For just a moment, Grayson White probably felt like NBA megastar LeBron James.
It’s 2014. White had just finished a weekend of work in Cleveland, and he wasn’t sure if things were working out.
White, the founder of Australia’s Cherry Collectables, says he was ready to walk away from the hobby after a rough year of product releases was followed by an uninspiring National Sports Card Convention.
“I got back to my hotel room and I was like, ‘You know, this is not the direction I thought it was going,'” says White.
That brief moment of uncertainty is a far cry from where White and Cherry are in 2021. Now one of the most respected voices in the hobby, it’s almost impossible to poke around the online community without seeing a video of White chatting cards with some of Cherry’s nearly 25,000 Instagram followers.
Behind that growing social media footprint — Cherry’s Instagram is a delightful collection of break highlights and deeply-relatable memes — and the team’s sometimes-unbeatable prices, Cherry has become a true hobby powerhouse far beyond its physical Melbourne location.
Sports Card Investor chatted with White about everything from the beginnings of Cherry and its struggles to grading, his favorite sets and what breaks mean for the future of the hobby.
Questions and answers were edited for length and clarity.
For our readers who don’t know, can you tell us who you are and what you’re doing with cards in Australia?
I’m the founder of Cherry. I am a guy from Tasmania, which is the island under Australia. I grew up in a family racing thoroughbred racehorses and I made the move to Melbourne in 2008 with a view to manage a big horse-racing property. Lost my job in the global financial crisis, so I kind of did anything. Grinded, doing anything I could for probably the best part of a year or so. In that time I learned how to build websites. I learned a little bit about online forums and social networks.
I happened to stumble across a market and went to one that was selling sports cards. I hadn’t seen sports cards since probably 1998, so I bought a box of 1998-1999 MVP Retail. Busted that. I got a jersey card and I was devastated to find out that jersey cards are worth nothing. But it definitely perked my ears. And when I was thinking about how I could potentially rebuild, I checked and there wasn’t anyone doing trading cards or sports cards, at least in a web format here in Australia. So I set out to build Cherry.
Tell us about the beginning of Cherry. How did it get started?
So it started as, I guess, a project. Almost like a piece of art. I really wanted to build something that I visually was really proud of. So I built a website for Cherry over a period of a few weeks. I was showing it off to everyone, [saying] “I’ve built a website. What do you think?” It was functional, but barely. I ordered maybe $5,000 worth of stuff from DACardWorld. Adam and DACardWorld were a big help, particularly early, and I just stocked it and linked everything to eBay. I thought, “This is it. This is going to happen.” I remember I checked in on my visitors after about a week, and there’d been like 10. And then I looked at my eBay sales and a box that I had for maybe $20 less than the other guy had sold about five times less. So, I learned a lot really quickly that just because you have it doesn’t mean people will buy it from you. Just because you’re the cheapest doesn’t mean people will buy from you. There’s a lot of trust. There’s a lot of relationships that come before that transaction. And so, you know, from that, I started thinking of it more like a business.
What has been the trajectory of Cherry over the years? You’ve gone from 10 visitors after the first week to being one of the most recognizable shops in Australia.
The trajectory has been — apart from, I think, a very small moment when I turned the ignition off and I was prepared to walk away from it — has been pretty consistent. We get small surges, which I guess really identify to us that the market is ready to grow. We saw in 2017 two months of really increased hyper growth in NFL. The NFL segment is historically quite a soft segment here.
And then, on from that, we’ve seen really consistent, strong growth. In the last few months we’ve seen a real surge in NBA, which I think is exciting, because I think that we’re going to be moving into a phase soon where product and access is going to be better. I think for the 2022-2023 season, we’re going to see a much better value proposition. We knew the boom was coming. It’s happened quicker. Our data showed that it was coming, but it’s definitely been compressed by about a year, year and a half.
What’s the process for getting products?
It starts with Panini and Panini has got a very positive outlook for the Australian region. They’ve supported us since 2009 and they’ve definitely had a gradual increase into the amount of product that they allocate to this region. But they’ve got a very positive mindset as to how big this market can be, and how to make sure that that’s managed fairly and with healthy growth. The second part, and a bit that people probably are less aware of, is that a huge percentage of our stock comes from US retailers.
We’ve got great relationships with US distributors, but to get volume of stock you have to make big plays. And you have to make them at the right times. It’s nothing for us to buy handfuls of cases of pre-release stuff or older lines from places like Blowout and DACardWorld. Regularly, weekly, daily sometimes. So that’s really important to have that stock here. Then it’s about developing a value proposition with it and understanding how you can blend it with other products so that customers continue to have the potential to get cards that are worth a lot there and then.
We speculate. We lose plenty of times. And over the years, we’ve certainly lost a lot of the time, so we’re certainly not these amazing oracles that only ever get it right.
