Baseball cards are out-of-date. Obsolete. A dead hobby. If you are like me, that’s probably the impression you’ve had the past few years. I’m just old enough to remember begging Mom to buy me a pack on trips to Target, or hitching a ride to the local collector store. However, kids these days grow up spending their time on (playing or watching) video games, in which many even have card-collecting game modes. Why spend money on shiny pieces of cardboard when you can win a video game and get a digital card for free? Baseball cards are “boring” to them. Collector stores have been slowly disappearing for some time now, and the card sections have moved further and further away from the cash registers at your local department stores.
However, this impression is wrong (although maybe not the stuff about the kids these days). The baseball card industry is actually alive and well, although it has a much different appearance these days. Instead of kids picking up a pack at a time at the local store, adult collectors have carried the industry. These people buy boxes and sets, hoping to hit on some limited-edition cards that could pay off the investment many times over. Some even sell shares in each box, live-streaming the unwrapping process to a community of followers and investors, all hoping for the rush of a big-time card. Former Twin Phil Hughes even has a YouTube channel where he opens packs of cards.
On the edge of this growing industry exists a company called SlabStox. I became aware to this company and the larger-than-expected baseball card industry through a friend from my high school, Nathan Rodebaugh, a key contributor to the company. Through him, I was able to do a nice Q&A with the founder and CEO of SlabStox, Aaron Nowak.
Jonathan Gamble: I think many people think of baseball cards, and they think of an obsolete industry. Why are they wrong?
Aaron Nowak: That is 100% correct. Not only do people think it is in obsolete industry, but they also think it is a children’s hobby only. While it is great to have kids involved in sports cards, as we always have to keep the next generation in mind, kids in middle school aren’t out there dropping $1,000+ on a Luka Doncic rookie card. And it’s not like the sports card industry is barely surviving, it’s in a hyper growth stage. A lot of new investors and collectors are getting involved, either because they used to collect cards as kids or they are seeing the true value in using sports cards as a tangible asset. Prices for sealed product are at an all-time high. 2019 Prizm NBA Basketball boxes are pre-selling at $425, last year they were $225. 2018 Topps Update Baseball boxes were pre-selling at $60 per box when they released. Now, they are selling for more than $250 on eBay. There are multiple Luka Doncic rookie cards that were $100 before the season and are now selling for $1,000+. In the last year, both a Mike Trout autograph card and Tom Brady rookie autograph card sold for $400,000+… each. Or even someone like [Rays prospect] Wander Franco, who hasn’t even had an at-bat in the MLB yet, has had baseball cards sell for five figures. I don’t know about you, but to me that doesn’t add up to obsolete.
JG: What exactly is SlabStox? Give me your “elevator pitch”.
AN: SlabStox is a social media content company that focuses on sports card investment reporting, market analysis, and professional recommendations. Our brand was built on Instagram, and that is where we are the most prominent. Each day we post discussions, we share information (stock analysis through graphs – similar to Yahoo Finance but [we] use real eBay sales data), and report on interesting industry trends. One of our biggest ways to help those getting into the hobby and marketplace is through our eBay email link reports and Twitter link sharing. Every day, we spend a lot of time searching eBay for the most relevant eBay auctions and buy-it-nows of sports cards people can purchase to add to their investment portfolio. Entering into sports card investing is very difficult since there are a ton of intricacies, so this is a great way for people to learn fast what we are recommending.
JG: How did you guys get started? Were you sports fans who turned an interest into a job, or did you just recognize a good business opportunity?
AN: Basically, a combination of all of that. Nate and I were neighbors as we were growing up, and I’m pretty sure Nate was the first one who introduced me to sports cards. It was the typical trade your favorite player thing, nothing real intense since we were both so young. After I moved to Minnesota and as I was going into middle school, I started to get pretty into it by buying packs at Target and reading Beckett price guide magazines and books. Fast forward a bunch of years after going in and out of the hobby a couple times through high school and into college, and Nate talks me back into buying baseball cards by telling me to buy a few baseball prospects he had his eye on. I did so and from there I spent two years buying and selling religiously. Nate didn’t do the cards with me but was a huge information source. We even went in on a few cards together as an investment and did well on them. Going into my junior year of college at UW-Madison (I am currently a senior), I had the idea to start a sports card marketplace that was different from eBay. One that was dedicated to data and information, along with being able to buy and sell. Due to the lack of resources and app development knowledge, it prevented it from ever happening. In the meantime, starting January 2019 I started posting on Instagram sharing our information and knowledge. Nate was never much of a card guy up to this point, but he was a baseball prospecting genius, so I had him start writing on prospects, and I would add value to the articles by highlighting their card prices. There was a massive void for information, content, and analysis in the sports card community, and I saw Instagram as a perfect platform to do that on. Up until this point, we’ve barely spent any money on the business. Instead of investing money we didn’t have, we decided to invest a ton of time. 11 months later, we have organically built up our Instagram following to 7,000 and are growing at a rapid pace. From the very start we wanted to enlighten more people about sports cards and erase the “child’s hobby” stigma from it. I can confirm recently we have seen about 9 out of every 10 accounts that are following us are not sports card specific accounts. The best part is, it’s only the beginning.
