It's late June in Times Square, where West 48th Street meets Broadway, and a billboard ad above Krispy Kreme promotes ... a trading card. But not just any card. That item worthy of such fanfare is the 2020-21 Panini Flawless Triple Logoman featuring LeBron James (numbered one-of-one, the NBA logo cut from three different game-used/worn James jerseys embedded) then up for auction with collectibles marketplace Goldin.
Some wouldn't be inconvenienced by the reality of a cooling market and believed it would challenge the record for a sports card. Others thought it might not reach $3 million.
But even just a few years ago, $3 million on a modern sports card -- let alone a basketball card, a sport that was once so unpopular in the hobby in the 1980s that Topps stopped making them -- was unthinkable.
"In our mind, the value of the card would not have broken $1.5 million privately before the hype," Matt Allen, a high-end collector told ESPN. "We were all somewhere in that range, and then it got in the public eye. Then it more or less created a lot of hype and it was like looking for the Willy Wonka golden ticket."
It would ultimately sell for $2.4 million as June came to a close. But that hype turned into an epic chase in the card-collecting world that included multiple bounties, an offer of a Lamborghini for the person who discovered the card, and intrigue from novices and expert collectors alike. Even rap megastar Drake got in on the hunt.
Ken Goldin, the omnipresent founder and executive chairman of Goldin, puts it simply: "It is the only card that, the second it was pulled out of a pack, it was instantly worth millions."
What's in the steel briefcase?
Panini's Flawless line is the highest of high-end products that typically runs collectors upward of $10,000 a box and comes sealed inside a metal briefcase. The company has continually upped the ante and, in recent years, has inserted actual gems and diamonds into physical Flawless cards. Secondary market resale prices, once a rookie class has excelled, can be exospheric; a box of first-off-the-line 2018-19 Flawless (which includes exclusive parallel cards) -- boasting Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Deandre Ayton in its rookie class -- is currently going for nearly $44,000 with Pennsylvania-based proprietor Steel City Collectibles.
The 2020-21 Flawless basketball release included five triple Logoman cards. One card featured Zion Williamson, Doncic and Jayson Tatum. Another, the Golden State Warriors' dynastic triumvirate of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. They were all numbered one-of-one, literally the only of their kind.
Then there was a LeBron card.
It's here! The Modern Card Grail is at Goldin. pic.twitter.com/cIpO1Wd2uI— Goldin (@GoldinCo) June 6, 2022
He's not flanked by Lakers running mates Anthony Davis or the beleaguered Russell Westbrook, nor a throwback to Cleveland with Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love. Just LeBron, with game-used/worn NBA logos from his time with the Cavaliers, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers. It was Panini's first triple Logoman and, combined with the extreme rarity and the novelty of a card that spans James' illustrious career -- it created a frenzy.
The Flawless product itself was almost designed for an occasion when deep-pocketed collectors would unload ungodly sums chasing high-end cards as long as there's a market for it. The COVID-19 pandemic hammered home that sports cards were no longer relegated to mom's attic and man caves; they had become stable alternative investments. "I remember a few years ago when we were sitting in front of the NBA and we said, 'We're going to create this product, sell it for $10,000 and it's going to come in a steel briefcase.'" said Panini vice president of marketing Jason Howarth. "The NBA told us we were out of our minds and that no one is going to buy that."
To say the product worked is an understatement. Flawless release days are marked on calendars months in advance, and boxes resell on eBay for up to $15,000. The industry hinges on "chase" cards -- hard-to-find, randomly inserted cards that are often autographed or include memorabilia embedded into the card, or feature rookies. While Flawless cards might break the bank, every card is a "chase" card. (The 2020-21 Flawless release includes 10 cards, and at least eight, on average, are autographed.)
For the 2020-21 release, Porter and his team put their heads together over a year ago and asked themselves as collectors what they would want to buy.
"What's crazy about it is we did five different cards like this in the program and the other four are spectacular cards," said David Porter, Panini's director of product development. "You just don't hear a lot about them, but they're out there too. That's not something we can do every year, but it has been pretty talked about."
