When the final whistle blows
A lucrative sporting career can be brutally short, with many athletes facing bleak futures when the glory days come to an end
Tiger Woods will play Phil Mickelson in a winner-take-all $9 million match-play event on November 23rd in Las Vegas. Photograph: EPA/Tannen Maury
The rewards of a successful sporting career at the top level are well-known. English Premier League footballers can earn hundreds of thousands of euro in a single week; basketball players in the US earn even more; Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are about to play a single round of golf for a prize of $9 million; and we won’t even mention the vast sums earned by The Notorious Conor McGregor for his one boxing match with Floyd Mayweather.
But these are the rewards available to athletes at the very pinnacle of their sports. Stars who attract massive crowds and huge audiences willing to fork out tidy sums for pay-per-view TV access.
But what happens when the lights go down and their fame fades? For some, the media beckons, either as hosts or pundits. But for every Gary Lineker or Brian O’Driscoll, there are thousands or even tens of thousands of soccer and rugby players who either never enjoyed the profile or don’t have the personality to carve out a second career on screen.
Careful planning for what they are going to do for their second act is vitally important for the great majority of professional sportspeople, whose careers can be fleetingly short. Scarily short, in fact. According to Rugby Players Ireland, the average professional rugby career lasts just seven years and just 6 per cent of current players have a career spanning longer than 12 years.
“The first part starts when the athlete is still at the elite level.” says Kelli O’Keeffe, managing director of Teneo PSG. “They need to put a lot of planning into their career after sport as it has traditionally been a very difficult transition.”
O’Keeffe has a masters in performance psychology from Edinburgh University as well as a degree in sports management from UCD and has particular insights into the issue. “When players are young they think their careers will never end,” she says. “Sometimes, sporting careers come to an abrupt end due to injury. This is a major life change which is usually not planned for. A number of organisations such as the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland, Rugby Players Ireland, the Gaelic Players Association, and the Sport Ireland Institute have programmes to help players understand what they need to do after their sporting careers finish. These organisations have really put a lot of work into education and training programmes to prepare athletes for life after sport.”
On a positive note, she points to the employability of many sportspeople. “If you look at the qualities of elite athletes – leadership, self-motivating, hard workers, ability to perform under pressure, and they generally work well in teams. These qualities transcend sport and are attractive to most employers. A lot of businesses understand that and are very willing to give current and former athletes a break.”
“There are a number of core areas such as coaching, strength and conditioning, physiotherapy, the media, and some go down the route of becoming agents for other professional athletes,” she adds. “Others follow a passion. Rugby player Mike Ross has a keen interest in IT and now has a career as commercial director with software company Wizuda. ”
Financial planning is critically important as well, according to BDO head of tax Ciarán Medlar. “We have a dedicated sports unit which acts for around 90 current and retired athletes from a range of sports – mainly soccer, rugby, golf, and boxing,” he says. “Most athletes have high earnings for only about 10 years of their careers, so they need to plan ahead for what happens post-career. Long-term financial planning is crucial.”
It is equally important to adopt conservative investment strategies, he advises, as he gives some quite sobering bankruptcy statistics. “About 75 per cent of American football players are bankrupt within two years of retirement from the sport,” says Medlar. “The figure for English Premier League football players is 50 per cent. Young players need to take good advice and be boringly conservative. Most, if not all of them, have to do something else when they stop. There is a transitional period when they have to find something else to do and only a small proportion can go into coaching and media work.”
One of the challenges they face is the fact that while they are highly skilled and experienced in their sport, that is not necessarily applicable to workplaces outside of sport, he adds.
Sports people do enjoy certain advantages when it comes to financial planning. “There is tax relief available where they can take their 10 best years earnings and take 40 per cent of that income out of the tax net. They get that money back in a lump sum and this can help them through the transition when they are looking for something else to do. Professional sportspeople can put 30 per cent of their earnings into their pension when they are 20. It’s 15 per cent for people not engaged in sport. That means they can put a significant amount into their pension fund quite early. There are also other things to look after such as wills, life insurance and permanent health insurance to deal with long-term injuries and so on.”
He stresses the need to take advice in relation to financial and investment decisions. “You hear in the UK about the film investments that went wrong and the revenue there is chasing retired sports people who haven’t got any money for millions of pounds. Quite a number of Premier League players went bankrupt as a result of poor advice.”
Many athletes do invest wisely though. “Some athletes look at investing in projects where they can get directly involved and learn about the business and how it operates,” Medlar notes. “This can be in hospitality or another type of business.”
Mental health can also be a challenge following retirement, according to Kelli O’Keeffe. “The transition for an Olympic athlete who has spent four years preparing for one day or maybe even one minute can be very difficult. If they haven’t met or surpassed their expectations, they can feel a failure. Coming out of that can be very mentally challenging.”
That makes financial security even more important. It allows athletes the space to decide on what they want to do. It’s also one less worry to have if you are trying to deal with mental-health issues.