NBA: Has the bubble burst on Michael Jordan's iconic 1986 Fleer rookie card?

·13 min read

In January, a pair of mint-condition Michael Jordan trading cards were auctioned off, selling for a stunning $738,000 apiece.

The 1986-87 Fleer Jordan cards were graded perfect 10s by PSA Authentication and Grading Services, the industry’s leading card-grading outlet. Yet even stamped with unsurpassable grades, the final sale price sent a shockwave through the collectibles industry.

“If you’re looking at what a PSA 10 Jordan is selling for today versus what it sold for 12 or 13 months ago, it’s at [more than] 10 times the price,” Heritage Auctions director of sports auctions Chris Ivy told Yahoo Sports. “It’s been a wild ride to say the least.”

Yes, the trading card business has boomed to never-seen heights since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and indeed, ESPN’s 2020 release of “The Last Dance” helped spur interest in all things Jordan. PSA calls the '86 Fleer Jordan “the most recognizable basketball card and the most important modern card from any sport in the entire hobby.” 

And with PSA currently in the midst of a major delay of some of its card-grading services because of outsized demand, it has placed an even higher temporary value on those already graded Jordans floating around before more can be graded and shipped out.

Even so, the meteoric rise of the '86 Fleer Jordan has been unlike almost anything seen.

“It sent Jordan cards — and not just the '86 Fleer card — through the roof,” said Rob Eisenstein of CardboardandCoins.com. “There was all of a sudden immense, immense interest in anything Jordan.”

If you bought an '86 Fleer Jordan PSA 10 at auction a decade ago, you’d have been looking at a price tag of around $8,000. By the end of 2019, it hit the $40,000 range. Exactly one month before the Goldin auction, a Jordan PSA 10 went for $200,000 on eBay.

The card saw a stunning 269% increase in a 31-day span from December to January. This was the trading card equivalent of Jordan himself back in 1986 going from a load-management restriction following a broken foot that season to dropping 63 points in the playoffs on the eventual world champion Celtics at the Boston Garden that April.

Nostalgia for Michael Jordan remains a booming business, particularly in the sports card collectibles. (Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
Nostalgia for Michael Jordan remains a booming business, particularly in the sports card collectibles. (Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

Since then, the price has simmered. After trading mostly in the $400,000 to $500,000 range this April, two Jordan PSA 10s that Goldin auctioned off last week went for $344,400 and $288,000, respectively — less than half the dizzying peak hit in January.

“I think the run-up of prices did get a little too high,” Ivy said. “They jumped unnaturally there for a little bit. They were doing some astronomical numbers. But there’s still a market there, still a desire to have those cards in particular.”

Has the '86 Jordan bubble burst? Or is it a temporary market correction after a white-hot period in the industry? Experts, collectors and 1986 Fleer zealots — there’s a legion of them out there — disagree on the matter.

But two things are clear: Jordan’s popularity and influence remain enormous, and Fleer’s maiden basketball set isn’t giving up its mantle as the iconic collection for modern cards.

LANDOVER, MD - CIRCA 1986: Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls dribbles the ball up court against the Washington Bullets during an NBA basketball game circa 1986 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. Jordan played for the Bulls from 1984-93 and 1995 - 98. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan sizes up the Washington Bullets during a game in 1986 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

1986 Fleer: From humble beginnings to becoming the modern set

Fleer picked the perfect time to reenter the basketball card business in 1986.

The Philadelphia-based candy company, founded in 1885, first jumped into the sports card biz for a one-off baseball card set in 1923. It flirted with other sets in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but the company largely was boxed out by the biggest card producers, Topps Chewing Gum, which had an exclusive contract with the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Nevertheless, Fleer was undaunted in its pursuit to launch into the field. It successfully won a legal battle to end Topps’ exclusivity in 1980 and joined the big leagues (along with another newcomer, Donruss) in 1981 to produce baseball cards.

Baseball cards were king then. Topps issued a final run of basketball cards for the 1981-82 NBA season before bowing out of the sport. The NBA’s popularity sagged in the 1970s and cards were not selling. Little did Topps know that it would miss out on landing the game’s signature rookie card a few years later when Jordan entered the league in 1984.

There was no mainstream card company making basketball cards that year or at any point from 1982 until 1986, when Fleer issued its now seminal set.