But the James card found the perfect storm of hype, celebrity buy-in and a FOMO-inducing hunt to be the Charlie Bucket -- or Veruca Salt -- who won big.
Bounties and breakers
Allen, also known as Shyne150, was invited to take a tour at Panini in October 2021. Allen was shown the complex, but the team also wanted to show him its idea for the triple Logoman.
The digital version of the card Allen saw was still only in the design phase, but Allen knew it would send collectors scrambling. (Cue: The bounties and the Lamborghini.) Drake even spent over $200,000 trying to pull it.
"We were all really surprised to see it, and that's the first time they ever did a triple Logoman of the same player," Allen said. "A few of us collectors, myself included, put bounties on the card. So before Drake ever learned about this card, it was internal in the hobby and people were putting up a bounty for $500,000, somebody did $550,000. I [said] I'll pay more than anyone's bid if they can prove it's a real bid."
Those bounties stirred the pot behind the scenes. It wasn't long until that hype trickled out of the collector community and into the public as the card was confirmed as part of the 2020-21 set. Interest ramped up and, on the secondary market, Flawless briefcases quickly approached $20,000, or double the usual asking price.
Card breakers -- businesses that operate on collectors paying for slots in case and box breaks who divvy up the hits accordingly -- frantically searched for the elusive LeBron Triple Logoman. Breakers make money only on the buy-in, so finding the card would only enhance marketing and notoriety. Companies and breakers offered rewards of their own.
"For the seller that's actually opening that product, it's really just the fame -- there's not significant upside from a financial perspective," said Eric Shemtov, the head of sports at Whatnot, a community marketplace that allows buying and selling of cards and is known for streaming openings and breaks. "But they'll go down in the history books as the person that found the card."
Whatnot offered breakers a Lamborghini if they pulled the LeBron on the platform.
"I won't say this was totally by accident, but I don't think anybody can sit down 10 months before the program ships and say 'This is going to sell for millions and is going to drive conversation everywhere,'" Porter said. "It doesn't happen like that. It's one card out of the box and the odds of pulling it are pretty tough, so all that comes together and made it what it was."
'Drake hopped on my Instagram Live...'
Chasing a one-of-a-kind anything faces steep odds, so as the months drew on without finding the card, the chase momentum slowed.
That is, until Drake entered the picture.
"Drake hopped on my Instagram Live at like 2 in the morning one night and we're opening cases in a case war," Goldin said. "The guy's got 110 million followers on Instagram alone. It raised [global] awareness to the non-trading card public and set off a fury..."
The global icon and NBA superfan -- and friend of James' -- hadn't previously been involved in collecting, but he caught wind and wanted in. He and Shyne opened Flawless cases together but came up empty-handed.
Goldin flew to Toronto to open 10 Flawless briefcases with Drake -- along with a box of 1986-87 Fleer basketball, hoping for a coveted Michael Jordan rookie card as a consolation prize. It's not known whether Drake ponied up his own money, but the secondary market pricing of the cases put the value at the time of opening around $200,000.
"I was up at [midnight] watching that Instagram Live seeing if he's going to pull the card and thinking: Just get to the main event," Howarth said. "Everyone knows about these [Fleer] cards that you're opening, get to the main event. And we stayed up and watched and waited for him to see if it was going to come out of that product."
The Fleer box, part of Goldin's collection, yielded him and Drake three Jordan sticker rookies -- conservatively speaking, roughly a $1,000 card in a high grade -- and three Jordan rookie cards. A gem-mint 10 graded Jordan rookie sold for $228,000 in late May. Drake now has three, ungraded.
He was excited about them, but he wasn't chasing Jordans.
"Before Drake entered, cases were about $20,000 each," Allen said. "But when he came in, it just blew up and went crazy. It pushed Flawless cases past $40,000 each."
Goldin and Drake broke cases hoping to nab their grail -- to no avail. The chase was still on.
