The cllct Guide: How to buy graded sports and trading cards

We compare the benefits and nuances of each of the four major grading companies

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Values can fluctuate for similarly graded cards at each of the major grading companies.

Grading has been a major part of the sports and trading card hobby for decades, but the popularity of the process has never been greater than it is today.

The rise in popularity has naturally made the purchasing of graded cards more popular than ever, too, though collectors should take caution before making any important decisions. Buying graded cards is more complicated than simply paying for something that has been encapsulated with a protective holder.

Even the most established and popular grading companies are not all created equal, and savvy collectors often choose one grader over another for a variety of reasons.


Whether you’re a new collector or a hobby veteran looking to learn more about the grading process, this cllct guide to buying graded sports and trading cards will give you the basics on the process.

Benefits of graded cards

Before you purchase any graded cards, it’s important to understand why cards are graded. Many modern and ultra-modern cards are graded with the sole purpose of having a number grade assigned to assess the card’s physical condition, though that’s just a small piece of a more nuanced hierarchy of benefits.

The number assessing a card’s physical condition can greatly impact how valuable a card is, but grading has long held high value among collectors for the authentication process, which should be considered paramount.

A grade of PSA 10 is the highest given by the company. (Credit: PSA)
A grade of PSA 10 is the highest given by the company. (Credit: PSA)

The four major grading companies — PSA, SGC, CGC and BGS — authenticate cards before issuing a number for card condition. The authentication process for the major grading companies helps ensure that cards submitted are both legitimate and haven’t been altered in any way.

It’s important to understand that grading companies beyond the major four might not always authenticate cards or check for alterations. Some of these companies simply assign a number based on card condition and holder the card in a protective case.

This might be valuable to some, but it misses a large portion of why collectors should be getting cards graded at all.

Cards that are in great physical condition aren’t worth anything if they are fake. Cards in great condition might have also become that way by major alterations such as trimming or recoloring.

Mistakes certainly happen, though the major grading companies strive to ensure any card that is encapsulated is authentic and hasn't been tampered with — or the card will be labeled as such.

The most important cards in the hobby are often the most faked or altered, and grading companies are helpful resources on this front. If you spot a truly iconic card for sale that isn’t graded by a major company, consider it an immediate red flag and take caution.

The encapsulation process is another major benefit for collectors. One could argue cards are safest when placed in a holder by one of the major grading companies, though that might not always be important to every collector. For many, a top loader and penny sleeve is more than enough.

Beyond authentication and encapsulation, the assessment of physical condition is critically important, though it likely receives the most attention from the majority of collectors. For many, especially newer collectors, securing a high-condition grade is the most important thing, even if the card received a variety of other major benefits along the way.

Checking authentication

While the sports and trading card hobby is mostly made up of great people, there are, of course, people who attempt to take advantage of others. One way some individuals do this is by selling fake or altered cards that appear to be graded by legitimate companies.

Matching the certification number of your card can help guarantee its authenticity. (Credit: PSA)
Matching the certification number of your card can help guarantee its authenticity. (Credit: PSA)

This process might employ fake holders or labels with fake cards. Sometimes fake holders and labels are paired with a real card to make it appear more valuable than it is. Other times a real holder might have its real card replaced with a fake one.

No matter the scam, it’s important to do research before making any purchases.

All graded cards from one of the four major grading companies come with a certification number that can be searched online — search this number through each company’s individual population report to ensure the card you’re considering purchasing is the one in that holder.

Confirm the serial number matches the card’s description and, if applicable, examine any high-resolution scans of the card to ensure it’s the same card.

This process isn’t difficult, and you don’t need to be an expert to adequately confirm a few pieces of information. The savviest of scammers and criminals will sometimes be able to beat this process and the grading companies themselves, but the major four graders and most legitimate marketplaces will make the buyer whole if something does go wrong.


Using population reports

While you’re verifying the card's certification number, consider examining a card’s population report. This will tell you exactly how many examples there are of that specific card in each individual grade across each grader. Every major grader has its own specific population report that can be searched.

Understanding how many there are of each card in a specific grade can help you decide if that card is rare, scarce or potentially valuable at all.

Sellers will often label cards as “low pop” to indicate there aren’t many examples in that specific grade. There is more nuance to that concept, however.

It’s important to understand that something can be rare but not valuable. For example, Zion Willamson’s 2019 Prizm Base rookie card is one of the most graded cards ever with more than 42,000 total examples graded by PSA alone.

