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The Importance [Or Lack Thereof] Of Grading Using Subgrades

In the ever-evolving world of collectibles, grading cards have established consistency in value and made it easier to become a true “sports card investor.”

While there’s plenty of debate between grading companies and which cases look better, another popular debate has to do with “subgrades” and whether or not we should use them, particularly on their role with cards graded by BGS (Beckett Grading Services).

This article delves into the significance, or lack thereof, of subgrades, and answers the long-running debate: do subgrades matter?

Understanding subgrades: What are they?

“Subgrades” refer to the individual scores assigned to different aspects of a card’s condition. Each card graded by companies like BGS is evaluated based on several key attributes, including centering, corners, edges, and surface quality. 

These attributes collectively contribute to the overall grade assigned to the card. However, what sets subgrades apart is that they provide a breakdown of the card’s performance in each of these categories, assigning a score ranging from 1 to 10 for each attribute.

For instance, a card with subgrades of 9.5 for centering, corners, edges, and surface quality would have an overall grade of 9.5. A card with subgrades of 9 for centering, 9.5 for corners, 8.5 for edges, and 9.5 for surface quality would have an overall grade of 9. 

Most of the time, the overall grade is just a rounded average of the subgrades, but there are also a few exceptions (for example, cards with a subgrade can only grade an 8.5 at best).

The argument for subgrades: A multifaceted perspective

Ask a pro-subgrader about why subgrades should matter and you’ll presumably get the five answers that follow (although hopefully, I put them a bit more clearly than the answers I received when I actually asked this question). 

Here’s what they boiled down to:

Transparency and assessment

Subgrades provide a level of transparency about the logic behind the “big number” on the card. They offer a detailed breakdown of a card’s condition, allowing collectors to determine which aspects of the card contributed to its final grade.

This transparency can be particularly helpful in cases where slight variations in condition can have a significant impact on the card’s value.

Educational value

Subgrades serve as an educational tool for both novice and experienced collectors. By understanding the nuances of each attribute, collectors can make more informed decisions when buying, selling, or trading cards.

Aiding investment decisions 

Collecting graded sports cards can be an investment, and subgrades can play a role in guiding investment decisions. For example, a card that has slightly better subgrades but the same grade as another card will be worth slightly more (spoiler: not everybody cares this much).

Market differentiation

In a market saturated with graded cards, subgrades can set certain cards apart. Two cards with the same overall grade might exhibit varying subgrades, influencing a collector’s choice based on specific attribute preferences. For example, centering often has more eye appeal and will be prioritized

Potential for reassessment

If a collector believes that a card’s subgrades do not accurately reflect its condition, they might opt for a re-evaluation by the grading company. This possibility adds a layer of interaction and engagement with the grading process.

The counterargument: The lack of significance

With all that said, now let’s give the mic to the non-sub grade advocates. In full disclosure, this was a lot harder to find. 

Sum over parts

Critics argue that collectors should focus primarily on the overall grade rather than dissecting subgrades. The overall grade is meant to encapsulate the card’s condition as a whole, and subgrades might lead to overanalyzing minor imperfections that do not significantly affect the card’s visual appeal.

Or, put simply, “PSA is the best and they don’t do subgrades.” Are they the best? Really?

It’s more affordable

At the end of the day, I’d guess the bottom line on almost every BGS card graded without subgrades boils down to this: it’s cheaper to grade without subgrades. At the time of writing, it’s $22 with subgrades and $18 without. Check updated prices right here. 

Inconsistent impact on value 

While some collectors may value specific attributes more than others, the impact of subgrades on a card’s value is not always consistent. A card with perfect centering and corners might not fetch significantly higher prices compared to a card with the same overall grade but higher subgrades in other attributes.

Subjectivity and variability 

Assigning subgrades involves a degree of subjectivity, and discrepancies can arise between different graders. This subjectivity can raise questions about the consistency and reliability of subgrade assessments.

Increased complexity 

The introduction of subgrades adds a layer of complexity to the grading process and market. This complexity might discourage some collectors who are looking for a simpler approach to collecting.

The numbers:  The ultimate deciding factor

You’ve read (or skimmed) both sides of the argument, but let’s be honest: it doesn’t matter as much what I think, but rather, what the numbers are saying.

So with that in mind, I looked up three high-population cards and found the comp price of three recent sales (8/17) with and without subgrades. (And note: it was actually pretty tough to find 3 comps without subgrades of most cards. These three were first I found after several strikeouts).

Here are the results. 

Joe Burrow Prizm Rookie BGS 9

$44 (without subgrades)$52 (with subgrades)
$50$59
$52 $41
Avg. $48.66Avg. $50.66

Luka Doncic Prizm Rookie BGS 9

$86 (without subgrades)$86 (with subgrades)
$91$91
$87$101
Avg. $88.00Avg. $92.60

Bobby Witt Bowman Chrome Prospects Rookie BGS 9

$16 (without subgrades)$20 (with subgrades)
$18$14
$15 $17
Avg. $16.33Avg. $17.00

Takeaways: Should you use subgrades or not?

Ultimately, the numbers from these specific case-study cards don’t suggest there’s anything special about subgrades. After averaging the results, subgrades made about a 4% difference on the selling price.

To be fair, the card samples were mid-price and low-end, but on most high-end cards, it would be nearly impossible to find three non-subgrade comps to use. While they might not make as big of an impact on the overall value of the cards as you’d expect, they are still commonplace in the industry and most collectors would prefer them (including myself).

So if you want the best bang for your buck when grading low to mid-price cards with BGS, skip subgrades. But if you want to be a cool kid that makes everybody happy, pony up the extra $4 per card.

It’s that simple.

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Jesse Haynes

Jesse Haynes

Jesse Haynes is the co-founder of Solaro Shades, an Amazon #1 Bestselling novelist, and a lifelong sports card collector. His nonfiction work has been featured in Forbes, Inc., MarketWatch and more. At CardLines, Jesse’s specialties are basketball and football cards, not to mention making informative video and Instagram content.
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