The first stage in the development of sports cards, during the second half of the 19th century, is essentially the story of baseball cards, since baseball was the only professional sport then in existence. Cards from this period are commonly known as cigarette cards or tobacco cards, because many were produced by tobacco companies and sold as inserts in packages of cigarettes.
Cards have been produced featuring most major sports, especially those played in North America. Baseball cards remain the most widely collected form of sports card.
Sets of cards are issued with each season for major professional sports. Since companies typically must pay players for the right to use their images, the vast majority of sports cards feature professional athletes. Amateurs appear only rarely, usually on cards produced or authorized by the institution they compete for, such as a college.