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The Rise and Collapse of a Scalper’s Sports Card Empire

Bribes, parking lot deals, and the cards you never had a chance to buy.

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Warning: The following story contains strong language.

Tyrone sits in the middle of his three monitor setup like the cockpit of a fighter jet, one hand grasping a cup of coffee, the other his vape, alternating between stimulants and watching a scramble over spots in his newest break. “This shit’s been up 40 minutes and we only got two slots left,” he yells to his two business partners, pulling cards for their latest singles orders.

“Tyrone,” who asked not to go by his real name to keep his anonymity, elevated his hobby for collecting cards into a business three years ago, and turned it into an empire. Now he’s coming face-to-face with it all collapsing. “I knew we didn’t have forever on this,” he says, “I just figured it’d be the feds shutting it down, not some dumbasses at Target.”

May 14th was the end of an era for Tyrone. Target made the announcement they would no longer sell NBA, NFL, MLB or Pokemon cards following an incident outside a Wisconsin store in which a customer pulled a gun on another who’d just purchased cards. Signs, now posted all over stores in the country, read “To ensure the safety of our guests and team members, effective May 14th, MLB, NFL, NBA and Pokemon cards will no longer be sold in stores until further notice.” Walmart has not made an official announcement at this time, though there’s increasing speculation that they too will pull cards from shelves.

“That shit had me f***** up,” Tyrone says, shaking his head. “I dunno how it’s been working up north, but ain’t nobody in my area getting good shit from Target anyway.”

Tyrone began turning his hobby into a business like anyone else trying to get cards. He arrived at stores early on Friday morning, learning that cards weren’t stocked by Target and Walmart employees, but rather independent merchandisers who would enter the store on distributors’ behalf, and place items on the shelves. Tyrone would wait until the merchandisers arrived to put out the new cards, then pounce on them, buying out the store and immediately flipping them on eBay. It was a weekly ritual. Hit a store, move to the next, do the same.

“I’d spend HOURS in the car each week,” he laughed, remembering his beginnings. Tyrone quickly realized there was too much inconsistency. Sometimes he’d miss the merchandiser, or they’d go to another store first and throw off his route. Random shoppers would buy a fat pack (a wrapped package of multiple packs) as their nostalgia kicked in, having no idea what they were buying. This made his stock unreliable.

“It got exhausting, and frustrating as shit got bigger. That’s when I got smart about it.”

After months of shadowing deliveries and driving around, Tyrone approached one of the merchandisers in a Walmart parking lot, and befriended them. He needed as much product as he could get his hands on, they needed to do their job. “I made it work for both of us.”

At the time the only thing really popping was basketball cards, particularly the highly sought after Panini Prizm series. If you went to Target or Walmart hoping to find Prizm basketball only to find it out of stock, there’s a good chance Tyrone had it, and you never had a chance of buying it.

“It was so easy back then,” he says. “They’d come in, put the shit on the shelves, snap a photo with their phone to show they did their job — then immediately pull it back down and buy it.” To the distributors, Tyrone’s merchandisers were doing their jobs, to the public they just thought they were too late and missed out on the cards. No one was the wiser, except for the merchandisers and Tyrone.

“I’d meet them at the end out their route, give them a stack — normally double what they paid, and everyone was happy.” As far as he sees it, Tyrone thinks the merchandisers got the better end of the deal. They just needed to meet him and make some quick money, he had to do the leg work to move the cards on the back end, but with prices skyrocketing it was worth it.

It wasn’t long before demand outstripped Tyrone’s supply, even having most of an east coast state in his pocket. He needed to expand, and began hitting up friends and family members in other states, bringing them into the fold. Before long he had numerous states, stretching from the east coast as far Texas in his network. Everyone giving kickbacks to merchandisers, sending the product to him, and profiting as he became able to sell product online for four times their value, sometimes even more.

“I was making less, because everyone needed a cut — but who cares. I was clearing $10k a month easy.”

Flipping fat packs and sealed product was nice, but the real money came in when Tyrone started getting his hands on hobby boxes. Larger, 12 pack boxes which brought more money, and more opportunity. “I can make stupid money on a case break, you don’t even know.”

A box, or case break, is a multi-participant venture in which a large number of people essentially gamble by buying pseudo-shares in a mass opening. Let’s say someone has a case of Prizm, you might pay $500 to get randomly assigned a team, then get every card from that team opened in a case.

