PSA Population Update
Updated: May 16
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I've been following the PSA populations of some key hockey cards, mostly vintage. I've been curious to see how their populations are changing at each grade level, and what conclusions might be drawn from this information.
Here are the nine cards I've been following:
1. 1966-67 Topps #35 Bobby Orr RC
2. 1971-72 OPC #45 Ken Dryden RC
3. 1971-72 OPC #148 Guy Lafleur RC
4. 1978-79 OPC #115 Mike Bossy RC
5. 1979-80 OPC #18 Wayne Gretzky RC
6. 1984-85 OPC #67 Steve Yzerman RC
7. 1985-86 OPC #9 Mario Lemieux RC
8. 1986-87 OPC #53 Patrick Roy RC
9. 1990-91 OPC-P #50 Jaromir Jagr RC
I took my first population snapshot for these cards on March 22, 2020, about the time PSA was slammed with submissions, leading to their eventual suspension of most submission levels and creating the backlog they are still digging their way out of. My most recent snapshot is from December 28, 2021.
During that 21-month period, the market has gone through seismic shifts. Cards sold for all-time highs between January and March of 2021, and though they have cooled since, they are still well above pre-pandemic values. Take, for example, a PSA 5 copy of Wayne Gretzky's OPC RC. That card sold for $1,200 CDN in March of 2020, reached a high-value of $5,500 CDN in March of 2021, and now sells for about $3,600 CDN. That trend is the same for other commodity-type cards.
The table below shows how the PSA population for my selected cards changed during this period.
Total Change by Volume
Not surprisingly, Wayne Gretzky's OPC RC leads the way with 2,353 copies graded, nearly double the 1,192 copies of Jaromir Jagr's OPC Premier RC. Mario Lemieux's OPC RC had 1,062 copies graded, the third highest number from my list.
If you look at the percentage change for each card's total population, the Gretzky OPC RC again leads the way at a whopping 38.3% increase. The Lemieux OPC RC followed at 28.6%, and the Roy OPC RC was third at 24.5%.
As the market heated up during the pandemic, people began submitting whatever cards they could get their hands on. The data reveals two distinct groups within my selected cards: those that were readily available for submission (Gretzky, Jagr, Lemieux, Roy, Yzerman) and those that were scarcer (Lafleur, Bossy, Orr, Dryden). For the first group, every card had at least 645 copies graded. For the second group, no card had more than 224 copies graded. This was a very clear divide.
Gretzky is the greatest player in the history of hockey, and his OPC RC falls into a special grading category known as "every copy should be graded." In other words, regardless of condition, collectors want to have their Gretzky RC graded. That is one extreme of the grading spectrum. (The other card from my list that falls into this category is the Orr RC. Always get an Orr RC graded!)
I included Jagr's OPC Premier RC to help contrast why collectors submit certain cards for grading. It falls on the other end of the grading spectrum, into the "only worth grading if you think it's a 10" category. Hailing from the beginning of the junk-wax era, the general feeling toward this card is there are probably 10,000 of them sitting in binders that could all easily grade a PSA 10, though I'm not so sure of that.
All of the other cards I chose to track fall somewhere in between. For example, collectors will decide whether to submit a mid-grade Ken Dryden OPC RC based on (a) their predicted grade for the card, (b) the market value of the card at that grade, and (c) the cost to get the card graded. In other words, the same thought process that goes into deciding if any card should be graded.
Before taking a deeper dive into the population changes for each card, a quick disclaimer: With the exception of the PSA 1.5 grade, I have did not track half-point grades (e.g. PSA 5.5) or qualified grades (e.g. PSA 8 OC). The only card with a significant percentage of grades in those categories was Bobby Orr's RC, at 30%. For the others, those grades only accounted for 10% or less of newly graded copies. I also realized too late in the process the significance of the PSA 8.5 grade for understanding high-end populations. I plan on including this going forward.
1966-67 Topps #35
Bobby Orr RC
It's probably not a surprise that most of the 171 Bobby Orr RCs graded since March 2020 received a grade of PSA 4 or lower. After all, with a PSA 1 selling for $2,000 CDN or more, any Orr RC is worth having graded.
While the total population increased by 18.5% during the period, there are still fewer than 1,100 that have ever been graded by PSA, with the highest grade ever received the lone PSA 9. It would be very interesting to see what that card would fetch at auction; among veteran hockey collectors, Orr might be more popular than Gretzky.
I saw an interesting comment on a Facebook group for vintage hockey card collectors recently. A collector rightly pointed out how easy it is to find a copy of Gretzky's OPC RC and how difficult it is to find a copy of Orr's RC. The population data definitely supports this statement, with just 1,096 PSA-graded Orr RCs compared to 8,502 Gretzky OPC RCs.
1971-72 OPC #45
Ken Dryden RC
Ken Dryden's OPC RC has a total population similar to the Orr RC, and even with an increase of 17.8% since March 2020, fewer than 1,100 have ever been graded. The main difference however is the number of high grade copies that exist, with eleven PSA 10s and sixty-two PSA 9s. Two of those PSA 9s were added during the period, along with nine PSA 8s, though the majority of copies received grades between PSA 4 and PSA 6. This is what you would expect, with a PSA 4 currently selling for about $500 CDN and a PSA 6 for roughly $1,000 CDN.