The population report can collectors determine how rare their card is.
The population report can collectors determine how rare their card is.

As of this writing, that card has a PSA 10 population of more than 23,000. According to third-party grading tracker GemRate, there are only eight total sports cards with more PSA 10s than the 2019 Zion Prizm.

That 2019 Prizm Base also has a PSA 3 population of 3. A PSA 3 is a terrible grade for an ultra-modern card, but one could consider a PSA 3 to be “low pop.” In this case, a PSA 3 might be rare, but it’s certainly not desirable.

For cards that have very low PSA 10 populations, it’s important to consider several factors. Does research tell you this particular card has a low high-grade population because the card has a low print run or quality control issues making a high grade difficult? Or does it have a low high-grade population because collectors haven’t cared to grade it often?

It’s always possible a card is “low pop” because no one wanted it.

It might seem ideal to have a rare card based on the population report, but it’s often better to have a scarce card — this means the availability of the card doesn’t meet the current market demand.

While “low pop” is often used to describe something desirable, the concept that a card could be “high pop” might seem less desirable. This isn’t always the case, however, with many high-population cards among the most popular.

A low-pop card could be that way for different reasons while a high-pop card at least guarantees the card was popular enough to be graded with extreme volume. That Zion Williamson 2019 Prizm Base PSA 10 isn’t rare due to its population of 23,000-plus, but for several years that card needed a high population to meet the card market’s high demand.

A little research will arm you with the necessary information to cut through the noise that population reports sometimes deliver.

The four major grading companies

There are dozens of grading companies available to use, though we highly recommend buying cards from one of the four major graders. Truthfully, the list of trusted graders might be closer to five or six at any given time, but the top four are often considered the most legitimate because of a long track record of reliability and high popularity.

You are, of course, allowed to buy cards graded by any company you like, but consider using one of the companies we cover below for the highest chance at a positive transaction.

Here’s a glance at the four major graders:

PSA: Founded in 1991, PSA has certified more than 65 million items in the decades since. PSA is also, by far, the most popular grading company among sports and trading cards. According to GemRate, PSA graded 13.5 million items in 2023. The second-closest was CGC with 1.7 million.

A close competitor with Beckett for years, PSA became the clear market leader during the ultra-modern era in the years during and following the COVID-19 pandemic. PSA is easily identifiable by a thin slab and simple label with a bright red or blue border — red is by far the most common.

PSA’s extremely high popularity has also made it the go-to choice for collectors hoping for the highest value on the secondary market. There are some exceptions, but PSA-holdered cards more often than not carry a price premium over other graders.

BGS: Founded by Dr. James Beckett in 1984, the Beckett company and its Beckett Price Guide spent decades as the go-to resource for pricing data. The company expanded into grading with Beckett Grading Services in 1999 and remained an industry leader for many collectors across the following decades.

Beckett Grading Services is known for its thicker holders and the sub-grades it issues. (Credit: BGS)
Beckett Grading Services is known for its thicker holders and the sub-grades it issues. (Credit: BGS)

Beckett has long been associated with the sub-grades it provides on its label. The four categories — corners, edges, surface and centering — are the cornerstones that every major grader uses. Beckett, however, offers additional transparency by listing the exact scores for each upon request.

This added transparency sometimes trumped PSA’s more simple design for decades before a shift in public sentiment in the early 2020s.

Also known for larger holders, many collectors have preferred BGS for thicker cards like those containing memorabilia. Those thicker holders have been less desirable for standard cards, however, and a dated label design has led to a massive decrease in Beckett’s popularity.

According to GemRate, Beckett graded about 772,000 items in 2023.

SGC: Introduced in 1998, SGC has long been a favorite among collectors for vintage cards. Referred to as the tuxedo, cards graded by SGC are easily identifiable by its black holder.

In addition to its expertise with vintage cards, SGC has been a hobby favorite for its low price, fast turnaround times and customer service. While SGC has had its own slowdowns at times, collectors can often get items back in days rather than weeks elsewhere.

SGC was acquired by PSA parent company Collectors in early 2024, though there have been no plans to change operations. SGC will remain its own separate company from PSA, with the two graders having little overlap in the types of cards submitted to each.

SGC graded 1.2 million items in 2023, according to GemRate.