You mentioned that you thought about giving up Cherry. What was that process like? What went on there?
So, it had been a really difficult few years with releases. Many people forget that we all lost a lot of money on 2013-2014 Prizm. We all lost a lot of money on Select. And then we started to recalibrate and find different value propositions. But it took a lot of work. 2014-2015 National Treasures was a real low point for us. It was really hard. Customer churn was high. People didn’t get a lot of value out of it. There was certainly a lot of fear around who is the next person to take the torch in the NBA and actually drive value in the products.
I went to the Cleveland National and I, unfortunately, went there just after I went to San Diego Comic Con. San Diego Comic Con just stole my heart. I thought it was amazing. I went to the Cleveland National a few weeks later and it was really depressing. I felt like there was a lot of animosity. I felt like everything was kind of overpriced and there wasn’t any real positive buzz.
We had a couple of really good ideas about developing some service-based stuff here in Australia and the people we spoke to didn’t really share that. They didn’t really quite understand what Australia was in terms of its position in this market. At the time, [Panini] was the only positive experience I had. So, I got back, turned the switch, and was looking at what else I can do in my life. And then I just found the fire again. I’m not sure exactly what happened. I started to think about it more of how I could do it as a scalable business. Who are the people that I needed to seek out and bring on board? I attended the industry summit with literally the only money I had in the bank and I met the head of Panini. I felt within five minutes like the vision they had for the hobby, the belief was so positive that this was worth putting everything on the line for. I met the head of GTS Distribution and they treated me like a king. I met Rob Veres from Burbank Sportscards and his cards are the king in that single space, which is where we really thought there was a real opportunity in this region. All of those people are thinking at the top level with a huge amount of positivity. And that was when I was like, “Okay, I’m all in.”
How big has it been that we’re seeing exclusive products like Court Kings in the region?
The international blasters in Court Kings are fantastic. That’s one of the biggest wins I think that Panini has. Exclusive insert, which is brilliant. On-card autographs. In terms of a product that sort of sits somewhere between retail and hobby, it is the perfectly-executed product. Not a huge amount produced. Everything is good about it.
You’ve become an important voice in this hobby. Did you ever imagine that? What does that feel like?
I’m humbled by it. I’ve always been very lucky, I’ve always been surrounded by people who have always made me feel like my voice matters. In anything that I’ve done. I’m lucky. I’m obviously somewhat privileged. I live in a beautiful country. I was raised by incredible parents who supported every single thing I did. And I guess the flip side is I like to think I always listen to people. Every decision we make at Cherry is a decision of our whole team. Plenty of the things that we’ve done have not necessarily been the way that I would have done it. The only thing I’ll say to that is that I think it’s really important that in the position that I’m in that we continue to give more and more people a voice in this hobby.
You have managed to build up quite a bit of goodwill with really competitive prices relative to other shops. What’s the strategy behind that and how do you make that happen?
There’s a few parts to it. There’s a certain amount of guilt, which is that a lot of products we simply can’t do at the same prices as Blowout and DACardWorld because we’re buying them from Blowout and DACardWorld. A lot of the product life cycle, probably 75% of our product’s lifecycle, we can’t do the same price as that. We have to be more expensive. Or we have to include them in breaks and find other ways to deliver value proposition to the customer. So, when we have an opportunity to offer limited quantities of stock at prices that allow more people to have access to those products, we do. We’ve got no interest whatsoever in being a disruptive force and suddenly undercut everyone in the market to get more customers. These are very difficult boxes to get that have taken years of really important relationship building and now cost an increasingly large amount of money. But we do feel a responsibility to manage our stock, particularly that early stock, in a way that gives something back to the local community and the local card collectors.
I’m glad you bring up breaks because I wanted to ask you about them. Cherry does a lot, but breaks are often blamed for the rising prices on products. What are your overall thoughts on breaks and the culture around them?
I started my business when the hobby was somewhat at a low, and there were barely any breaks. We were one of the first breakers in 2009. We were one of a handful of people that were doing breaks. Our first few breaks weren’t even live breaks; the break was recorded. And we’ve seen that the level of trust has diminished because you’ve had a huge amount of newer collectors. It’s not just, you know, 20 people that know you. So that’s all changed. The reality is that breaks were very well established in 2014. And box prices were incredibly low. Box prices are high because we’ve had Tatum, Luka, Zion and, to some extent, LaMelo. The value proposition of boxes still, even with the inflated prices and the sticker autographs because of COVID, is still way ahead of where it was when I started.
When I go back to then, to those early breaks, we’re talking like $700 for a box of Upper Deck Glass. People were walking away with nothing. The most expensive thing they could pull — albeit this spot might have been $20 or $25 or whatever — was maybe like a $2,000 or $3,000 LeBron. The reality now is that even in your Prizm break, people might be spending $50 to $150 for the potential of the Hornets. They can walk away with cards worth thousands of dollars. Even bad teams have got cards worth thousands of dollars. So, I still think the value proposition of breaks is actually the best it’s ever been. It’s a massive part of why this hobby is back on track.
