Football Cards; More Than Just A Hobby

Before fantasy football even existed, the ultimate football craze was collecting cards. The industry has changed over the years and it has become a marketable experience for rookies and veterans in the NFL.'s Chris Steuber takes an inside look into the football card industry and reveals its enjoyable and profitable nature.

It’s a warm, sun blazed May day in Los Angeles; a day so perfect it should be featured on a post card for tourists to purchase. Cameramen are focused, and reporters surround the area on this calm, brightly lit day to catch a glimpse of the image that will circulate to the masses for years to come.

On this day, the object of desire is to capture 30 of the top NFL rookies as they pose in a three-point stance, drop back in the pocket, run routes, catch passes, leap in the air with the help of a trampoline and many more poses trading card giants Donruss, Topps and Upper Deck have in store for the future millionaires of the National Football League.

Darren McFadden has some fun with a camera at the NFL Rookie Premiere.
Nick Laham/Getty

The NFL Rookie Premiere is one of the biggest days of the year for the aforementioned trading card companies, as they try to illustrate the best image of these future stars wearing their new professional uniforms. The event takes place prior to most of the players signing a professional contract, and with signing bonuses and guaranteed money being vital for football players, the NFL Rookie Premiere provides the players with the opportunity to make some money.

“I don’t have any specifics for this class, but the top rookies can get as much as $50-$60 per signature [card],” says David Lee, Editor of Beckett Football. “Lower-tiered rookies may get five dollars or less per signature. But it does vary from rookie to rookie and year to year.”

The top rookies in this year's class, in terms of football card sales, are: Darren McFadden, Matt Ryan, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Kevin Smith and surprisingly, at least to Lee, is Washington Redskins sixth-round rookie Colt Brennan. Brennan’s card sales have been so strong on eBay that it has forced Beckett to reflect his popularity in its magazine as a top-priced rookie.

“I’m very surprised by the market for Brennan,” Lee said. “It could be that there’s a secret band of Hawaii collectors out there that we don’t know about, but I think collectors are likely still in awe of his huge college numbers. Another thing that’s helped him is that Jason Campbell is not a rock-solid starter in Washington, so Brennan could get a shot [to start] in the future. Having said all that, I fully expect the action on his cards to fade significantly once the regular season begins and collectors concentrate on other rookies who are playing.”

Over the years, the football trading card business has changed dramatically, and for the most part for the better, as it generates an estimated $100 million annually. No longer will you find a stick of bubble gum embedded into a pack of cards that leaves an unwanted stain, because the product is too pricey today to worry about damaging a significant card before the owner claims it.

The infusion of memorabilia and signed cards has changed the hobby, and unlike the NFL and fantasy football where the impact players are the more established veterans, rookies are the most wanted and high priced entities in the trading card world. 

“It sometimes seems like the card companies have squeezed out every idea for making a card product,” Lee said. “But then a product comes along and raises the bar or offers some never-before-seen innovation. We saw this when Upper Deck released its Exquisite Collection in 2004. Donruss’ National Treasures product was named product of the year last year by Beckett Football, and it has an absolutely amazing list of memorabilia and autographed cards of the best players to ever play the game.”

There are very few players in the NFL today that collect football cards. The players are aware of the hobby, and during training camp they see their own cards on a daily basis when fans ask them for their signature. But most of the time, the only interest players have in the hobby is to learn how much their own cards generate on the open market.

The price difference between a 1976 Topps Walter Payton rookie card and a 2006 Upper Deck Exquisite Reggie Bush rookie card is what makes the football card hobby so intriguing.

An interesting fact about football cards is that the cards of the past, which feature some of the legends of the game, are not worth as much as the cards produced this decade. A 1976 Topps Walter Payton rookie card - according to Beckett Football - is worth $250.00, while a 2006 Upper Deck Exquisite Reggie Bush rookie card is listed at $1,800.00.

The Bush rookie card features an autograph, a large (jersey) patch swatch and comes from a very expensive product, which limited the Bush rookie to just 99 copies. The Payton rookie card was mass produced on cheap cardboard and is much easier to obtain than the Bush rookie. But even though the Bush rookie card is limited, the Payton rookie card is hard to find in pristine condition.

“On the surface, it doesn’t seem right that a historical card like the ’76 Topps Payton rookie, of arguably the game’s greatest all-time player, sells for so much less than cards for guys who haven’t even been in the league for three years,” Lee said. “But card value is not the only thing this hobby is about.”

For Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, who is one of the few players in the league who actually collects cards, the passion for football cards started at a young age. Cooley was a huge collector as a kid and used to mow lawns and shovel driveways to get money to support his addiction for the hobby. His love for football cards was lost in high school when he started driving, because he had to pay for more important things at the time. But when he entered the NFL, the intrigue of pulling his own rookie card out of a pack got him back into the game.

“I haven’t gotten any of my good cards at all.” Cooley said with disappointment. “I haven’t gotten a jersey card, a signature card, nothing. I’ve really wanted to pull one of those. A fun card this year is Playoff Prestige. I probably bought 25 boxes of Playoff, so I got a lot of just my regular card. So the feeling of getting your own regular card sort of wears off, but I’d love to get a jersey card or an autograph card out of a pack; I think that would be fun.”

The ability of the card companies to continually produce products that capture the imagination of the fans and the athletes is truly amazing. The innovation of memorabilia, signed cards, limited prints and other never-seen-before cardboard classics have been a viable marketing and money making industry that makes a sunny day in California worth while for all who enjoy the hobby.

A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the network and on If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at:

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