Grading has become an established part of the hobby, with more then a decade of market data now available clearly showing that a graded card outsells one that is not. However, many collectors who have not yet chosen to submit their cards for grading, as well as collectors who are new to the hobby, are faced with deciding which of the three major grading companies is right for them. Unfortunately, like most dilemmas in life, there is no clear right or wrong choice when it comes to selecting a third party to evaluate your cards.
Early market dominance was established by California-based Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) when they transformed a little-known, seldom-used hobby niche into a multi-million dollar industry when they graded what is widely regarded as the most famous, or infamous, sports card in the hobby: the 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner. Once the legendary card was encased, or slabbed, in PSA’s red label slab collectors from across the country, and eventually the world, began submitting their cards to PSA. This led to population reports, which track the total number of cards submitted and the grades they receive allowing hobby enthusiasts to more accurately value a card based on scracity and condition sensitivity. Almost overnight, 1990s “super cards” like the 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan plummeted in value as it became painfully clear this card, and others like it, were more abundant than originally thought. Grading had become firmly entrenched in the minds of collectors, and had begun to affect the hobby that spawned it.
With those early strides PSA surely should have gone on to dominate the market, establish a monopoly and ride into the sunset. However, PSA did not have the system in place to accomodate 21st century collectors and the trend that would come to dominate the 2000s. At that time, PSA utilized a ten-point grading scale that was geared towards vintage sports cards and honored the well-established grading terms such as “Good”, “Excellent”, and “Mint”. By the 2000s sports cards were viewed as an item of value, packing technology had improved, and card protection supplies were readily available. The majority of modern cards were “Near Mint” or better, which eliminated condition scarcity and lowered values on the secondary market. Thus entered Beckett, a renowned name in the hobby known for its price guide and magazine, which launched Beckett Grading Services (BGS) that featured a ten-point grading scale with half-grades designed towards modern cards. More than that, the company included an explanation of the grade on its label, known as sub-grades, on specific areas of the cards such as Surface, Corners, and Centering. In addition, a seperate grade was assigned if the card featured an autograph. The expanded grading scale, sub-graded, and autograph scale artifically created condition scarcity and the value of modern cards once again began to inflate. Almost overnight BGS became a legitimate competitor to PSA and became the preferred choice among modern collectors, particularly for condition-sensitive sets such as Bowman Chrome.
PSA would later implement its own half-point grading system, but the damage had been done; the market share had been lost, and the change had little effect in modern grading circles. BGS, on the other hand, failed to implement the qualities that had made BGS successful in modern cards when establishing its vintage grading services, Beckett Vintage Grading. Unthinkably, Beckett had split its modern and vintage grading operation and became something of an afterthought in that important part of the hobby. PSA continued to exert market dominance until 2007 when Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson released The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card. The book detailed the story of the T206 Wagner and alleged that PSA had graded the card to be “Near Mint,” despite knowing the card had been cut from a sheet. PSA denied the accusation and stood by their grade, but the book shouted whispers and rumors that had circulated in the hobby for over a decade and had caused several, most notably Keith Olbermann, from purchasing the card. The door had been opened for another player in the vintage card grading niche.
New Jersey-based Sportscard Guaranty (SGC) had been around since the beginning, steadily grading cards in their distinctive black slabs that were inspired by museum displays. SGC features a 100-point grading scale, albeit in conjunction with ten-point and half-point numerical grades. Because pre-war vintage collectors were not simply purchasing cards they remembered from their childhood, this part of the hobby requires somewhat of an advanced knowledge of the hobby and the cards. Many of these collectors were aware of the controversial nature of the PSA Wagner and overtime began to accept SGC as the company of choice for pre-war vintage cards. This sentiment was echoed by many of the major auction houses which partnered with SGC in grading many of the most coveted and desired vintage sports cards.
With the success of BGS in modern and SGC in pre-World War 2 vintage, PSA was left with post-World War 2 vintage as their dominate sphere of influence. Many of the high roller collectors of post-World War 2 vintage are baby boomers seeking to recapture their childhood memories in their retirement years by purchasing 1950s and 60s sports cards. These are casual collectors with a somewhat narrow view of the hobby, with active lives that do not permit them to spend time on hobby websites or message boards, or to keep up with the industry. These collectors prefer to let a third party grade their card and they have overwhelming chosen PSA, because the company still has the largest name recognition in the industry.
The battle lines have been drawn, with each of the big three holding a majority of the market share in each of the three distinct hobby eras. Each of the companies, whether they will admit to it or not, are actively pursuing their niches in their marketing materials which feature cards of those eras. No slab is perfect or tamper resistent, and slab design is relatively the same with BGS opting for clear plastic, PSA using an obstructed plastic reminiscent of a shower door, and SGC inserting black filler in clear plastic reminiscent of matte paper. Because of this, collectors looking to maximize resale value must submit to all three companies if their collection spans the history of the game. If you card was produced before 1940, it is best housed in an SGC slab. If your card was produced before 2000, PSA seems to be the brand of choice. And, if your card was produced after 2000, send it off the BGS, although unless you pulled the card from a pack yourself it most likely already is in a BGS slab.