A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Sports Trading Cards

Arising in the 1860s, sports trading cards precede most of the professional sports leagues now represented on their fronts. Even in the early years, the drive to collect entire card sets motivated enthusiasts to trade with one another, which is how the term “trading card” came to be. Later, in the 1980s, with elite athletes formally reaching celebrity status, the public recognized sports cards as valuable collectibles. And that’s where we are today.

But you don’t have to pursue just the rare and the valuable to get into trading cards yourself. This is a hobby that opens itself to people of myriad motivations, means, and interests. For many, it’s a way to connect more deeply with their favorite sports, teams, and players. Others may like the thrill of starting, growing, and completing a collection, as well as engaging with others who have similar passions.

Those are only a couple of the reasons why people get started in this hobby. Whatever your incentive, we want to encourage you and facilitate your journey. That’s why our team at Fanatics has created this guide. With this, you’ll have all you need to start out and advance as a collector.

Quick Navigation Outline:

  • A Glossary of Sports Trading Card Terms.
  • The Different Types of Sports Trading Cards.
  • An Overview of Digital Trading Cards.
  • Vintage Sports Trading Cards.
  • Sports Trading Card Brands.
  • Sports Trading Card Grading Scales.

A Glossary of Sports Trading Card Terms

Like many hobbies, the world of sports trading cards features its own way of speaking. As a newcomer, you might feel the inertia of the learning curve as you grow acclimated, but don’t worry — acclimated you will become.

View the glossary here to help. If you ever get stuck on the parlance, refer back to it. Pretty soon, you’ll be speaking the lingo like an old hand.

The Different Types of Sports Trading Cards

The term “sports trading card” refers to a broad category of products with common features. The front side bears the image of a sports figure — typically an athlete, coach, or mascot, or a combination thereof. The back displays statistics, histories, or other facts. But otherwise, the characteristics of trading cards can vary wildly.

To help you advance your knowledge of the hobby, let’s look at the various subclassifications you may encounter on your collector’s journey.

Base Cards

Base cards are ordinary sports trading cards that are likely to make up the crux of every pack you buy. Usually, they’re available in sets numbering in the hundreds, though some brands offer smaller-volume sets. Broadly speaking, these cards feature the best-performing players from the previous season.

Rookie Cards

Rookie cards feature players in their debut year. Michael Jordan, for example, entered the NBA in 1984, and his rookie card became available the same year.

You can find rookie cards among base sets, as well as in other subclassifications of cards. Somewhere on the card, you may find a symbol or set of initials (such as “RC”) indicating you have a rookie card.

Prospect Cards

Prospect cards feature promising players who haven’t yet made it to the pro league. These are probably most common among baseball cards, as minor league play provides glimpses into a player’s major league potential.

Short-Print and Super-Short-Print Cards

Short-print (SP) cards are available in smaller quantities because the manufacturer has printed fewer of them. Super-short-print (SSP) cards are even scarcer.

Often, SP and SSP cards are variations on base cards. They might, for example, feature players in alternate jerseys, or they may be photo-manipulated novelties. They, too, appear in base sets.

Subset Cards

Subsets are cards featuring players categorized according to particular traits. For example, a set of baseball cards might include a series for the best hitters or pitchers. Like rookie, SP, and SSP cards, subsets appear in base sets.

Insert Cards

Inserts are specialty cards that, like subsets, follow a particular theme. They also feature a noticeably different design compared to the base set. Inserts tend to be on the rare side, often appearing just once per pack or case.

Parallel Cards

A parallel card is like a base card but slightly different — same card design, same player photo, but with modifications such as a different-colored border or a sort of reflective rainbow sheen on the surface (refractor cards).

Autograph Cards

An autograph card bears the certified signature of the associated player. Usually, the player has either directly signed the card or signed a separate surface that is affixable to the card, such as a sticker. Such cards are rare, often appearing just once per box.

Relic Cards

A relic is an item that a player has used in a game, such as jersey or piece of equipment. Relic cards, then, are a type of card that includes a bit of relic. Alongside the player’s photo, you might have a cut-out swatch of their game uniform or a scrap of the game ball. As you can probably imagine, this type of card is rare and well-sought-after.

Relic cards and autograph cards may coincide, resulting in an autographed relic. The value there is even greater.

