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Bigger than baseball — Pokémon cards are rocking the collectibles industry

Ryan Hoge holds the very collectible grade 10, Pikachu trading card.
Ryan Hoge holds the very collectible grade 10 Pikachu trading card, part of the Pokemon card game series, at the new Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) facility in Santa Ana.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
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Professional Sports Authenticators, or PSA as it’s known by memorabilia and trading card collectors worldwide, is the gold standard when it comes to rating and grading hobbyists’ holdings, especially baseball cards.

Founded in 1991 as a division of Collectors Universe, Inc. and now headquartered in Santa Ana, the company has served as a third-party authenticator for more 65 million certified coins, cards and collectibles valued at more than $1 billion.

For several years sports memorabilia comprised a bulk of the company’s business and sports cards — graded on a scale of 1 to 10 for the crispness of corners and edges and surface quality — were king in the trading card industry.

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Stacks of new baseball cards on display at Santa-Ana based trading card authenticator PSA.
Once the stock and trade of Santa-Ana based collectibles rating company PSA, baseball cards have recently taken a backseat to Pokémon cards in the trading card category.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“In the early ’90s there was a surge in interest in sports card collecting in particular, and that’s when PSA started,” said President Ryan Hoge. “You have people who view these trading cards almost like fine art. They’re not interested in collecting Picassos and Monets, but they might like having a PSA-10 Michael Jordan rookie card or a Mickey Mantle rookie card.”

Although professional sports and its legions of superstars remain a national obsession, when it comes to trading cards, a new king has ascended to the throne — Pokémon.

The Japanese franchise began in the mid-’90s as a role-playing video game for Nintendo, populated by a universe of unique animalian characters with different attributes, strengths and susceptibilities who would battle one another for dominance.

Finding an eager market of mainly young players, Pokémon became a multimedia universe of cartoons, movies, plush toys and trading cards featuring individual characters and their associated stats, similar to baseball cards.

A 2022 card depicting the Pokémon character Charizard is one of the Top 10 most graded cards in the world.
(Courtesy of PSA)

Pokémon’s fanbase now spans multiple generations, and the depth and breadth of Pokephiles’ devotion has created a critical mass that is rocking the trading card industry.

Hoge says authenticating Pokémon cards has doubled PSA’s overall business in the past two years, from 7 million cards graded in 2022 to 14 million in 2023. It has officially outpaced baseball cards as the company’s largest category and necessitated the opening last year of a PSA office in Tokyo.

“There’s a real emotional connection people have to these players or characters,” he said.

“We’ve seen several Pokémon cards sell for over $400,000.”

For Orange County ad executive Alex Hodges, collecting Pokémon cards and attending events where he and others play and watch live battles is more than just a hobby, it’s kind of a lifestyle.

The 36-year-old Anaheim Hills resident started collecting in 1999, when the trading cards began selling in the United States following the release of the popular Pokémon TV series, which featured a cast of 151 animated characters.

“That was a very revolutionary moment, where kids thought, ‘I can collect all 150 things I’m seeing on the TV right now,” he said, recalling how the cards quickly became a form of kid currency.

Anaheim Hills ad exec Alex Hodges, seen in 2023, is a social media influencer within the world of Pokémon fandom.
Anaheim Hills ad exec Alex Hodges, seen in 2023, is a social media influencer within the world of Pokémon fandom.
(Courtesy of Alex Hodges)

“You could get one card that sold for $50 from a $4 pack. We’d come home from soccer games with $90 — my dad was so confused.”

Hodges diligently added to his collection, attending matches and keeping an eye out for rare cards that would not only round out his fleet of fighters but whose value would continue to increase over time.

Today, his collection comprises some 40,000 to 50,000 cards, several of which he uses for playing and others that, as trophy or display cards, have been authenticated by PSA and are part of a curated menagerie of standouts.

Pokémon enthusiast Alex Hodges, right, in 2022 on the set of a video production with Alan Ayala for IGN.com.
Pokémon enthusiast Alex Hodges, right, in 2022 on the set of a video production with Alan Ayala for IGN.com.
(Courtesy of Alex Hodges)

A father now to 2-year-old son Kit, Hodges enjoys a certain status among Pokémon devotees, posting regularly on Instagram and TikTok to more than 245,000 followers. He travels the world, competing and participating card parties where fans buy, sell, trade and bond over their shared passion.

People on the street are beginning to recognize him from social media, and even work clients who catch wind of Hodge’s hobby join him at events and seek advice on their own collections.

“It ended up being this thing that added to everything else,” he said Thursday. “Ultimately, I’m just a people person, and this kind of gave me a through line to everybody.”

A collectible Pokémon trading card on display at the new PSA facility in Santa Ana.
A collectible Pokémon trading card on display at the new Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) facility in Santa Ana.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
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