CGC: The newest of the major grading companies, CGC was founded in 2000, with a focus on comics. CGC used its background grading comics, coins and more to expand into sports and trading cards in 2020 and is now the second-largest grader among the major four.

In addition to grading sports cards, CGC is most associated with modern and ultra-modern trading card games and non-sports categories such as Pokemon, Magic: The Gathering and Marvel.

Comparing prices across graders

Because each grader has different perceived areas of expertise — each will certainly claim they want to be the go-to for all categories — and varying levels of popularity, each grader will also often realize far different prices on the secondary market.

As the most popular, PSA will often carry a premium over other graders on the secondary market, and we can see that by analyzing the previously-mentioned Zion Williamson 2019 Prizm Base.

Using pricing tool Market Movers to examine recent sales in Gem Mint grades, Williamson’s 2019 Prizm Base recently sold for $43 in a PSA 10, $30 in an SGC 10 and just $24 in a BGS 9.5.

This concept is true for a large number of cards across a variety of categories, though it isn’t guaranteed and the savviest collectors can use experience and expertise to their advantage.

While a 10 is the highest grade offered by PSA, a company like BGS offers both a 10 Pristine and the highly sought-after BGS 10 Black Label by utilizing sub-grades.

With BGS, a 10 Pristine grade can be achieved when a card receives sub-grades of three 10s and a single 9.5. The BGS 10 Black Label is earned when all four sub-grades are 10s. Considered perfect by BGS, that same card would secure a simple 10 from PSA — technically the same, but not really.

This distinction can result in a significant price delta between PSA 10s and BGS 10 Black Labels, and the savviest collectors will use this to secure better value on the secondary market.

BGS 10 Black Labels are by no means easy to achieve, but they can be easier to earn across different categories due to varying manufacturer quality control. Pokemon, specifically, has been a category where the most experienced collectors will grade their best cards with BGS rather than PSA.

According to Market Movers, the Flareon 2023 Japanese SV-P Promo YU Nagaba BGS 10 Black Label has sold 26 times over the last year. That card recently sold for $40 in a PSA 10 and $199 in a BGS 10 Black Label.

Using GemRate to drill into the grading dynamics, that Flareon card has been submitted to PSA more than 10,000 times with a gem rate (PSA 10) of 89%. That same card has been submitted to Beckett 484 times, securing a gem rate (BGS 9.5 and above) nearly 95% of the time with 211 BGS 9.5s, 193 BGS 10s and 55 BGS 10 Black Labels.

For veteran hobbyists, the price gap between the PSA 10 and the BGS 10 Black Label is worth the risk, especially if a BGS 9.5 ($33) and BGS 10 Pristine ($42) aren’t large losses comparatively.

Grading crossovers

The gap between similar grades across different grading companies also results in experienced collectors purchasing cards from one grader to submit to another. SGC, CGC and BGS are typically resubmitted to PSA.

Submitting an already-graded card to another company is called a crossover, though few collectors choose this option under the belief that already-graded cards will introduce bias into the process.

More often, collectors will purchase a card to “crack” and resubmit to a new grader later. This process involves hobbyists cracking open the current holder and submitting the raw card to a new grader with the hopes it will get a similar or even higher grade for greater value.

An example of where this could occur is Jayson Tatum’s 2017 Prizm Base rookie card. According to Market Movers, that card sold for $158 as a PSA 10 on the same day it sold for $52 in a BGS 9.5 despite being labeled as Gem Mint by both.

In this scenario, collectors might look for what is considered a “true gem” BGS 9.5 — true gems are cards that receive three 9.5 sub-grades and one 9 sub-grade. These are believed to have a high chance to secure a PSA 10 when resubmitted.

This strategy can be used for other grading companies as well. Using that same Tatum Prizm Base, an SGC 10 sold for $98 on the same day that the PSA 10 sold for $158. A successful “crack-and-cross” would generate a profit using this example.

It should be noted that, in addition to the necessary research, collectors have to successfully remove the card safely when cracking a slab open. There is significant risk of damage, and even experienced hobbyists regularly damage cards attempting this process.

Cracking and resubmitting cards can also manipulate population reports if not properly addressed. Removing a card from a graded holder isn’t illegal, and grading companies will update the population report if the labels are returned to signal the card’s removal.

Not all hobbyists return labels, however, and this can result in a card with a short print run of five having a total graded population of six or higher.

Ben Burrows is a reporter and editor for cllct.