PSA Population Update 2022
Updated: May 16
PSA spent much of 2022 working through the massive, pandemic-induced backlog of submissions that had accumulated through the latter half of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021. Infamously, the company took two steps to address this problem: they stopped accepting new submissions at their bulk service levels, and they increased the price of submissions at their other service levels. That's right. During the height of the market, PSA essentially closed its doors, leaving many hobbyists out in the cold.
Even worse, those that had already submitted cards in hopes of selling them while the market was hot had their cards sit at a PSA warehouse for 12-18 months. By the time those cards were graded, the market had cooled and any opportunity for a profitable sale had vanished.
To be fair, PSA was in a tough situation. In order to achieve even an 18-month turnaround they had to scale their operations quickly. That usually leads to problems. But while there was some grumbling about the consistency of PSA grading during the period - some said it became tougher, others said the opposite - they did manage to maintain their credibility and their status as the hobby's most popular grading company.
Two things emerged from the PSA shutdown that will mark this period in hobby history. First was the proliferation of new grading companies. The space that had been dominated by PSA, Beckett, and SGC seemed to have ten new competitors overnight. It seemed all you had to do to start a grading company was come up with a new three-letter name. This led to a period of confusion as collectors tried to compare the advantages and disadvantages of these upstarts. Second, which became evident as PSA worked through the backlog, was the emergence of the aptly-named "Junk Slab" era. Though the pandemic market frenzy did feel a bit like collecting hockey cards in 1990, I was still floored to see so many junk-wax era cards appearing in PSA slabs. It was too easy to find a 1990-91 Upper Deck Pavel Bure RC in PSA 7 or 8 slab. Prior to the frenzy, that card would only have been submitted by someone confident in receiving a PSA 10.
Something else that happened during the shutdown was a hobby introspection on grading. It was long overdue. We started to ask how grading could be improved. Could it be automated for consistency? Could it be more transparent so we could understand why cards received the grades they did? Of all the grading companies that entered the market in 2022, TAG Grading seemed to be the most innovative. I took part in their early adopter program - limited to cards from the year 2000 to present - and the results were phenomenal. (More on that in a future post.) Why is this important? The key cards in my collection are all in PSA slabs. But if there is a better, more consistent and transparent option out there, I would consider switching. That depends entirely on whether TAG, or another company, can figure out how to successfully map their automated grading scale to the vintage market. If my PSA 5 Gretzky OPC RC is going to end up with a TAG 3 grade, I'll probably stick with PSA.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I've been tracking the PSA populations of the following hockey cards:
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
These represent a sample of the (mostly) vintage hockey card market. The Gretzky and Orr RCs are on the every-copy-should-be-graded end of the grading spectrum, while the Jagr RC is on the only-grade-if-it's-a-10 end. The rest fall somewhere in between.
As expected, all of these cards saw significant increases in population in 2022.
Note: All population numbers for 2022 are based on data taken from the PSA website on December 28th, 2022.
For each card, I looked at three pieces of data:
Population Change, by Volume - The population change in 2022. This is simply the number of copies of the card graded by PSA in 2022.
Population Change, by Percentage - The percent population change in 2022, relative to the card's total population.
Population Change, by Trend - How the population change trended in 2022 compared to the previous year.
Population Change, by Volume
The same two cards top the list for 2022 as did in 2021. While it's understandable that there were 1,604 more Jagr OPC Premier RCs available for submission (production was known to be a bit high in 1990), it is somewhat surprising that there were still 1,274 Gretzky OPC RCs that had not been graded. Makes you wonder how many are still out there.
As I dig into the individual cards below, it will become clear that the resulting grades for these two cards were quite different.
Population Change, by Percentage
When I look at 2022 percent increase, I am trying to see if any card on my list became more popular for submission that it had been in the past. Generally, the 2022 percent increase was similar across the board. That's expected, given these are all RCs of the game's legends, whose careers - and places in the game's history - have already been well-established. Though I try to avoid using investment terms when it comes to hockey cards, I'll make an exception here: These are all blue-chip cards in the hobby.
We lost two hockey greats early in 2022. Mike Bossy passed away on April 15 at age 65. A week later, on April 22, Guy Lafleur passed away at age 70. Both men had battled lung cancer. Sadly, it is probably not a coincidence that their cards top the list of percent population change.
Population Change, by Trend
A quick note on the trend table above. This shows that PSA graded a total of 241 Mike Bossy OPC RCs in 2022, compared to 130 in 2021, which represents an increase of 85.4% in 2022.
It's interesting that the trend is flat for Bobby Orr's RC and negative for both Mario Lemieux's and Wayne Gretzky's RCs. At first this surprised me, but it does seem to make sense. Gretzky, Orr, and Lemieux are three of hockey's upper echelon of all-time greats, and their RCs would have been the first ones submitted for grading by collectors when the market spiked in 2020. Most of those cards would have been returned - and made their way into the PSA population report - in 2021. That left fewer of those cards to be submitted the following year. That's my theory, at least.
Bonus: The Pandemic Effect
As a bonus, I decided to look at the population change for each card over the past two years. The numbers were striking.
Population Change, by Volume
Through the first 20+ years of its existence, PSA had graded 6,756 copies of Gretzky's OPC RC. In the last two years alone, they graded 3,020. That's staggering. Six of the nine cards I'm following saw population increases of more than 30%. Two more were just shy of that. Bobby Orr's RC had the smallest increase, but it was still 22.9%. This is clear evidence of the pandemic effect.
