One of the most exciting facets of the sports magazine collecting hobby is the scarcity of newsstand issues. As we’ve seen over recent years in the sports card hobby, the number of times a single card has been graded, known as the population count (or pop count for short), can significantly impact the value of an item. And despite the fact that CGC has been grading Sports Illustrated magazines since 2009, it is pretty incredible how low the pop counts are on some key issues.
While the initial inclination might be to think that Sports Illustrated magazines are plentiful, it actually makes a lot of sense that newsstand copies are rare when you consider that Sports Illustrated was a publication primarily consumed by subscribers. The subscription copies are indeed plentiful, but the newsstand copies without a mailing label are often very difficult to find.
In order to put some perspective into just how rare some of these Sports Illustrated covers are in newsstand, let’s compare pop counts for some key athletes in both their first Sports Illustrated cover and their primary rookie card. Going in chronological order, we will take a look at several GOATs – Mickey Mantle, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, and Tom Brady. The only established company currently grading sports magazines is CGC, so we will focus on those numbers for the Sports Illustrated pop counts. For sports cards, there are basically what I consider to be “the big 3” – PSA, BGS, and SGC, so we will look at a combination of those three to determine true pop counts.
Now, while Mantle had a legendary career, he isn’t necessarily considered the Greatest of All-Time when it comes to the sport of baseball. But, due to his larger than life presence on 7 World Series Championship teams with the most accomplished franchise in sports history, he has pretty much established himself as the GOAT of sports collectibles. After all, he currently holds the record for highest selling sports card of all-time, with an SGC 9.5 copy of his 1952 Topps selling in 2022 for $12.6 million.
Speaking of his 1952 Topps card, that’s actually not even Mickey’s rookie card. He has a 1951 Bowman from the year before, but because Topps cemented itself as the flagship baseball card company, Mantle’s 1952 Topps is his most valuable card. For that reason, we’ll take a look at the 1952 Topps card, even though it’s technically his 2nd-year card.
POP Counts for the Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps card
Total copies graded: 2,298
POP Counts for the 1956 Mickey Mantle first Sports Illustrated cover (newsstand)
Total copies graded by CGC: 38
A total of 38 first covers graded versus 2,298 cards graded means that there are currently only 1.6% of the number of Mickey’s first Sports Illustrated issues available as opposed to his 1952 Topps card.
Gretzky is pretty much the undisputed GOAT of hockey. His 1979 O-Pee-Chee rookie card has sold as high as $3.75 million and his first Sports Illustrated cover from 1981 currently holds the record for highest selling sports magazine of all-time at $30,000.
POP counts for the Wayne Gretzky 1979 O-Pee-Chee card
Total copies graded: 13,642
POP counts for the 1981 Wayne Gretzky first Sports Illustrated cover (newsstand)
Total copies graded by CGC: 53
A total of 53 first covers graded versus 13,642 cards graded means that there are currently only 0.3% of the number of Gretzky’s first Sports Illustrated issues available as opposed to his 1979 OPC card. Gretzky also has a 1979 rookie card available from Topps, which I did not take into account in the pop counts, meaning there are even more Gretzky rookies available than what I listed.
Michael Jordan is likely the most famous worldwide athlete in sports history. His dominance over the NBA, leading the Chicago Bulls to 6 titles in the 90s, has led to Jordan being an all-time favorite amongst collectors. While he has a few cards that could lay claim to being a rookie card, his most well-known is definitely the 1986 Fleer card. This card has sold as high as $840,000.
POP counts for the Michael Jordan 1986 Fleer card
Total copies graded: 38,254
POP counts for 1983 Michael Jordan first Sports Illustrated cover
Total copies graded: 91
A total of 91 first covers graded versus 38,254 cards graded means that there are currently only 0.2% of the number of MJ’s first Sports Illustrated issues available as opposed to his 1986 Fleer card. Michael also has the 1984 Star card and the 1986 Fleer sticker, both of which can be considered rookie cards but were not factored into these pop counts.
The recently-crowned GOAT of football. Who can argue with 7 Super Bowls? As you move into the 90s and later, most athletes have multiple rookie cards. In fact, Tom Brady has a total of 44 different rookie cards. For the sake of my sanity, I will not investigate the pop counts on all 44. We will go ahead and look at his Bowman Chrome rookie card, since that is arguably the most popular of his rookie cards that isn’t serial numbered.
POP counts for the Tom Brady 2000 Bowman Chrome rookie card
Total copies graded: 8,285
POP counts for 2002 Tom Brady first Sports Illustrated cover
Total copies graded by CGC: 78
A total of 78 first covers graded versus 8,285 cards graded means that there are currently only 0.9% of the number of Brady’s first Sports Illustrated issues available as opposed to his 2000 Bowman Chrome card. And once again, there are 43 other Brady rookies that were not factored into these pop counts, meaning the number of Brady rookies available is much, much higher than what is listed here.
The main takeaway here is that newsstand copies of Sports Illustrated are incredibly rare, especially when put in comparison with sports cards. Of course, the sports card hobby is currently more popular by a landslide and is also a much longer-running hobby. PSA, for example, started grading cards in 1991 whereas CGC began grading magazines in 2009. So the sports cards have an 18-year head start in that regard. These reasons alone certainly explain part of the disparity in number of graded items—sports cards are more popular and have been doing it longer. And despite CGC moving into year 15 of grading Sports Illustrated issues, there is no doubt that the pop counts will slowly rise as the hobby continues to grow in awareness and popularity.
But even with all these factors considered, the data would suggest that the number of surviving newsstand Sports Illustrated copies dwarfs in comparison to the number of existing sports cards. After all, that is yet another factor to ponder…how many of the newsstand Sports Illustrated magazines have just been pitched in the trash over the years? Based on the low pop counts at the present time, the answer would seemingly be—a lot.
Sports magazines offer some enticing components—eye appeal, nostalgia, sports history, and displayability. But the scarcity of these magazines in newsstand edition may just be the most enticing component of them all.