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Tom Brady’s Million-Dollar Trading Card Moment Arrives

Why one of the quarterback’s rookie cards is finally pushing him into the rare air of all-time collectible cards.

Perhaps the one area in which Tom Brady has not been associated with complete transcendent greatness in his life is in the trading card market. To this point, there has not been a thin slice of cardboard with his likeness on it that has sold for more than a high-end Picasso.

But that is changing, thanks to guys like Mike. We’ll call him Mike because he doesn’t want his real name out there—you wouldn’t either if you had just sold something to an auction house that might end up surpassing a million dollars. Mike bought a Brady Playoff Contenders Championship Rookie Ticket card on eBay about eight years ago, right in the middle of the Patriots’ Super Bowl slump, for about $3,000. Since that time, it has developed into the Brady card—limited in number (only 100 made), autographed and from his rookie season, which checks so many of the boxes that constitute the rarity and age that entices high-end collectors—and is now the central focus of a feverishly developing Brady market.

“I saw the same card not graded as high-sell for $250,000,” Mike told me via email. “After I saw that I said to myself: ‘I don’t know if I can keep this card anymore.’ ”

The piece is being dubbed the “Holy Grail” of Brady football cards, much in the way the Wayne Gretzky O-Pee-Chee has defined the hockey great’s collectible market. It has, ironically enough, broken a record set by Patrick Mahomes’s Panini National Treasures card for the most expensive football card ever sold at public auction. Mahomes’s card sold for $840,000 back on January 30, right before Super Bowl LV. Since then, PWCC Marketplace said in an Instagram post that it sold a Brady card, graded as an 8 (out of 10), for $1.32 million, while eBay seller Rick Probstein said he sold the same card, graded as an 8.5, for $1.7 million. Beckett, a card grading service, evaluated the condition of Mike’s card as an 8.5 and the autograph as a 9.

Take everything that’s happening in the trading card industry now with a grain of salt. The rise of YouTube box breaks, collector-specific cards of which only one are made, the flood of absurdly disposable income among the super wealthy, and the cementing idea that these pieces can be acquired, traded and flipped like other extremely valuable commodities, has created a Wild West for the industry despite a global pandemic and severe economic downturn. When told by a writer that they didn’t understand how trading cards could be booming at a moment like this, Jordan Gilroy, the director of acquisitions at Lelands Auctions, says with a lighthearted chuckle: “Me neither. But we’ll take their money!” More seriously, he adds: “The injection of celebrities and wealthy individuals into a market with immense potential for growth is the driving force behind the boom.” Lelands is currently hosting auction for Mike's card, which, as of Friday morning, has reached $742,943 and still has more than 28 days left.

But even with the market spike, Brady still hasn’t been mentioned among the hobby’s truly elite. For years, that has been dominated by the likes of Honus Wagner, Mickey Mantle, Michael Jordan and Mike Trout, among others. Even a Luka Doncic card just went for more than $4.5 million at a private auction, while a Giannis Antetokounmpo card nearly fetched $2 million at a public auction.

After his seventh Super Bowl, though, Brady is forcing his way into this rarified space. Gilroy projects they will fetch more than $1 million for the card, which features a snarling, 23-year-old Brady dropping back to pass, with an autograph splayed across his calves.

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“Another $75,000 Brady card was worth $25,000 in December,” Gilroy says. “When he won that playoff game, stuff went up. When he beat the Chiefs, his market value just went higher than any of us expected. We’re offering Brady cards for four or five times what we paid and just letting them ride in auctions because the market is just surprising us. But we think it could grow a lot more.”

The impending sale says a lot about us as a collective society, but it also says something about Brady himself. The way that his memorabilia is doubling and tripling after his first non-Patriots Super Bowl win suggests a kind of passage into the realm of the unknown, items to be hoarded and coveted with an uncertain ceiling. It has also helped hoist football up the ladder of collectability in a trade that, until lately, was dominated by baseball.

Throughout the sports community, Brady had always been considered elite and, except for a few contrarian stragglers, the greatest player in the history of the sport. After breaking away from the Patriots machine and winning another on his own, something that Joe Montana failed to do, it placed him in a space that is difficult for any of us, including the collectors seeking out his merchandise, to define.

Added to that aesthetic is an interesting twist: When Brady came into the league as a rookie he did so without any ceremony—a sixth-round pick destined to collect dust behind Drew Bledsoe. Unlike Michael Jordan, Gretzky, Mahomes or Trout, there was no belief that he would become an all-time great. Thus, there was no incentive to keep a Brady rookie card from a collection. Maybe some were thrown away. Maybe some still exist somewhere, unboxed. Either way, there was no fevered push to acquire and stow Brady memorabilia from the first year of his career.

“Unless you were a Patriots fan, if you pulled this card back then you were like, ‘Who is Tom Brady?’ ” Gilroy says.

Mike has always admired Brady and has always been a Patriots fan, though the nature of his relationship to the athlete has probably changed forever. He admitted that he had agreed with Lelands to go to auction during the playoffs, making every moment throughout the Super Bowl run extremely tense. Every first down inched the value of the card forward. Even deep into the Buccaneers’ romp over Kansas City, there was a palpable unease.

“I was still thinking this is the Chiefs, they can score extremely fast,” he says.

Now comes the fun part, for Mike, for Lelands and for anyone else with the foresight to hang on to a Brady rookie card. It’s worth more than a Banksy now, perhaps in a way that only Brady himself could have ever envisioned.