I’m a firm believer that, despite public perception, breaks could be the driving force behind the continued growth of the hobby. They provide entertainment at a scale we haven’t seen before. Do you think breaks have that power?
Absolutely spot on. It’s a difficult area. Personally, I don’t have an entertainment background. So it’s not something that I understand that well. But from the very early stages, we’ve always tried to produce our show as entertainment. And that means moving really fast. We would skip base cards. As soon as you knew the patterns of packs, we’d skip base cards really, really fast. And we would really concentrate on that hit and then move on. Because there’s only one person in that break that really cares about that hit. There’s 29 people that are in the break who are a bit like, “Next hit, please.” So we’ve always considered them as entertainment. And it’s not always been to everyone’s liking. And, to an extent, we’ve had to make changes with all the new influx of people so that they understand that they’re not being ripped off. That there’s not a hit that’s sitting somewhere amongst those base cards that they’re not seeing because you’re moving through them so quickly.
I think that the next shift is exactly what you’re talking about. Highly-produced content that is really entertaining. Like a proper broadcast with a real focus on angles and changes and branding and all that sort of stuff. What’s funny actually, when I investigated improving our production with people that actually are in the entertainment industry, they’re like, “Why are these not pre-recorded?” I said, “Well, there is no way you could pre-record it.” They said, “The lottery is pre-recorded. The lottery for millions of dollars is pre-recorded. Why is this not pre-recorded? If you pre-recorded, this would be amazing.” So, I think that, whilst I don’t want to disrupt the whole industry and my pockets aren’t deep enough to lose like that, I think that direction is something that we need to embrace — entertainment.
OK, I want to put you through sort of a rapid fire situation. Who is the better long-term buy: LeBron or Jordan?
Ja or Zion?
Luka or Trae?
Long-term: Prizm or Select?
What’s your favorite insert set?
What’s your favorite parallel?
Most overrated product?
SP Game-Used Hockey.
Favorite basketball set you want to come back?
What’s the best card in your collection?
I’ve got two Luka Optic Dragon rookies.
What’s the most painful card that you sold too early?
I sold a Luka Doncic Mojo Prizm rookie for about $4,500 when I think the previous best was about $2,000.
What’s it at now?
Let’s not talk about that.
So, I have to ask you about grading. Grading is in a tough spot right now. Is it because people are sending in too many base cards? Are places like PSA and BGS unprepared? What are your thoughts there?
I think they prepared. I think that they definitely prepared themselves. I think they probably had really good growth plans and all that. PSA have obviously had a huge amount of money invested into them. They’ve made some really big decisions. And I think they’re on the right track. Graded cards used to be harder to sell than raw cards in our market. That is no longer the case. No one wants raw cards now. They think they’ve been cracked or they’ve got four bent corners.
Is the problem that people are sending in too many low-value cards?
My opinion is that, if everyone graded Shaq rookies in the ’90s, we’d be a lot happier now. Everything is changing. I completely support anyone who’s grading base cards. They are the most iconic. At the end of the day, even if there were 50 different variations, I would still want the base one. I would still want the Zion Prizm base card ahead of every other one — except maybe the Black. But the reality is, people will always want that card. That’s the card they’re exposed to, the card that they see other people get the most of and want. And the reality is that the grading companies would agree that (base cards) should be in a position to be graded and they should be in a position to make money grading it. They don’t want a cost that is off-putting to the customer. They want that cost to be something that can engage people to grade with them, because the majority of people that have Zion’s rookie don’t have Zion’s Gold Prizm. They just don’t. It was just the industry recalibrating as quickly as it could.
What are you most looking forward to in the hobby in the near future?
Well, the thing that I’m most looking forward to is Cherry having an incredibly far reaching and positive impact. Because we’re in a position now, thanks to the support of Panini, US distributors, and our great domestic audience, to have dozens of staff to produce up to maybe 12 hours of content a day, and to literally bring people’s collecting dreams to life. In terms of stuff for the manufacturers, I guess what I’m really excited about is the World Cup is going, I think, to be the peak of whatever this wave is that we are all referring to. The quality of young players on that world stage is outstanding. The fact that Renaldo is going to be pulling a curtain across an incredible career. Potentially the last time we see Messi at his absolute peak on that stage [too].
The fact that Panini and Topps both have such tremendous soccer products at their disposal. I just feel as though that World Cup is going to be an incredible achievement in the hobby. So that’s the thing that I’m most looking forward to. Closely followed by Cherry getting to a National and erasing that 2014 Johnny Manziel-Andrew Wiggins experience and, hopefully, coming away from it feeling like I’m going to retire selling cards as opposed to resign selling cards.