The card industry crashed in the early 1990s due to a variety of factors, chief among them rampant overproduction. Serial numbering of cards not only increased the perception of transparency but also manufactured scarcity.
Scarcity puts a premium on exclusivity, part of why there are a limited number of Flawless boxes and cases produced every year. The James card had already been inserted into a briefcase and was in the wild waiting to be discovered.
Card breakers open product at a higher rate than the average collector, so it made sense that a breaker would find it. Backyard Breaks, one of Whatnot's most well-known entities, found the card in May.
"The card was hit on day three of six that we had advertised [for the triple Logoman programming]," Shemtov said. "Backyard Breaks open a substantial amount of product because of the size of their business, but there is an element of luck to finding that one-of-one -- a needle in the haystack."
The parameters of buying into a card break vary from company to company and sometimes from break to break. Interested parties can, at times, buy into a team, conference or division within a sport. For this particular break, three people had purchased spots for the corresponding teams on the card, so the LeBron card was owned three ways. Often, if there are multiple teams on a card, breakers input names in a randomizer until one person wins. This one, however, was far too valuable to leave to chance. The winners decided to consign it together and divide profits.
Because Drake had bought into the chase so seriously, most thought he would bid once the card was found. But, reportedly, he was in only on the chase.
"Drake lost interest," Allen said. "He told me he just wanted it if he hit it."
The problem for the sellers then wasn't a potential buyer but rather what the price would be and whether it would match the hype from before it was pulled. Private collectors thought the card would be valued only around $1.5 million.
"The amount of super high-end LeBron stuff has been limited because of his deal with Upper Deck, so to have something like this come along that gets around the autograph, the history that tells the story of LeBron's career -- it's an impressive card," said Ryan Cracknell, Beckett Media's hobby editor. "I was surprised that it didn't go for more [than $2.4 million]."
The sellers shopped the card around, reportedly considering Sotheby's, among others.
"I got on a conference call and knew they were planning on speaking to other auction houses," Goldin said. "I told them, point blank, 'If you Google LeBron James Triple Logoman, my picture comes up sitting next to Drake; there is nobody else in the world you want selling this card.' When we hung up, we had a deal."
'The greatest trading card ever produced'
At $2.4 million -- with more than 10 card sales of $3 million or higher, and a 9.5, SGC-graded 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle threatening to break the record for a sports card sale -- was it savvy marketing, arguably the most promoted card sale of all time or hype fulfilled? After all, it wasn't even the record for a LeBron James card; that belongs to a 2003-04 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection RPA (rookie patch autograph) that sold for $5.2 million in April 2021, the most expensive basketball card ever sold.
Goldin leans toward fulfillment.
"My job is to promote the card and the hobby and get the best possible price," he said. "Anything over $2 million, I know my guys [the sellers] are happy. My campaign worked."
With the 2022 iteration of the National Sports Collectors Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, underway -- attendance last year approached 90,000, the second-highest in the gathering's four-decade-plus history -- Allen offers similar sentiments on the James talisman.
"Even though it didn't sell for $6 million, it still has another currency in my eyes: It [and Drake] brought a lot of exposure to the sports card industry," Allen said.
Although the buyer who paid $2.4 million for the card wishes to remain anonymous, Goldin agrees that the chase and Drake's celebrity played a direct part in them purchasing the card.
"[The person who] bought the card is not somebody the hobby knows, not a traditional collector, not somebody who will ever post the card on Instagram or social media," he said.
Allen, for what it's worth, doesn't even believe the LeBron is the best Logoman out there. He owns a 2004 Upper Deck Exquisite Triple Logoman graded PSA 10 that features Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
Goldin, meanwhile, has been filming a Netflix series that some hope will do for sports cards what "Formula 1: Drive to Survive" did for its sport: give a craze some staying power.
He is also promoting a 2006-07 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection Triple Logoman featuring game-worn swatches of Jordan, James and Bryant.
Announcing the auction, Goldin hailed the next big thing. The language sounded familiar.
He called it "the greatest trading card ever produced."