It was New Year's Eve 2018 and Alex Nisenker, owner of Relikks Card Shop located in Toronto, had decided to get back into the collecting game after years away. He and his brother sat around the table with a blaster box of 2015-16 Upper Deck hockey cards, hunting down a ‘Young Guns’ Connor McDavid rookie card. They fell short, but were able to pull three rookies: Mikko Rantonen, Max Domi and Dylan Larkin.

Tearing through those packs with his brother reminded him why he loved collecting cards his whole childhood. This moment led to him opening up Relikks two years later in 2020. Nisenker’s passion had been reignited and he was interested to know what collecting looked like today in comparison to his youth. He believes card collecting has grown to become a respected and popular alternative form of asset.

“[There are] really big sort of numbers being thrown around on some of the bigger cards, it's much more of an adult hobby now than it was back when I was collecting,” said Nisenker.

As a child, Nisenker would spend hours at Sluggers, a former Toronto hobby shop. He would sit at the counter going through the single cards they sold for 25 cents, hoping to find a treasure in the massive pile.

Nisenker’s renewed passion for the hobby led him to open his own hobby shop. With a lot of free time on their hands, many others were also able to find a passion for the sports memorabilia collecting world during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Throughout the pandemic people were looking for things to occupy their time that were COVID-friendly,” said Nisenker. “People were naturally looking through old shoe boxes and discovering their old sports cards, then going on Google to find out how much they’re worth today and going down that rabbit hole, and eventually re-emerging as hobbyists.”

According to Global News, Bard Hartling, who represents Professional Sports Authentication Canada (PSA), the largest and most trusted third-party trading card authentication and grading company in the world, said that the value of some higher grade sports cards have increased 700 per cent in the last year.

Global News also reported in December 2020 that a Wayne Gretzky rookie card sold for U.S. $1.29 million, the first hockey card to ever sell over a million dollars.

The collecting world has also grown due to more athletes and celebrities getting involved. As reported by the Rolling Stone, Quavo, from the rap group Migos, started collecting during the pandemic and would spend hours at The Card Shop in Los Angeles, ripping open packs.

Nisenker said that card collecting now stands on the same level as fine art, due to the big figures collectors are spending in order to get the best cards on the market. In January 2021, a Mickey Mantle rookie card sold for $5.2 million, the largest card transaction ever, according to Forbes.

Ryerson students, like third-year journalism student Nathan Kennedy, said physical collectibles mean a lot to him. Kennedy collects just about every type of sports memorabilia imaginable. His room is set up with two shelves next to his door: one with a Dallas Cowboys and Notre Dame football helmet, while the next shelf holds his signed baseballs. He has baseballs signed by Prince Fielder, Robinson Chirinos and former Toronto Blue Jays players Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and José Bautista.

His walls are lined with some of his favourite jerseys including Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Phil Kessell and, his personal favourite, a LaMelo Ball from his days playing on basketball team BC Vytautas in Lithuania.

Finally, on top of his dresser, he has all his hockey cards, with his signed ones in hard plastic protecting them from dust. The hefty collection includes a Rick Nash, P.K. Subban minor league card and a Dylan Strome rookie card.

“My dad, from as young as I can remember, would be showing me hockey cards, he would get me jerseys every year for Christmas and then I would even get some signed baseballs and hockey cards once in a while.”

Kennedy estimates his collection consists of 15 team hats, 25 jerseys, five signed baseballs, four signed hockey pucks, four signed jerseys, three signed frames and all of his hockey cards, including 25 signed ones.

Alongside the rise in sports card sales, there has been an emergence of sports-themed non-fungible tokens (NFTs), specifically National Basketball Association (NBA) Top Shot. Sports NFTs are ways for fans to interact with their favourite players, teams, and moments by owning a piece of sports history through a digital collectible.

Top Shot is an NFT marketplace that allows collectors to buy, sell and collect NBA highlights also known as moments. They offer the ability to purchase a video of an iconic moment in NBA history. On the Boardroom YouTube channel in January 2022, NBA superstar Kevin Durant purchased his first Top Shot moment; a video of himself catching an alley-oop off the glass from Mike James last season, which he bought for US$2500.

Global News reported that financial observers say the rise in interest in NFTs is due to the increase in time and money people have spent online during the pandemic.

Global also reported that NBA Top Shot, which launched in Oct. 2020, is a business worth over $280 million. According to the Top Shot transactions page, the most expensive moment ever sold involved LeBron James. It was the 2020 NBA Finals in the Walt Disney World Resort bubble, where they played private games due to COVID-19, that James caught a pass from Alex Caruso as he was heading to the basket and soared through the lane, finishing a one-handed dunk through traffic. This moment sold for a grand total of US$230,023.

Tobias Roediger, a co-founder of Sentient Labs, said he believes NBA Top Shot brought higher attention to the sports NFT space. “NBA Top Shot certainly launched heavy interest in that space, and the big thing that's changed is we're now seeing both professional teams as well as athletes launch their own collections and really lean into that space,” said Roediger.

Roediger also said he believes the emergence of NFTs has not hurt the business of physical collections. He expects the two worlds to merge together to eventually create dual physical and online items.

“You can purchase the replica championship ring, and then when you go into the metaverse your avatar can put it on or wear it on a chain around their neck,” said Roediger. “You can have it with you in both atmospheres, both digital and physical.”

Nisenker said hobby shops create the chance for collectors to meet and create community.

“When you remove that element from collectibles in general, it becomes an isolating experience and it eventually just fades,” said Nisenker. “You keep clicking these Top Shots…then, eventually, you're just looking at your screen and you're like, ‘What do I do with this stuff now?’”

Kennedy agreed with Nisenker and also said that nothing compares to owning a physical collectible.

“The physical thing means a lot more to me than, let's say, a Giannis dunk or something, where I have to go online, I have to access my wallet, I have to put in two passwords and then I can show someone,” said Kennedy. “Whereas I could just reach into my binder and be like, ‘Hey, look at this sick signed hockey card I've had for years.’”