Rick Mirigian strolled into a local card store last week, as he tends to do every week, to buy some trading cards. After mulling his choice, he decided on three packs, reached into his wallet and handed over $1,500 in cash.
Gone are the days where the most prized card in the industry is available to any kid who saves his allowance. Today's golden ticket -- in Upper Deck's 2003-04 Exquisite Collection Basketball series -- costs $500 a pack, felt-lined wooden box included.
It's what's inside the pack, of course, that makes it such a hot commodity. Each five-card pack has one signed, jersey-swatched card, numbered to no more than 100. That's a level of scarcity that has some retailers charging a premium, to upwards of $675 a pack.
"This is not for your Average Joe. This is more for the gamblers," said Matt Mossette of Mossette's Sports Cards & Collectibles in Fresno, Calif. "We've come a long way since mom and dad would reward their child for getting good grades by buying an $18 box with 36 packs in them."
This is not to bemoan Mirigian's plight. He regularly spends thousands of dollars each week for cards at Mossette's store. Inside one of the three packs he bought last week was a one-of-a-kind patch card of two NBA logos, plucked from the jerseys of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
"Let's say there was an extremely large adrenaline rush involved," said Mirigian, a 27-year-old concert promoter, recalling the moment he opened the pack.
The card is now on eBay, its most current bid up to $25,000 with more than five days left at auction. Just another lucrative transaction in the waiting for Mirigian, who peddles between $60,000 and $100,000 worth of cards on the site every month.
But not every pack contains a get-rich-quick card. Even a Magic Johnson-autographed patch card from the same series, one of only 100 produced, sold for $130 last week.
Upper Deck is known for setting records with its expensive packs. This year, the company's Ultimate Collection basketball packs, with four cards in each pack, sold for $125. Mirigian said he bought the LeBron James/Carmelo Anthony autographed jersey patch card (No. 23 of 25) in that set from a carpenter, turned it around and sold it on eBay for $13,000.
Upper Deck's game-used patch baseball packs hit the $200 mark and included autographs of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. A card with signatures of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh sold on the secondary market for more than $6,000.
Company executives said the time was right to give the $500 suggested retail price a shot.
"Once every 10 years or so, an incredible rookie like LeBron James comes along and the price point gives us the ability to deliver a low number of cards for our collectors," said Louise Curcio, Upper Deck's vice president of marketing and product development.
Curcio, who would not divulge exactly how limited the boxes were, said she doesn't expect to see the $500-per-pack price eclipsed any time soon.
Although a one-of-a-kind, Michael Jordan/LeBron James patch card has yet to be picked from a pack, Mirigian -- who has been buying and selling cards since he was 13 -- said he's not paying for any more of these high-priced packs in particular. That doesn't mean that he won't continue to visit Mossette's every week and try his hand at something else.
Said Mirigian: "I've got the golden ticket for now, but there is always going to be another golden ticket out there."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3com.