For the individuals participating, it was a potential gold mine. Lucking out and getting the Pelicans could mean landing a five figure Zion Williamson card, at the expense of someone who got assigned the Hawks, and coming away with nothing. Trae Young isn’t worth big money, so Atlanta is seen as a dud slot. For people like Tyrone, selling the slots represents no risk — and all upside.

“Let’s say I’m paying three grand a case. I’m turning around and making five times that it in a break.”

With everyone desperate to open product hoping of landing a chase card, Tyrone was just in it for economics. “I’ll leave the gambling to the gamblers,” he says, “sure I’ll open something now and then for fun, but nah, moving sealed is where it’s at.” Soon, not even his vast network was enough to keep him in the cards he needed.

The fever spread from basketball into everything else. First football, then baseball, and finally Pokemon. “Pokemon makes me too nervous man,” Tyrone says to a friend who suggests they start buying it up, “we don’t know shit about those. I mean, can we break it? I don’t know. I know Luka and Ja, not Squirtle and shit. I’ll stick to what I know.”

As far as Tyrone saw it, he was providing a service. It had become impossible for anyone to get sealed product without spending thousands on boxes, and he felt that private card shops were cracking everything they were getting and selling singles online. Even then, he felt a little bad about what he was doing. “It sucks man, like I remember collecting cards as a kid,” Tyrone tells me, “none of these kids have a chance at buying packs. It’s all being eaten up.” As far as he was concerned, if Tyrone wasn’t scalping cards, someone else would — so why not him?

A large impact on the card market came not from flippers like Tyrone, but from Wall Street. During the economic downturn caused by the Covid pandemic, an increasing number of investment bankers were looking to diversify their portfolios with collectibles, and basketball cards were at the top of the list. Grading services like PSA and Beckett, once tapped only by enthusiasts trying to secure their most valuable cards, were now being flooded with requests to grade from big-dollar firms, aiming to solidify their investments.

“You have no idea how dirty this all is,” a lanky man named “Tom” calls from the back room as he assembles as eBay order. “I know this goes all the way through the system. I know Wall Street is talking to Panini and they’re engineering all this. Shit, I think ESPN is in Panini’s pocket too, pushing these players they know are signing.”

“Man, you’re tripping,” Tyrone says, rolling his eyes, not buying Tom’s conspiracy theories. “Don’t listen to him, I mean shit IS dirty, he right about that — but nah, nothing like that.”

Whether you believe the wild theories floated by collectors or not, it’s unquestionable that there’s a massive card shortage and it’s pushing prices through the roof. If you want to find a rare Zion Williamson rookie card now it’ll take not a few hundred bucks, or even a few thousand — but a second mortgage on your house.

Card collectors were tracking the price spikes daily, but when word got out to the general public that there were five- and six-figure cards being pulled from packs, it started a frenzy. Go to any store that stocked cards and you’d find empty shelves, people who were never interested in cards before were lingering around the section, looking to quickly make four times their purchase in a matter of hours be reselling online.

Word of Friday stocking got out. It wasn’t long before there were lines down the sidewalk, in the middle of a pandemic, of people waiting for store doors to open to they could rush the card rack. “My people started getting scared,” Tyrone said, referring to his merchandisers. “Not like they were afraid of getting hurt or nothing. They just didn’t want the drama of pulling the shit off shelves, someone reporting them and losing their jobs.” Soon the merchandisers started to pull out of their deals, no longer interested in the risks the quick money brought. It became more and more difficult for Tyrone to secure large numbers of cards.

Then the news came cards were being pulled from shelves. “Nobody was ready for that. Shit, I don’t think Panini or Bowman were ready for that,” Tyrone says. Overnight the network he’d cultivated for years collapsed, but this wasn’t a man who looked like his world was crumbling around him — rather, he seemed calm. “I knew it was coming, just not this way. I have plans, believe me I have plans. Just not ready to talk about that yet.”

While Tyrone pivots to whatever he’s doing next, on Friday May 21, 2021, one week after pulling cards from the shelves, Target opened them up again for online-only sales. This time with strict limits to how many packs and boxes people could buy, effectively killing the scalping market. A great day for general consumers, and perhaps the nail in the coffin for those who made a living off cards in the last few years.

When reached for comment Target corporate said they had nothing to add to the card situation beyond their initial statement posted in stores.

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This post originally appeared on SB Nation and was published May 25, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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