But don’t automatically blame the athletes. After all, their expertise is on the court or on the field. They don’t have backgrounds in financial education, and you can’t expect them to. While they’re pursuing championships, athletes trust people to do right by them financially. And that’s a recipe for trouble right there.
“These pro athletes are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet in your life,” Butowsky says. “They’re so nice that they want to take care of everybody. But they sign over power of attorney to friends or advisers, and it’s like the blind leading the blind. They invest in real-estate ventures or bad businesses, the money goes away, and then they have no recourse.”
That’s why Butowsky has set up a Financial Distress Calculator to help clients figure out how long their money will last. After all, the average career in professional sports is stunningly short — in the case of the NFL, it’s a mere six years. Even if you make substantial cash in that period, you have the rest of your life to worry about.
It’s not always the case, of course, that athletes burn through all their cash. Some ex-athletes who have transitioned successfully to the business world include ex-L.A. Laker Magic Johnson, whose portfolio of businesses has included everything from movie theaters to Starbucks franchises to, most recently, a stake in the Los Angeles Dodgers. Heavyweight boxer George Foreman famously hit the jackpot with his dual-press grill, which reportedly netted him hundreds of millions of dollars.
But on the whole, it’s proven very difficult for athletes to get a handle on their finances and secure comfortable post-career lives for themselves. Documentarian Billy Corben recently directed and produced Broke for ESPN. The film delved into how and why so many professional athletes are ending up in the poorhouse.
“These are young guys who often go from having nothing to becoming multimillionaires overnight,” Corben says. “Because their salaries are publicly available, they have targets on their backs. People come out of the woodwork looking for money. Athletes get offered so many crazy opportunities to invest, the vast majority of which will make that money disappear.
“Then friends and relatives come with their hands out, all feeling that this player owes them something,” Corben continues. “They helped raise or support them, and now it’s time to get paid. Because players are generous to a fault, they end up supporting not just immediate family but whole blocks or even neighborhoods.”
So how can pro athletes put the brakes on this disturbing trend? The leagues themselves are one critical line of defense: The NFL, the NBA, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball all offer basic financial education to their players, especially rookies, who are just getting oriented about how to handle such large sums. Butowsky singles out the NBA for becoming particularly proactive, even producing its own videos on a variety of key financial subjects to help athletes manage money during their careers and in retirement.
But Corben thinks even those early interventions might be too late. “You need to get them earlier than when they turn pro,” he says. “I think there should be more of an obligation on colleges. They have an unpaid labor pool, they’re generating billions of dollars in revenue — why are they not preparing student athletes for what’s coming? Schools really need to step up and take responsibility.”
It doesn’t end there. Some agents and money managers say the microscope should be placed on their own professions. The leagues are doing what they can to promote financial education but, ultimately, these are adults making their own decisions. Or, rather, trusting a professional — who may not know what he or she is doing or who actively may be taking advantage of their clients — to make those decisions for them.
“A lot of people see these guys as their payday,” says John Sestina, a financial adviser in Columbus, Ohio, known as the Father of Fee-Only Financial Planning; he’s represented many pro athletes. “Agents will do things like set up their own financial-planning company, convince athletes to buy an annuity from their buddy and then get kickbacks.”
But the athletes aren’t blameless. Sestina had one client who had $700,000 in cash sitting in the bank during training camp. By the time the season started just a few weeks later, it was gone — on bling, on trips for all his buddies, on fancy hotel suites. That’s why Sestina has dropped clients who don’t get with the program and stick to a long-term financial plan — he doesn’t want to watch them go broke. “Good investing is always boring,” he says. “But with some athletes, if it’s not exciting, they’re not going to listen.”
As for Cliff Floyd, the story has a happy ending. He’s got a wife and kids, a promising career as a broadcaster and a comfortable post-Major League Baseball life in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But it bothers him when he opens the newspaper and sees so many pro athletes drowning in their money troubles.
“Athletes never focus on their money until the game is over,” he laments. “Then you have 365 days a year to sit on your [butt] and worry about where your next dollar is coming from. That’s the saddest thing of all.”
CHRIS TAYLOR is an award-winning financial journalist in New York. He is a personal-finance correspondent for Thomson Reuters Corp. and has been published in Money and Fortune, on Businessweek.com and CNBC.com, as well as in other publications.