JG: What goes into the day-to-day work at SlabStox?
AN: While viewing our content on Instagram, it might seem like the day-to-day for us is pretty easy. Post three times a day, interact in some comments, post some Instagram stories and that’s it. Well, it’s a lot more than that. It’s a constant grind whenever we are awake. Not only do we have to create our daily eBay reports, but I produce original content on Instagram and building those posts don’t happen quickly. Each one takes a lot of research and thought. On top of that, we have to constantly make sure we’re on top of our respective focuses. Nate needs to make sure he is doing his due diligence with baseball research to make sure he’s making informed recommendations, and I have to stay very on top of every sports card marketplace trend to make sure I’m not missing out on a hot topic. Combine that with being in the Wisconsin School of Business, and I am very busy seven days of the week. A lot of early mornings and late nights.
JG: About how many other companies would you say do what you guys do? Are you unique in the industry?
AN: There are a lot of companies and individuals that use social media to grow their card business, but it’s generally always for their own cards sales or their group breaks (a form of selling “spots” in box breaks for people to get cards of a certain team – almost like a lottery system). We are the only consistent sports card investment analysis information sharing company out there right now. Sometimes you get the casual investors giving their opinions on certain card values, but nothing close to us. We want to be viewed as a cross between ESPN and Yahoo Finance for sports cards, and we feel we are well on our way to that goal. I can thank a mentor of mine, Bobby Mason, for helping me to get to this point. He’s the one that really pushed me to start creating consistent content on social media. He saw I had all the knowledge already, I just had to do it. I’ve heard many say, “I had your idea!” But the reason why we’re at where we are today is because instead of saying I had an idea, I executed. It didn’t start pretty. There was a lot of bumps along the way, and truthfully, our content looked pretty amateur for quite some time. We have started to gain quite a bit of industry weight, and that has come with creating more professional Instagram content. We have a long way to go to reach our goals, but we have a great start.
JG: It always blows my mind when cards of minor leaguers are selling at such high prices. How do you identify cards that would make good investments, especially that early?
Nate Rodebaugh [Slabstox Prospect Expert]: There’s a number of factors that go into evaluating players and investments. First you look at the player’s stats and then at his scouting profile. If the stats and the profile match up (bad or good) move on, if they don’t, dive a little more into some research and try to figure out what has changed (swing change, needs glasses, big home park). Once you key in on what he’s doing well/ poorly, try to figure out if he’ll keep it going by diving into advanced stats. (K-rate, BB-rate, hard contact rate, ground ball rate). If you do think it’s going to keep up and it’s good, invest. If not, don’t invest. The second thing I do is find players on teams with a good history of producing prospects. I’m more willing to invest in a Rays pitching prospect than I would an Orioles pitching prospect. I’m more into investing in any Dodgers prospect than I would be investing into any Marlin. You can identify teams that develop prospects better, find prospects in those systems with good scouting profiles, and invest in them.
JG: Looking forward, you guys seem to have lots of room for growth. Do you have any events coming up that you’re excited for? What opportunities does the next year present you?
AN: While we don’t have any in person events on our horizon until July 2020 in Atlantic City (The National Sports Collectors Convention), we have a lot of very exciting news to share about the business. We just started working with a Milwaukee based market agency, and we are going through a full brand relaunch. New logos, new feel, and I can guarantee you we are about to turn our online presence up 10 notches. After we relaunch our brand, we are focusing on expanding our eBay link sharing platform and Instagram following to sports fans and sports betting fans, where we think there is a lot of potential to get people involved in cards.
JG: Where can people find you guys?
AN: All of our content flows through our Instagram page, @slabstox. We also host a podcast show, and you can listen to that on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. We just launched our new weekly email sign-up that includes extended sports card market analysis and targeted sports card investments you can make. Sign up at https://trade.slabstox.com, it’s free!
So there you have it, folks! Big thank you to Aaron and Nate for making this interview possible. Hopefully you all learned something about the growing industry that is baseball cards. Below, you’ll find a SlabStox Instagram post from this baseball season — I hope you’ll consider giving them a follow!