1966-67 Topps #35
Bobby Orr RC
My graphic of "PSA 8 or higher" doesn't seem fair for this card, as only two in history would ever fall into that category. The highest graded Orr RC in 2022 was a PSA 7.
Of the 113 Bobby Orr RCs graded by PSA in 2022, only 10 were graded a PSA 5 or higher, and only one graded higher than a PSA 6. But let's remember that a PSA 3 of this card still sells for $6,500 - 7,500 CDN. This card has not followed the overall dip in the market, which goes to show how much more stable the market is for RCs of the game's greats.
1971-72 OPC #45
Ken Dryden RC
Only seven Ken Dryden OPC RCs were graded PSA 8 or higher in 2022. They all received grades of PSA 8. Only 85 of these cards have ever graded higher than a PSA 8, with just 11 receiving PSA's highest grade.
1971-72 OPC #148
Guy Lafleur RC
From the same set as Dryden's OPC RC, but from Series 2, Guy Lafleur's OPC RC still has only six known PSA 10 copies. In 2022, one new PSA 9 was added to the population, along with seven PSA 8s. Obviously, this is very tough card to find in high grade, with the main culprit being centering. Many of these cards have left-right centering of 70/30 or worse.
1978-79 OPC #115
Mike Bossy RC
As shown earlier, Mike Bossy's OPC RC had the highest percent population increase in 2022 at 23.8%. Personally, I feel this is because Bossy has long been under-appreciated in the hobby. This is another card with notorious centering issues, so finding two new PSA 9s and 25 new PSA 8s is quite a significant change to the population.
1979-80 OPC #18
Wayne Gretzky RC
While the majority of Gretzky cards graded in 2022 were lower grade (1,191 were graded PSA 6.5 or less), I was still shocked to see that 83 cards received a grade of PSA 7 or higher. That included one new PSA 9 and five new PSA 8.5s. As I said earlier, it makes me wonder how many more are out there in high grade.
1984-85 OPC #67
Steve Yzerman RC
Of all the 1980s OPC RCs, Steve Yzerman's has the highest population of PSA 10s and PSA 9s. So it was not too surprising to see five new PSA 10s and 60 new PSA 9s added in 2022. There is a step change in new high-grade cards (PSA 8 or higher) in 2022 for the three cards on my list from the 1980s (Yzerman, Lemieux, and Roy), with the Yzerman RC coming in at a whopping 34.5%.
1985-86 OPC #9
Mario Lemieux RC
I spent much of 2022 searching for a Mario Lemieux OPC RC with a grade of PSA 8. Most long-time collectors know this is the sweet spot for many cards when it comes to condition versus price. It took a long time for me to find a PSA 8 with decent colouring and centering, which both seem to be general issues for this card. That recency bias makes me wonder where 19 new PSA 9s came from in 2022, let alone the 601 cards that previously received that grade!
1986-87 OPC #53
Patrick Roy RC
Patrick Roy's OPC RC saw two new PSA 10s and 59 new PSA 9s in 2022. The standout number for me though is the "PSA 8 or higher" percentage of 36.9%, second only to the Jagr RC which is an outlier anyway.
Population numbers for Roy's OPC RC are eerily similar to those of Yzerman's, even though 1984-85 OPC cards have always seemed to be more plentiful. Given this, I am somewhat surprised by the difference in card values. Roy's OPC RC in PSA 8 currently sells for about $650 CDN, while Yzerman's OPC RC in the same grade sells for just $250 CDN. I would have thought prices would be about the same.
1990-91 OPC-P #50
Jaromir Jagr RC
PSA 10 copies of Jaromir Jagr's OPC Premier RC reached a peak average sales value of almost $800 CDN in February of 2021. A significant portion of the 1,604 copies graded in 2022 were likely submitted around that peak, but by the time they were returned, the card's value had plummeted. It now sells for $250-275 CDN. While far lower than its peak, this is still more than double its pre-pandemic price of a modest $100 CDN.
Gem Rate, by Year
It has long been my argument that as the value of a card increases, hobbyists become less particular about the condition of the copies they submit for grading. Given the majority of Jagr OPC Premier RCs graded in 2022 were likely submitted near its peak PSA 10 value, I am not surprised at the low Gem Rate in 2022.
Gem Rate, Cumulative
It will be interesting to see if the PSA population changes for my selected hockey cards will be drastically lower in 2023. It would seem that they have to be lower, given the general market is down and PSA no longer has a backlog to work through.
However, population changes are just another way of looking at grading volume, so the question becomes: do we expect PSA to grade fewer cards in 2023 than they did in 2022? Remember that the company scaled its operations to tackle the backlog, adding substantial grading capacity that they will want to use in 2023. In recent months, they have reopened their bulk submission service and have been offering $15 US per card grading. Those measures would seem to indicate the company wants to maintain its grading volume, as you would expect.
So maybe the question is more about the remaining demand for grading in the (mostly) vintage hockey card market. Are there really another thousand Gretzky OPC RCs out there to be graded in the next year? Maybe. Will we see another thousand Jagr OPC Premier RCs graded in 2023? Doubtful. Have vintage hockey card collectors already gotten the majority of their cards graded? We shall see.