1971-72 OPC #148
Guy Lafleur RC
The other major RC from the 1971-72 OPC set belongs to Guy Lafleur, another Montreal Canadiens legend. No new PSA 10s were added during the period, but there were three new PSA 9s and twelve new PSA 8s. (This is where I wish I had been tracking PSA 8.5s!) Continuing the trend, the majority of cards graded were in the PSA 3 to PSA 7 range.
Interesting that there are only six PSA 10s of this card compared to eleven PSA 10s of the Dryden RC. I wonder if that has to do with the Lafleur RC being released in Series 2 packs of 1971-72 OPC. Could the Series 2 cards have suffered from more quality issues than those from Series 1? One of those six PSA 10s sold for $22,226.40 US on October 27th through Classic Auctions.
1978-79 OPC #115
Mike Bossy RC
With its typical rough-cut edges and centering issues, Mike Bossy's OPC RC is not an easy card to find in high grade. But that could be changing, with almost 19.1% of copies graded since March 2020 receiving grades of PSA 8 or PSA 9. Another 25.3% were slabbed as PSA 7s.
Of the nine cards on my list, this is the most under-appreciated in the hobby. I have a PSA 8 in my collection and it's not going anywhere!
1979-80 OPC #18
Wayne Gretzky RC
There are only two PSA 10 copies of Wayne Gretzky's OPC RC and they both sold in the last 21 months for mind-boggling amounts. Here is a quick timeline:
PSA 10 (Serial #50008975) sold by Heritage Auctions on December 10th, 2020 for $1.29M US. (The owner had paid $465K US for this card in August of 2016.)
PSA 10 (Serial #27606355) sold by Heritage Auctions on May 27th, 2021 for $3.75M.
The $1.29M sale was a catalyst for the explosion in the hockey card market that followed.
The Gretzky OPC RC is the most popular hockey card in existence, and one of the few hockey cards that appeals more widely to collectors that focus primarily on other sports. If you are going to dabble in hockey, Gretzky is who you are likely to go after.
For the period, two additional PSA 9s are quite significant, since they have been selling for close to $100,000 CDN. But, as expected, the majority or cards graded were in the PSA 3 to PSA 6 range.
1984-85 OPC #67
Steve Yzerman RC
Steve Yzerman's OPC RC remains a favourite among collectors. The key RC of the classic 1984-85 OPC set - loved for its unique two-photo design - has no shortage of high-end copies available, with eleven new PSA 10s graded during the period, as well as forty-nine new PSA 9s.
While nobody knows the actual production numbers of OPC sets from the 1980s, cards from the 1984-85 set seem to be more readily available than cards from the other sets.
1985-86 OPC #9
Mario Lemieux RC
Mario Lemieux's OPC RC lags far behind Gretzky's in terms of hobby popularity, especially when you consider that Lemieux is the only contemporary of Gretzky's who dominated the game in the same manner as the Great One.
With forty-eight PSA 10s out there, Lemieux's OPC RC will never command the astronomical price of Gretzky's. But a total population increase of 28.6% during the period might be an indication that demand for this card is growing.
At the top-end, there was one new PSA 10 graded, along with forty PSA 9s. But the majority of cards received grades ranging from PSA 6 to PSA 8.
1986-87 OPC #53
Patrick Roy RC
Like the Yzerman card, the Patrick Roy OPC RC saw some significant top-end population growth, with six new PSA 10s and seventy-four new PSA 9s. An awful lot of PSA 8s and PSA 7s were graded as well.
Again, we see the effect of an increased market value driving the submission of lower quality cards. The total population of PSA 7s increased by 38.3%, PSA 6s by 58.1%, and PSA 5s by 75.4%, all within the 21-month period.
1990-91 OPC-P #50
Jaromir Jagr RC
When PSA 10 copies of Jaromir Jagr's OPC Premier RC reached a peak average sales value of close to $800 CDN in February and March of this year, much of the talk was how the card could not possibly hold that value, not with so many PSA 10s out in the world and so many likely still to come.
The card has since fallen back to an average sales value of between $400 and $450 CDN, following the general trend of the market since those high times earlier in the year. But what struck me from the PSA population report is just how few new PSA 10s emerged during the period. Everything is relative, of course, and 306 new PSA 10s would be a population explosion for some cards, but it represented an increase of just 11.4% for the PSA 10 population of the Jagr card.
Just as interesting, those 306 PSA 10s represent 25.6% of the 1,192 cards submitted. That "gem rate" is significantly lower than the 32.7% the card had enjoyed before this period (2,673 PSA 10s of a total population of 8,167). Some say this is because PSA decided to grade tougher during the pandemic, but it's more likely that submitters were just not as particular about the cards they chose to submit.
There is one obvious conclusion I can draw from these population changes: as the market value of a card increases, collectors begin submitting lower-quality copies of that card for grading. This trend held true for every card I tracked, though the low-condition mark varied from card to card.
I plan on providing another update at the end of June 2022. It will be quite interesting to see how these populations change as PSA continues to work through their backlog and as they re-open lower-cost service levels in 2022.