“I think that’s the hidden element to its value,” PSA's vice president of customer experience Dave Steinberger told Yahoo Sports. “With basketball cards, you had a lot of starts and stops over the years. We have long stretches where there just were not [mainstream] cards being made.

“Not only was the market starved for cards, but you also had an enormous amount of first-year cards for star players because of that backlog. Jordan was not a rookie in 1986, but that’s his rookie card.”

Fleer's maiden basketball set of 132 cards essentially created “rookie cards” for several players, even though some had been in the league for years, including 12 future Hall of Famers — Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Joe Dumars, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, James Worthy and, of course, Jordan.

“It’s not just Jordan,” Eisenstein said. “There are a lot of great rookies in that set. All the prices of the set were driven up significantly. It’s just a chock-full set. Obviously, the Jordan is the cherry on top.”

By 1989, Jordan’s superstardom helped vault the set immensely, and each successive year, 1986 Fleer prices rose. In November 1989, the complete set was valued at around $140, with Jordan’s No. 57 card fetching around $85; the following June, sets were in the $700 range and the Jordan card was valued at $280. (That’s about $1,430 and $570, respectively, in 2021 dollars.)

When the Bulls won the NBA championship, Jordan’s Fleer card became the late 20th century version of the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card that was the icon of the previous generation of collectors.

“If you were born in the 70s or 80s and you collected cards — obviously, a lot of people did at that time — every kid wanted a Jordan rookie,” Ivy said.

Kendall Capps, sports director at Julien's Auctions, holds a Michael Jordan Fleer card while speaking about the upcoming
Kendall Capps, sports director at Julien's Auctions, holds a Michael Jordan Fleer card while speaking about the upcoming "Sports: Legends" auction in Culver City, California, last month. (REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni)

Condition is crucial to the Jordan rookie card

Making the Fleer set challenging and exciting for collectors is its condition. The cards were printed with red, blue and yellow borders that were prone to chipping, and the cardboard stock used for that set was of lower quality, often leading to chafed edges and fuzzy corners. On top of that, the set was marred by printing errors, with common horizontal and vertical miscuts.

That means finding any perfect 10 card in that set — especially 35 years after its release — is difficult. Of the 262,761 '86 Fleer cards issued to PSA for grading, only 6.8% (17,802) have been sent back with grades of 10.

“People didn’t have the quality plastic top loaders back then," sports card analyst Chris Steuber said. "The plastics we had back then were crappy. The protection level of those cards was not necessarily there.”

Even obscure cards, such as the No. 76 Johnny Moore, that were especially plagued by poor cutting are highly sought in top shape by collectors. Only 2.6% of Moore cards submitted to PSA were stamped with grades of 10, trailing only Jordan (1.6%) and Wilkins (2.3%) in the set.

But seriously, why is the 1986 Jordan that expensive?

The Jordan, at least in comparison to other modern six-figure cards, isn’t particularly rare. PSA has graded 19,567 of them, with 317 coming back with marks of gem-mint 10. Compare that to the 2018 Panini Prizm Gold Luka Doncic card, which sold at the same auction for a similar price at $799,500. Unlike the Jordan card, there are only three Doncic PSA 10s currently graded and only five total of any grade in existence.

“I seriously doubt that there will be many, many more [Jordan cards] that get 10s,” Steuber said. “Maybe PSA has some still at their facility. But you look at the population rate now, and let’s see where it’s at in two years. Could it raise to 500 by then? It’s possible. But I don’t think it’s going to get anywhere close to a thousand.”

Also, the 1986 Fleer is technically not Jordan’s first card. The Star Company issued four Jordan cards in its 1984-85 set with a low print run (believed to be 5,000). But PSA refuses to grade those cards because of the high rate of forgery among them.

Several other fringe card producers issued Jordan cards, and some of them — such as a scarce Spanish yogurt card and a Chicago-area Boy Scouts issue — have niche appeal among collectors. All of those Jordan issues can fetch thousands at auction.

None have the Fleer's draw. So much so that Fleer felt it had to release its “Decade of Excellence” set honoring the 1986s with a reprint set on the 10th anniversary.

And, collectors say, there might be more fake '86 Jordans in the wild than any other card. It has been forged en masse, and the quality of those forgeries reportedly has gotten significantly better. (When asked what percentage or number of faux Jordans PSA receives for grading, Steinberger declined to comment.)

