How to Determine Your Football Cards’ Value

1957 Topps Estate Collection. Sold for $125 via Saco River Auction (April 2018).

The sport of football first emerged in the United States in the late 1800s, established by star halfback, captain, and later coach of Yale College, Walter Camp. Since, it has grown wildly popular, even becoming commonly accepted as one of the country’s most beloved and iconic pastimes. American football continues to expand, evidenced by the $9 billion dollar worth of the National Football League (NFL), over 60 countries establishing their own football federations, and increased global interest in general. With it, interest in football card collecting has also grown tremendously.

Original Topps Football Wax Box, 1974. Sold for $1800 via Morphy Auctions (October 2018).

Like most sports cards, football cards were originally produced as promotional items that were given out by tobacco companies to promote their products, but they’ve since evolved as collector’s items. Collectors in this fascinating field include both enthusiastic fans with emotional ties to specific players, as well as collectors of sports memorabilia. Use this guide to identify some of the most valuable football cards in the market and discover what factors determine football card values today.

Most Valuable Football Cards

Card Card No. Realized Price
1958 Jim Brown Topps $358,500
1965 Joe Namath RC Topps $264,000
1957 Johnny Unitas RC Topps $167,300
1933 Jim Thorpe Sport Kings $119,500
1962 Mike Ditka RC Topps $72,000
1935 Bronko Nagurski National Chicle $66,354
1957 Paul Hornung RC Topps $50,324
1971 Terry Bradshaw Topps $50,190
1948 Sid Luckman Leaf $40,052
1952 Jim Lansford Bowman $25,805
1958 Bart Starr RC Topps $24,060
2000 Tom Brady RC SP Authentic RC $22,800
1972 Roger Staubach RC Topps $22,161
1976 Walter Payton Topps $21,600
1951 Tom Landry RC Bowman $19,642
1959 Bart Starr Topps $18,113
1950 Otto Graham RC Bowman $17,026
1935 Knute Rockne Topps $14,660
1950 Joe Paterno RC Topps $14,340
1978 Tony Dorsett RC Topps $14,005
1957 Dick “Night Train” Lane RC Topps $13,582
1986 Steve Young RC Topps $12,860
1948 Chuck Bednarik RC Leaf $11,364
1948 Sammy Baugh Leaf $8,833
1998 Peyton Manning RC Playoff Contenders $7,200

1958 Jim Brown – Topps

  • Auction House: Heritage Auctions
  • Auction Date: November 2016
  • Price Realized: $358,500
    The is the only recognized rookie card of the revered fullback. It’s susceptible to poor centering and print defects, but still boasts a high auction price because of how rare it is in the market.

1965 Joe Namath RC – Topps

  • Auction House: Heritage Auctions
  • Auction Date: February 2018
  • Price Realized: $264,000
    This is the only recognized rookie cars of “Broadway Joe,” and one of the most recognizable cards in the hobby. Some versions of this card bear a mark on the illustrated figure’s left hand that collectors refer to as the “Butterfly” variation, but the mark has no impact on the card’s value.

1957 Johnny Unitas RC – Topps

  • Auction House: Heritage Auctions
  • Price Realized: $167,300
  • Auction Date: November 2016
    Difficult to find in high-grade, this card is the only recognized rookie card of the legendary quarterback and a key piece in the 1957 Topps set.

1933 Jim Thorpe – Sports Kings

  • Auction House: Heritage Auctions
  • Auction Date: August 2016
  • Price Realized: $119,500
    This card came from the popular 1933 Goudey Sport King set and was made even more valuable after Thorpe was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.

1962 Mike Ditka RC – Topps

  • Auction House: Robert Edward Auctions
  • Auction Date: May 2017
  • Price Realized: $72,000
    Nicknamed “Iron Mike,” Ditka was the first tight end inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988 and was also a successful coach of the Chicago Bears. His card is subject to chipping and wear along the edges.

A Brief History of Football Cards

The origins of football date back to 19-century Britain, when principles of rugby and soccer were combined to form the sport. It migrated to the states in the late 1800s when Yale College’s former star player turned coach, Walter Camp, introduced it. Camp is credited with establishing some of the main rules of the sport, many of which have been revised and are still in use today. These include the forward pass, scoring system, and the requirement of the offense to gain five yards in three attempts. He also added measuring lines to the field.

The first and oldest-known football card was made by cigarette manufacturer Goodwin and Company in 1888 as the sport became increasingly popular on college campuses. The card featured the Yale football captain, Henry Beecher. Goodwin and Co. distributed cards on packages of Old Judge and Gypsy Queen cigarettes, and high-grade examples of these are extremely valuable due to their scarcity.

