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Financial Game Plan
Published October 17, 2005
With the explosion of athletes’ salaries in the major sports, financial advisers who specialize in representing athletes are encountering more challenges than ever.
With athletes’ earning capacities so high, those advisers are under pressure to come up with investment plans that will make certain their clients never have to work again after their playing careers end. At the same time, however, athletes are under tremendous pressure from their peers to spend lavishly and show off their wealth.
“The image in the NBA and in the other sports is to have it all now and show it all now,” said Joe Godwin, vice president in the Goldman Sachs Private Wealth Management group in Philadelphia who has been working with professional athletes for about six years. “That is the antithesis of what we do at Goldman Sachs.”
Salaries paid to players in the four major team sports — the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL — have more than doubled in the last decade.
NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL players were paid a collective $7.685 billion in their most recently completed regular seasons, an increase of 125 percent over the $3.412 billion paid to players during the 1995-96 seasons, according to SportsBusiness Journal research.
In the last four seasons, total player salaries in the big four leagues increased 16.6 percent, from $6.593 billion to $7.685 billion, according to SportsBusiness Journal research.
It all adds up to a business that has more people than ever competing for clients.
Kurt Schoeppler, senior vice president of McCormack Advisors International, has been in the business of advising athletes on their finances for 23 years and remembers how the dollars have changed.
“Twenty-three years ago, they said big money in the NFL was a guy making $300,000 a year, and now it is millions,” Schoeppler said. (McCormack Advisors International was formerly a part of IMG, but was not part of the sale of the agency to financier Ted Forstmann last year and is owned by the heirs of IMG founder Mark McCormack.)
IMG and a small group of sports agencies were among the first companies to form a division dedicated to serving athletes’ financial needs. But as the money grew, so did the number of financial advisers seeking sports clients, said Frank Zecca, vice president of financial services for Octagon.
“About the mid 1990s, you saw a lot of local brokers making phone calls” to try to get athlete clients, he said. Later on, major banks such as Bank of America started creating athlete divisions.
Recruiting younger players
One of the surest signs that the sports financial adviser industry is growing is that athletes are being approached at increasingly younger ages, advisers say.
While it used to be that athletes selected financial advisers after they picked an agent, more and more that timing has been reversed, said Zecca, who often accompanies Octagon agents when they give a presentation to a prospective client.
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Rachel Newman-Baker, director of agent, gambling and amateurism activities for the NCAA, said she is also seeing anecdotal evidence that financial advisers are approaching student athletes at younger ages. Last year, seven student athletes involved in college championships stated on affidavits that they had hired a financial adviser, a perfectly legal move under NCAA regulations. Seven is not a big number, but Newman-Baker noted that is up from zero in 2000.
Although there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the number of people in the business of providing financial advice to professional athletes is growing, there is little hard data on the number. Sports financial advisers are not required to register with any agency.
Femi Shote, a McLean, Va.-based financial adviser who launched the Sports Financial Advisors Association late last year, said there is no way to know how many people there are working in the business. “It’s fragmented,” he said. “And privacy is a big issue. Over time I hope we will have some institutional knowledge as to who the players are.”
The best measure of the number of people in the sports financial adviser business is the NFL Players Association’s financial advisers program, which has screened and approved 475 people to provide financial and insurance services to NFL players.
The NFLPA, like other sports players associations, has the authority to certify and regulate agents, but not financial advisers. But in 2002, in response to cases of NFL players being defrauded of millions of dollars by their financial advisers, the NFLPA began a program in which financial advisers voluntarily submitted themselves to a screening process, which included criminal background checks, to become part of an “approved list” of financial advisers.
Since 2002, “every year the program has grown,” said program director Ron George, who added that in the last year the list of approved advisers has grown by about 100. George said, too, that a “significant percentage” of financial advisers who apply for the program do not meet its standards.
The three other major league players associations, the MLB Players Association, the National Basketball Players Association and the NHL Players’ Association, do not have similar programs.
Financial advisers interviewed for this article universally applauded the NFLPA for providing the service as a way to weed out the bad apples in the industry.
The need for planning
Financial advisers say the biggest problem facing athletes is not financial fraud or even bad investment advice, but persuading athletes to put away as much money as they can while they are still playing their sport.
“There is tremendous pressure in the sports community and the entertainment community to consume, and controlling that is the one single biggest hurdle to financial success,” said Leland Faust, chairman of CSI Capital Management, one of the oldest and most successful sports financial firms in the country.
Financial planners encourage athletes to avoid lavish spending and instead focus on what will be their source of income after retirement.
At the same time, financial advisers are under more pressure to do it right because there is more money involved. “A difference is they make so much more money relatively, if they do it right the ability to retire and not have to work is much greater than it used to be,” Faust said. “Twenty years ago, most of them would have to work after they retire, and now they don’t have to.”
That is, unless they don’t plan or don’t stick to a plan while they are playing sports.
If an athlete is truly committed to saving, it is not that hard for him to live comfortably both while playing and after retirement, said Doug Elstun, a partner who represents about 20 NFL and NBA clients in the financial adviser firm William Larmer & Associates in Lenexa, Kan.
For example, Elstun said, a player who earns $1 million a year for three years could end up with an income of about $96,000 a year for life if he invests wisely. Part of that model entails the athlete living on about $96,000 a year while he is playing sports and getting a 6 percent return on investment on the money he saves.
“The people who can live on seven to 10 grand a month for six years [while they are active athletes] will have a nice lifestyle for the next 40 to 50 years of their life,” Elstun said.
Of course, said Zecca, “The trick is to get them to understand what they are able to spend.”
Too much spending
“We have had to fire players for not listening to advice and spending [too much],” Zecca said. “If, over a long period of time, the player is not listening and continues exceeding his budget and not hitting his investment goals, we will terminate the relationship.”
What do they spend money on?
“It’s cars, plane tickets, hotels,” Zecca said. “Flying their friends to every game and long weekends. Instead of buying a reasonably priced home in a nice neighborhood, it’s a home in every city. Too many cars. Besides helping out their families, it’s trying to help out too many people.”
One of his success stories involved a client who he persuaded to commit a major portion of his income to savings. “A client a few years ago, a basketball player, he has a contract that pays him about $2.8 million and an endorsement contract that pays him over $400,000 [a year],” Zecca said. “He chose to live on his endorsement contract and not use the salary.”
Goldman Sachs’ Godwin also subscribes to that model for players who have good endorsement income. “The bottom line with endorsements is we would like to see them live off their endorsement income and use their professional salary as their savings and investment base,” he said.
Goldman Sachs, which represents more than 40 percent of the Forbes 400 wealthiest families in the United States, is selective about clients, and Godwin gets to know athletes and the circle of family and friends advising the client at an early age.
Godwin said there is often a group of people who start to help the athlete manage his affairs at a very young age. “That can be as early as when they are a freshman in high school,” Godwin said. “What typically happens early on in a freshman’s life is they have friends and family who become their moderators and coordinators for everything they do. We understand very early on if the people around [the athlete] will allow us to do our job.”
Godwin said that after meeting the people around a prospective client, more than half the time he decides not to pursue the athlete because he sees potential difficulties in having the athlete follow investment and savings advice.
While many athletes are accustomed to people who tell them “yes” for most of their lives, Godwin said, “the financial adviser is the guy on the other side of the table saying, ‘No.’”
SportsBusiness Journal research director David Broughton contributed to this story.