What’s the future for Jordan’s rookie-card prices?

There’s a Facebook group devoted to the 1986 Fleer basketball set. Nearly 4,500 members strong, the group allows members to trade, sell and buy the set’s cards — and it also serves as a forum for the wild market. Yahoo Sports spoke to about a dozen of the members, asking why the '86 Fleers were so valued. Many of them spoke of an emotional connection to the cards, not just a means to financial gain.

For 40-year-old Eric Hopkins, he grew up a card collector, put the hobby aside for 25 years before picking it back up mid-pandemic. There’s sentimental value to it, bringing back his childhood, but the idea of putting together an entire Fleer set wasn’t possible until now.

“It was not until I recently returned to the hobby that I had the financial means to obtain the entire set,” Hopkins said.

Angelo Masino, 40, has been collecting cards since 1997 with a collection that includes a Bird-Magic Johnson rookie card and an O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky rookie. He’s a huge fan of the '86 Fleer set because he values “cards that are unique and will hold value.”

Said Masino, “I think when you look at card collecting as a whole, this is one of the few sets, not just individual cards, that really stand out. It’s truly iconic even past the MJ, plus it’s fairly affordable — the MJ card aside.”

Added 44-year-old Jung Rhee, “The 1986 Fleer basketball set, as you know, is the holy grail of all basketball sets. It's the one set that, I think, all true collectors want to have in their collection. There's a lot to love about the set.”

Rhee loves the fact that the set is relatively small and therefore easier to put together a la carte. He also adores the Larry Nance and Spud Webb cards as hidden gems — Nance because of the great action photo, Webb for sentimental reasons. “Spud has a special place in my heart because he was a little guy that was able to achieve the unthinkable,” Rhee said. “Being a short guy myself, I think it really resonated with me.”

They’re all devoted '86 Fleer acolytes. But all three worry that the shocking price burst — especially with the Jordan — might change the market for these cards.

“We've already witnessed the burst in the bubble in the last couple of months as recent prices indicate,” Rhee said. “There was no way that those prices were going to be sustainable [short term].”

Masino expects 1986 Fleer values to drop over the summer. “As people get back to spending discretionary income on other things like travel, sporting events, concerts, etc., you will see it drop,” he said. “Will it crash? No. Will it go back to pre-pandemic [levels]? Doubtful.”

Hopkins has witnessed the short-term bubble burst and believes “that trend will continue as the backlog of PSA cards hits the open market.”

But some of the professional collectors aren’t quite sure about a continued downward trend.

“The market will, and it may have already, level off,” Eisenstein said. “There’s always a market correction. It’s not much different than the stock market. But this is an iconic set. I don’t ever remember them going down in price on the whole, other than short-term changes.

“Do I think the jumps we’ve seen have been a little ridiculous? Yes, absolutely. But there’s just such a strong desire and connection to that set.”

Steinberger agrees. “I think it will keep growing in value,” he said. “It will be an appreciating asset for sure.”

When we spoke to Steuber a few weeks ago, he referenced the O-Pee-Chee Gretzky — which had sold for a high price of $1.29 million at the time of the conversation. Steuber correctly predicted that Gretzky “could be a $3 million card eventually, maybe in the next year or so.” Less than three weeks later, it nearly hit the $4 million mark.

Steuber then expressed bullishness on the '86 Fleer Jordan.

“I am a little surprised that the Jordan has come down so much from where it was,” he said. “I still think it has to rebound at some point here. Investors are not stupid. When people throw out millions of dollars on sports cards, they’re not doing it just because they want the card. They’re doing it because they want more millions of dollars.

“The Jordan never reached the million mark, but I don’t see why that card isn’t going to reach $1 million at some point. I think it will be back at $500,000 before you know it.”

We might soon find out. A PSA 10 Jordan '86 Fleer is up for auction at Goldin. With the auction set to end Saturday, the price has risen with six bids raising it to the $190,000 mark — less than a third of the way to the $738,000 peak and less than half the average PSA 10 auction price since February.

Can Jordan pull one out in the fourth quarter? Nearly 20 years after his retirement and 35 years after the Fleer set’s release, all eyes remain fixed on MJ’s next move.

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