Basketball card

What Grinds My Gears? Card Protectors

Have you ever seen a sick looking basketball card with a thin film “protecting” or “coating” the front image and thought to yourself, “Wow, that looks awful”? Well, if you have, I want you to know you’re not alone. I find those card protectors to be an eyesore and I don’t understand their appeal with collectors. Yes, I get that some people put a premium on the cards with the protector (also called the coating), but many of these protectors are just annoying to look at and I’m going to highlight a few that I find particularly offensive. Plus, like always, I’ll see how these card’s prices have performed over the past two years.

The company that was far too keen on coatings in the 1990’s was Topps Finest and their cards, while featuring pretty great designs, were obscured by ugly coatings. The first set I want to highlight is the 1998-99 Topps Finest set, which had beautiful looking cards but unfortunately many (if not all) of these cards came with coatings.

There were fantastic rookies from this season who have great cards in this set, including Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, and Dirk Nowitzki. Vince Carter’s rookie card (#230), has a cool shot of him dribbling the ball looking like he might be dribbling straight into the camera, but as you can see from the photo below, there is the text strip running up the left side of the card indicating the coating is still intact. The coating even says “Topps Finest Protector Peel And Remove Coating”, why people chose not to do so is beyond me, since the card is much uglier with the coating intact.

The other card from this set with a photo below is Dirk Nowitzki’s rookie card (#234). The photo is of Dirk with his hands up in a sort of “I’m innocent” pose palming the ball in his left hand. Poor Dirk was so awkward in so many of his rookie photos, but you still have to love him despite his inability to look cool in front of the camera. The text on the coating for the Dirk rookie shown below runs up the right side of the card and cuts through the basketball, which again looks awful.

1998 Topps Finest Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki rookies with coating

For the card design, my one complaint (other than the coating), is the inclusion of the random images in the bottom right of the card. With Vince, it’s a basketball, and with Dirk, it’s the image of a hoop. These little images are just card noise and unless they indicate something that I’m missing, they just sort of confuse me as to why they are there. It’s a minor design element, but it is a bit strange.

When looking at the PSA 10 prices for the Carter rookie, we see these cards are currently selling in the $120-$140 range when the coating is present. However, the card without the coating sells at a discount, and typically only goes for around $100. However, there are wild ranges for the unprotected card, so it may not be worth it trying to see a trend with this card alone.

Going back to summer, 2018 the Vince protected PSA 10’s were selling for crazy low prices, with one selling for $5.24. The range more typically seen that summer was in the $12-$20 range. But still, that is well off the $100+ prices we see today, so a massive pop in value has taken place over the past two years. The same price ranges holds up for the unprotected PSA 10s as well, with two sales that summer coming in just under the $20. So in general, both the protected and unprotected cards have spiked by around 400% in the past two years.

If we look to see how the Nowitzki rookies are doing, we see a similar thing trend. In the month of July, his protected PSA 10s were typically selling in the $150-$200 range, while the two sales of unprotected PSA 10s in the month of June sold in a much tighter range $140-$150. Since there are fewer unprotected cards, we have less data, and not enough to really say definitively if the protected cards sell at a premium.

Going back two years to the summer of 2018, there wasn’t as much data, but the protected Nowitzki PSA 10 rookies were going for between $25-$50 while the equivalent unprotected rookies were going for around $30 (technically there were no PSA 10 sales in the summer but there were two sales in December, 2018). So much like the Carter rookies, you’re seeing some very price pops in the 200% – 300% range, but it’s not easy to really see if there are significant differences between the protected and unprotected rookie cards.

Next up is the 1994-95 Topps Finest set included a slightly more annoying protector covering with their cards that year. The reason why the 94-95 Topps Finest set was a bit more annoying than the set that came out four years later was because back in 1994 there was even more text overlaid on the card which obscured more of the image. This is seen very clearly with the 1994-95 Topps Finest Michael Jordan base card (#331). This is a very nice card, and it features a rare image of Jordan wearing jersey #45 rather than his standard #23. However, as you can see below, the card coating significantly obstructs the image of Jordan.

1994-95 Topps Finest Michael Jordan card (#331) with coating

On a side note, Jordan only wore jersey #45 for 23 games back in 1995 and some speculate that the Orlando Magic’s Nick Anderson may be the reason why Jordan switched back to #23 for good, after Anderson bragged to reporters about stealing the ball from Jordan. For more on that story, check out this Bleacher Report article.

But going back to the Jordan Topps Finest card, you can see that this card had a particularly egregious coating that slices though Jordan’s face and disrupts the entire aesthetic from the nice photo of Jordan shooting. This coating style in particular really grinds my gears in the worst way. I wish people would aim to be collectors first and investors (a term I use very loosely for card collectors) second, and focus on enjoying the images on the cards rather than keeping an ugly and removable element intact thinking it will help increase the card’s value. I don’t know about anyone else, but the coating essentially ruins the image of this Jordan card for me, which is a shame because it is a cool design and features Jordan in #45.

At present, the non-refractor Jordan PSA 10 cards with no coating sell at a very wide range. There were five sales in June, 2020 and they sold at the following prices (rounded to the nearest dollar): $247, $343, $310, $285, and $525. So for simplicity, let’s just grab the median value and go with $310 for this card without the coating.

Looking at his card with the coating, you can see that the card does sell for a bit of a premium compared to the unprotected copy. If we take the median value for the last five sales this year we’d assign a value of $541 to the protected PSA 10, which is almost twice the price of the unprotected card. For me, I think the non-coated copy is actually the better copy of this card.

Perhaps in the not too distant future, if there ends up being more protected copies sealed in the PSA holders compared to unprotected graded cards, than demand for the more scarce no coating card may actually cause the prices to flip and I would absolutely love that. I will be on the lookout for less expensive PSA 9s and 10s with NO coating and hope that people come to their senses with these cards.

I love reading a good comment, so if you like, hate, or are indifferent to card protectors, let me know. If you have any good examples of really awful card protectors, I’d love to know what else is out there frustrating collectors. I’m glad the card protectors have been retired from the card industry for about 20 years or more because they were extremely annoying and still continue to rub me the wrong way whenever I come across one.

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