A rookie card for $21,999? Zion Williamson driving 'insane' market
Zion Williamson's rookie cards are driving a strong market for NBA sports cards. "...it’s crazy to see how much action there is,” Panini vice president of marketing Jason Howarth. Courtesy Panini America

A rookie card for $21,999? Zion Williamson driving 'insane' market

Zion Williamson’s first pack-inserted rookie trading cards are blowing up the sports card market, with nearly a dozen of his 2019-20 Panini Contenders Draft cards on eBay commanding more than $5,000 just more than a week after release.

None is more valuable than the Championship Ticket variation of the card. It features Williamson -- the NBA's hottest prospect in years -- in his Duke uniform and contains a certified autograph. Williamson was drafted No. 1 overall by the New Orleans Pelicans in June.

The Championship Ticket card, which is limited to one copy,  was found in a pack last weekend by Chris Matthews at Evan’s Sports Cards and Collectibles in Voorhees, New Jersey. The special education math teacher hopes to cash in on his find, listing it on eBay for $21,999.

Matthews told Yardbarker that the chase for Williamson’s coveted autographed cards brought him to the shop that day.

After opening more than 14 boxes of the product at $250 apiece, Matthews cracked open a pack and saw the blue background on the back of the card. He slowly revealed the rest of the card to discover it was indeed Williamson. Then he flipped over the card and realized what he had in hand: A card that could be worth the price of a new car.

“I ran around the store. I ran around the store again,” Matthews said. “I was shaking. My buddy, he went out and smoked a cigarette. I told the owner, 'Can you put this in a case?' I couldn’t do it. I was shaking too much.”

Panini, which signed Williamson to an exclusive trading card deal in August, had some idea of the demand for the product. On Aug. 22, its website crashed upon release of the First Off The Line edition of boxes of the product. The company, which owns the exclusive rights to produce NBA cards, had to scuttle the debut and schedule a re-release for the following week.

Panini vice president of marketing Jason Howarth said the company doubled its server capacity for the rescheduled release, when the website saw seven times the typical amount of users.

“I think we were prepared there would be a lot of action,” Howarth said. “We had early indications when we launched First Off The Line and it crashed our site. It’s not dissimilar to what people see when they’re trying to get that hot sneaker or a concert ticket. It's like Taylor Swift — everyone wants to get those tickets and they're gone in a second. We sensed the anticipation and the buzz, but the fact that the cards are being pulled and people are ready to go, it’s crazy to see how much action there is.”

Sealed boxes of the regular version of the product, which includes six packs that each contain an autographed card, are selling for roughly $300 each, while boxes of the First Off The Line edition command nearly $400 each.

Williamson’s rookie cards are clearly driving the market, but Howarth pointed to several other stars in the robust draft class, including the Memphis Grizzlies’ No. 2 pick, Ja Morant and the New York Knicks’ No. 3 pick, Williamson’s Duke teammate R.J. Barrett.

Matthews, who regularly purchases sports card boxes, has typically avoided the product in the past. Boxes of last year’s edition, which included some of Luka Doncic, Trae Young and DeAndre Ayton’s first autographed rookie cards, can be had for less than $120, and boxes of the 2017-18 edition, featuring Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball and De’Aaron Fox, sell for around $150.

But the chance to pull a Williamson rookie card was too much to pass up for Matthews.

“The last time we saw something like that was maybe Shohei Ohtani because of the global market, but this is just different,” he said. Ohtani, a former Japanese star, is a pitcher/designated hitter for the Los Angeles Angels. 

“Basketball is king," Matthews added. "It's king among cards. The prices are just insane now.”

Jon Gold is an award-winning features writer and columnist with more than a decade of full-time beat, features and columnist experience. He has hosted television and radio shows, podcasts and YouTube videos.

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