They're not left out on a broken limb

Edmund Tirbutt on the seven-figure insurance deals that protect sports stars and clubs from financial injury

Any sensible business will insure its main assets, whether it is spending pounds 15m on a footballer or a factory. So while it would be little compensation to Newcastle United fans if Alan Shearer picked up a serious injury, the club would be able to claw back some financial compensation.

"You can be absolutely sure that any sports star has been insured up to the full value of his contract to safeguard against disability," says Chris Branch, the managing director of Cigna Re Europe, a sports underwriter.

Around 50 professional footballers are forced to quit every year through injury. A single incident is rarely responsible. It is more likely to be a series of injuries to a particular joint, allied to the general ageing process of the body.

Any sporting risk as large as Shearer is split between at least 30 different insurance companies and syndicates worldwide. Around three-quarters of this business is underwritten in London, the world's leading market for professional sporting risks.

The same principles apply to top showbusiness personalities who depend on their fitness. Michael Flatley's much-publicised calf injury caused him to miss three Lord of the Dance shows recently, and while claims for ticket refunds were limited by the fact he had an understudy, his insurance took a minor knock.

A number of specialist intermediaries dominate particular sports. Windsor Insurance Brokers, for example, handles most professional footballers in Britain and all our county cricketers and licensed boxers.

All the full-time football leagues purchase block cover from Windsor against death or total disablement of their players while on the pitch. But the amount of insurance is relatively modest, so all Premier League clubs, most from the First Division and some from the lower divisions buy additional cover. The very top clubs will take this out for their entire squads, but others insure only their star names. Some players may negotiate with their club to receive a proportion of the payout should they be seriously injured.

The amounts insured can approach the transfer values of the footballers concerned: over 100 players in the Premier League are insured for pounds 1m or more.

Most clubs do not insure for short-term injuries because a large squad of players is a form of self-insurance. The appeal of cover for temporary disability is limited by the cost and by the fact that payment is not made for the first three weeks of disability.

The British Olympic team was also covered under a block policy through Windsor during the Atlanta games. But this was little more than a glorified travel insurance policy, covering baggage and the cost of medical treatment and repatriation for up to pounds lm per individual. Many of the athletes would also have had permanent health insurance to cover their mortgage. This pays a regular income in the event of long-term disability.

Insurers are loath to quote premiums for most sports, stressing that individual risks vary to an extent that precludes generalisations. But as to the level of cover it is not unusual for a Formula 1 driver, say, to take out pounds 3m against death and disability. Top drivers are insured for much more than this. The total claim on the Williams team's policy after Ayrton Senna's death in 1994 was said to have been $17.5m (pounds 11.3m).

Insurers emphasise that motor racing is now far safer than generally imagined thanks to huge improvements in cars and tracks. The same cannot be said, however, for professional motorbike riders. TL Clowes & Co, the leading broker for the motor sports market, says they would be virtually uninsurable if it wasn't for their willingness to ride with broken bones.

The same can be said for National Hunt jockeys, although up-and-coming riders are judged worse risks than the top ones because they have less incentive to carry on riding after an accident.

Participants in professional boxing, skiing, ice hockey and cycling also command some of the steepest rates. Golfers and volleyball players, on the other hand, tend to be good risks.

Chris Farley-West, the managing director of Europea-IMG, the sports insurance company, says sports people often delay arranging cover for longer than they should. "There's a big gap from having had nothing to having quite a lot, and many of them don't want to spend their new-found wealth on insurance."

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