In 1894, Mayo football cards were produced as an insert for the “Cut Plug” brand of P.H. Mayo tobacco company. They created the first full set titled “College Football Cards,” which featured 35 Ivy League players on tobacco cards done in a sepia tone. The set notably included Neilson Poe, a relative to American writer Edgar Allan Poe.

The next set of cards weren’t created until the 1930s, when Goudey Gum Company began issuing cards with sticks of gum. Later, the National Chicle Gum Company followed suit and created a 36-card set in 1935. These were the first true sets of football cards that illustrated professional players and showcased players like Red Grange, Knute Rockne, and Jim Thorpe. It is in this set that Bronko Nagurski’s rookie card was created, one of the most expensive and valuable cards on the market today.

How to Determine the Value of Your Football Card

Topps Football Cards. Sold for $60 via Milestone Auctions (August 2018).

Determining the value of a football card is the first step in building an extraordinary collection. Beyond the player illustrated on the card, there are many factors to take into account. Often, collectors believe their cards are worth more than they really are because they hold tremendous sentimental value, but assessing the the value of your cards based on the primary factors below will help determine the fair market value of your collection in a more objective way.

Condition

PSA Graded Star Cards, 1951-1975. Sold for $850 via Morphy Auctions (October 2017).

The condition of your football cards is a major factor in determining their worth. The most accurate way to assess the condition is to mail cards to a professional grading service who can best assess them. Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), Beckett Grading Services (BGS), and Sportscard Guaranty Corporation (SGC) are all reputable grading options. Each uses the Beckett Condition Guide to determine a card’s condition, which is outlined below:

  • Pristine (10): Card is perfect to the naked eye and nearly perfect under magnification. There are no print spots or surface flaws, and it centers 50/50 all around.
  • Gem Mint (9.5): The corners are mint to the naked eye, but there is subtle wear under magnification. Edges remain smooth and defects are only visible under intense scrutiny.
  • Mint (9): The card is centering at 55/45 or better, the edges remain smooth, and there are tiny specks of wear.
  • Near Mint-Mint (NmMt 8): The card has 60/40 or better centuring, and one of the following minor flaws is permissible: slight imperfections to corners, minor print spots, subtle color issues.
  • Near Mint (NrMt 7): The centering is 65/35 or better, and one of these is allowed: a slight touch of wear on two or three corners, a few noticeable spots, speckling, or focus imperfections.
  • Excellent-Mint (ExMt 6): Centering should be no worse than 70/30, and two of the above flaws are permitted.
  • Excellent (Ex 5): Centering can’t be worse that 75/25, and corners appear fuzzy, may have rough edges, border discoloration, and noticeable spots.
  • Very Good (VG 3): These cards are noticeably handled, but not destroyed. Their corners are slightly rounded and may have some chipping on the edges.
  • Good (2), Fair (1.5), Poor (1): Cards are obviously well-worn and abused.

Year

Philadelphia Football Archive Collection, 1966. Sold for $1500 via Morphy Auctions (March 2018).

The year of a card greatly impacts its value. Though newer cards can hold sentimental value for a collector, older cards are rarer, and by default, their scarcity makes them more valuable. Not all cards display their year. If this is the case, you can estimate the year by assessing a few different factors and clues: the card stock, the catalog numbers, the printing type, and the player’s statistics. Often, statistics display the year next to them, so the card would have been printed a year or so later.

Featured Player

The most popular players’ cards are typically worth the most. Though any given player might be featured on a number of cards, their rookie card (RC) is the most valuable. Since it is from their first season, it is the oldest and rarest. RCs from All-Star or Hall of Fame players are some of the most valuable on the market.

Special Cases

Some of the most valuable football cards are considered “special cases,” which were typically inserted into packs at random. Here are some special instances you might run into when collecting football cards:

  • Autographed cards: Autographed football memorabilia holds more value.
  • Parallel cards: Parallel cards are identical to base cards—the common cards part of the product’s main set—but they offer one visual difference: foil stamping, design, or color.
  • Refractor cards: These cards offer a metallic shine and are scarcer than those without.
  • Memorabilia cards: These contain a piece of equipment used by an athlete such as a part of their jersey or helmet.

Whether you’re just starting a football card collection, or you’re an established collector looking to get your cards appraised, there are many factors to consider when determining their value. By consulting professional grading services to best assess their condition, and observing year, player, and special cases, you can get a general indication of how valuable your football cards are.

Sources: Old Sports Cards | PSA | ThoughtCo. | Gunaxin | Football Card Shop | Sports Collectors Daily