best you can to evaluate condition based on the photos, but also do research on the seller.  Check their ratings, but also check their inventory.  If you’re buying an ungraded card from a seller that sells both graded and ungraded cards, there’s a good chance that the raw cards did not meet their standards to submit for third-party grading, and are likely not Mint or better.  If you have concerns, message the seller before buying.  It’s generally frowned upon to return sports cards unless the defect is meaningful and not apparent from the listing. 

Condition and Your Personal Collection

You’ll find that your standards for condition might not perfectly correspond with those of third party graders or of the card community in general. For instance, you may find surface wrinkles to be tolerable but soft corners intolerable. For your personal collection, buy cards with surface wrinkles then! You’ll get a nice discount on a card in a condition you accept.

Profit from Grading Opportunities

Developing your grading skills will protect you from overpaying for ungraded cards, and eventually allow you to take advantage of profit opportunities. When you’re ready to seek profit, consider these strategies:

  • Buy high grade raw cards and submit them for grading. If a card is ungraded, it may sell for a slight premium if it’s particularly high grade, but not nearly as much of a premium as it would if slabbed.
  • Look for cross-grading opportunities. Get a grip on how BGS grades compared to PSA. Find a BGS 9.5 that turns into a PSA 10 and you’ll likely double your returns.
  • Find regrade opportunities. This could be a card that the third-party grader was too tough on the first time around. Or maybe it’s one with a qualifier grade that you think would grade better under a ‘no qualifier’ specification.

Final Words On Grading Sports Cards

Look at your cards. Dedicate time to reviewing both your graded and ungraded cards in detail. It’s your collection and reviewing it is part of the fun. You will also develop your grading skill which will undoubtedly help you advance your collecting and investing goals.


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