An Overview of Digital Trading Cards

Think of digital sports trading cards as the computer versions of print cards, allowing you to enjoy the collector’s experience in a unified package. You begin by installing an app on your smartphone. Topps, for instance, has developed a variety of digital trading card apps for different interests. From there, you can buy digital packs or boxes via credit card, or you can earn digital coins to make your purchases. The digital cards you collect get stored in the app itself.

As in the physical world, you can also trade your digital cards. Again, this is all in-app. You interact with other app users and work out your transactions.

Vintage Sports Trading Cards

You can think of vintage cards as collectibles printed before a particular year. Among collectors today, a widely agreed-upon cutoff year is 1980, whereby the “vintage” designation applies only to cards printed before then. Bear in mind, though, this cutoff is not a hard consensus.

Though the definition of “vintage” may vary from collector to collector, you may notice the vintage cards themselves do have common characteristics. Namely:

  • The players they feature are no longer active.
  • They’re simple — usually just player pictures on card stock — as older cards lacked the type variation we have today.
  • They’re less informational. Statistical and biographical information may be absent or minimal. With some cards, even the player’s name and position aren’t included.

You may also notice other peculiar features as you travel further back in the vintage realm. For example, the oldest vintage cards don’t use player photos. They feature illustrations instead. There’s also the form factor. Vintage cards are often either smaller than their contemporary counterparts or they have a different shape (practically square rather than rectangular). Go back far enough and you may even find player postcards instead of trading cards.

Of course, when it comes to vintage sports trading cards, we’re dealing with a sort of floating world. As time progresses, the definition changes. In forty years’ time, that which is new today may join the slowly growing stock of vintage collectibles.

Sports Trading Card Brands

You’ve got the lingo down, you know about card types, and you can even break down the nuances of vintage collectibles. All that being done, now’s when you get an overview of the major brands that feed the hobby.

The Big Three

The Big Three are the leading manufacturers of trading cards. What they have in common, aside from occupying most of the market share, is a history of decision-making that has led them to put out some of the most prized classic card sets. They are:


Topps is the oldest of the Big Three trading card brands. Founded in 1938, Topps has produced countless classic collectibles for baseball, football, basketball, ice hockey, and soccer. That includes the much-coveted 1952 Mickey Mantle card. Furthermore, in the 2010s, Topps was the only trading card manufacturer that held a license with Major League Baseball (MLB).

Topps also owns two other notable trading card brands. One is Bowman, which today focuses its card production on MLB rookies. The other is Allen & Ginter, a vintage brand that produces vintage-style illustrated cards of contemporary athletes.

Upper Deck

Upper Deck got its start in 1988, when the MLB granted the company a license to produce baseball cards. The following year, Upper Deck really made its name by featuring eventual Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. as card one in its classic 1989 set. Today, many of Upper Deck’s licenses are with entertainment companies, such as Marvel and Sanrio.

Upper Deck also owns O-Pee-Chee and Fleer. Through the former, it produces ice hockey cards. The latter puts out baseball sets.


Panini is an Italian company whose history goes back to 1961. Some of its earliest success came with FIFA World Cup trading cards and stickers in the 1970s and ’80s. Today, it deals primarily in basketball, football, and soccer cards. While it also produces baseball and ice hockey cards, it does so unlicensed.

Since 2009, Panini has owned Donruss, which itself has been a well-known name in the trading card hobby. Collectors typically associate Donruss with MLB cards, but the company also had success with prospect and draft pick cards in the 2000s, having licensed with the NCAA.

Other Notable Brands

Aside from the Big Three, several other brands regularly put out notable trading cards. As you fill out your collection, keep an eye out for these names:

  • Futera: A European company that has made its name with soccer cards, as well as several baseball sets.
  • Leaf: A collectibles manufacturer of baseball, basketball, football, ice hockey, and MMA trading cards, with a focus on autographs.
  • Sage: A brand that specializes in football rookie cards.
  • Score: Primarily a producer of football and basketball items today.
  • TRISTAR: A producer of MLB and wrestling cards.

Sports Trading Card Grading Scales

Sports trading card grading is the process of having a card evaluated by a card-grading company, of which there are several. It’s a complex matter that involves multiple criteria relating to the physical properties of the card. Though grading companies approach the task objectively, the process is just as much an art as it is a science.

To get a better sense of how grading works, check out our trade grading scales article, which explains everything you need to know.



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