NEW YORK – When it comes to star athletes, the term GOAT (greatest of all time) is hotly debated but Michael Jordan’s name is definitely on the short list and rightfully so. The 14-time NBA All-Star, five-time MVP with 10 scoring titles and a career average of 30.1 points per game – the latter an NBA record – Jordan is a basketball legend.
Jordan, aka His Airness or Air Jordan or MJ, was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1986 and played most of his career with them before retiring for good in 2003.
“Calling someone the GOAT will always lead to debate but when the conversation comes up about the greatest of all time in basketball, Jordan’s name is usually uttered first,” said Alex Winter, president of Hake’s Auctions in York, Pa. “With that in mind, anything Jordan is coveted by all basketball memorabilia collectors. Everyone knows of Jordan and all he has done for the game. He is right there with the biggest and most recognizable names in all of sports, not just basketball. His name is echoed with other ubiquitous legends such as Babe Ruth, Tom Brady, Wayne Gretzky and Pele.”
Memorabilia associated with Jordan has always been desirable and even more so lately with the 2020 television sports documentary miniseries, The Last Dance, which ran on ESPN and then Netflix, which profiled Jordan’s career, especially his final year with the Bulls.
The real increase in demand for Jordan memorabilia started last year after that miniseries, Winter said. “From that point on it has been on a meteoric rise. That, in turn, impacts all types of Jordan cards. His game-used items are also extremely hot and very much in demand.”
While the show was certainly a factor in renewing buyers’ appetites for anything to do with Jordan, Robert Wilonsky, Communications Director at Heritage Auctions based in Dallas, Texas, said the concurrent pandemic locked people into their homes and increased nostalgia for their childhood, driving the sports memorabilia market overall. “Folks began looking at their basketball and baseball and sports card collections to see what they had. Michael Jordan has never been hotter,” he said. “We have seen the value of his 1986 Fleer rookie card escalate in value … Just a year ago it was selling in the mid-five-figures and setting world records and now it is closing in on the million-dollar mark, which is an extraordinary escalation in value just in the last year.” Heritage sold a 1986 Fleer Jordan rookie card, rated Mint 10 by PSA, in February 2021 for $645,000, including the buyer’s premium.
Only about 30 years ago, the sports card market was reported to be on its last legs, a victim of greed and too much product flooding the market, but clearly, reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated. The Fleer Jordan card set – and broke – its record several times in 2020 amid a red-hot sports memorabilia market. People are even paying over $200,000 for sealed 1986 Fleer Basketball wax boxes with unopened packs, hoping the set will include a Jordan rookie card.
An even rarer and more desirable Jordan card sold in February 2021 – a 1997 Upper Deck card that earned more than $1.4 million at Heritage Auctions. What makes this card so special is 1) Jordan autographed it, 2) it’s one of only 23 known examples and 3) it depicts Jordan wearing a jersey from the 1992 NBA All-Star Game.
“The more rare an item is obviously, the more people value it and the higher its price goes,” Wilonsky said, adding that the same holds true across the market, extending to game-worn jerseys and other desirable objects.
Jordan jerseys have certainly been achieving robust prices lately. At Grey Flannel’s January 2021 sports memorabilia auction, a game-worn jersey Jordan during the Chicago Bulls’ 1998 championship season fetched $230,401, including the buyer’s premium, while a Chicago Bulls home jersey presented to Jordan by Rod Thorn immediately after Jordan signed his contract with the Bulls on Sept. 12, 1984, fetched $250,000 + the buyer’s premium in December 2020 at Julien’s Auctions.
“What you see with Michael Jordan is emblematic of what you are seeing across the sports card and sports collectible market in the last year – it is not just Jordan. It is really across the board and it is across all sports,” Wilonsky said.
Pandemic-inspired nostalgia is just one factor driving the sports market now. “As anyone at Heritage will tell you, at the beginning of the pandemic no one knew what was going to happen,” said Wilonsky. “There were several factors that we have seen come into play, whether it is simply people had more time at home, they were not spending their money traveling and they were finding things in their homes that they really loved. There were some folks taking comfort from the things they loved in their childhood.
“A lot of nostalgia was at play and also there was a lot of diversification of assets. These are very rare things, they’re likely not to depreciate in value, they are not subject to the wild ride of a stock market,” he said. “More than anything and we always tell people don’t buy something for an investment, buy something because you love it and want it – and we are finding that people really love this stuff.”
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