Luke Milligan, Britain's No 8 tennis player, is one of them. The 22-year- old hopes that one day he might emulate Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, but for now he is ranked No 312 in the world and relies on small paydays from small tournaments to survive.
"I enjoy what I do and I wouldn't change it," he said. "But the cash that you earn tends to get spent on travelling. When you go away you very rarely make a profit. Without some help [with coaching and occasional expenses] from the LTA, I'd struggle to continue."
Milligan plays in up to 40 events per year, with one recent Challenger tournament and the Northern Electric Open at Newcastle fairly typical. For being a first-round loser he picked up pounds 300. His career earnings to date, pounds 64,000 in four years (or pounds 16,000 per year), are dwarfed by the incomes of the likes of Rusedski, who has won pounds 288,000 this year alone and nearly pounds 3m in his career.
According to the ATP, the world governing body of the men's tour, 17 players made more than $1m (pounds 625,000) in tournament winnings last year and 177 more than pounds 60,000. "But only about 300 to 400 players in the world can actually make a living from Tour earnings," a spokeswoman added.
Milligan just falls into that category, but only because of the annual financial fillip that is Wimbledon. "People do sometimes complain about us British guys getting wild cards to Wimbledon and say that we're pocketing pounds 7,000 [the amount paid to first-round losers] for nothing. But that money is a lifeline for us, to help us continue for another year."
According to an LTA spokesman, players such as Milligan, and journeymen such as Danny Sapsford and Chris Wilkinson before him, are not in sport for the money. "They're fighting for the ranking points that might get them up there towards the top."
The notion of sportsmen paying their dues and working for a pittance while in pursuit of higher goals was highlighted at the Dutch Open golf tournament last week. Although nearly 200 players competed in the tournament more than half earned nothing for their efforts. Only those 72 players who made the cut after two rounds were paid, with the smallest cheque pounds 1,200.
Bernard Gallacher, the former Ryder Cup captain, resigned as a director of the PGA European Tour over the issue, saying that he was fed up with players complaining that they were not paid after missing the cut. "The players these days have never had it so good, yet they seem to want more and more," he said. "The Tour has got where it has by the efforts of the elite. The best players have led the way and the rest have benefited from increased sponsorships and prize money. But you have to win your benefits."
The idea that all the players are needed to provide a competition and that the public are willing pay to watch them apparently counts for little, and it is accepted that you pay your own way until you start winning. It works for some, such as the Argentinian Angel Cabrera, who has earned pounds 327,585 on the European Tour this year. Three years ago he was having to rely on gifts from friends and family just to pay his travel expenses. Then again, there are hundreds of others, such as the teenage hero of last year's British Open, Justin Rose, who are still doing much the same, touring Europe on a shoestring, playing in Challenge events just to win the right to move up to European Tour proper.
In most sports there tend to be an elite who can make a lot of money and a body of other professionals who make up the numbers but are never going to get rich. For every athlete such as the sprinter, Maurice Greene, who will receive pounds 47,000 in appearance money alone for running at a Grand Prix meeting in London next month, there are a hundred more who only manage to survive on grants from sources such as the Lottery.
For every snooker player such as Stephen Hendry, who can look forward to picking up half a dozen cheques over pounds 100,000 in a bad year, there are probably 50 other players in the world's top 128 who end up with little more than pounds 10,000 a year. "We make sure that the top 128 always receive something for competing in events," a World Snooker Association spokeswoman said. "And those who don't make a living are given lots of chances to play [in smaller events] to try to work their way up."
The sport which arguably gives the fewest players the chance to earn a living, despite having been hugely popular on television in recent memory, is darts. The flagship tournament is the Embassy World Professional in January at the Lakeside Country Club. The 32 players in the main draw are all paid, from pounds 2,350 for an exit in the first round up to pounds 42,000 for the winner. Apart from that event, money-making opportunities are rare.
"There are not even a dozen players on the professional circuit who make a good living from winnings alone," said Martin Fitzmaurice, the chief executive of the International Darts Players' Association. Martin Adams, the world No 4 and a friend of Fitzmaurice, attempted to go full-time but could not make it pay. He is now semi-professional, working in computers and playing only in major events.
"Certainly less than 20 could get by from playing darts in competitions alone," Fitzmaurice said. "Those that do make up their earnings in exhibitions and through bits of sponsorship. When you hear that the ladies at Wimbledon are getting the hump for getting a bit less money than the men, you realise it's ridiculous. It's a different world."
As is, to many, the world of people such as Anelka.
WHO EARNS WHAT - HOW THE PRIZE MONEY GOES ROUND
At Golden League meetings, the winners of the "major" events, such as the 100m, receive pounds 9,300 and the eighth-placed competitors pounds 625. In lesser events at the same meetings (pole vault and discus for example), the winners receive pounds 4,600 and the sixth-placed competitors pounds 625. There is a $1m (pounds 625,000) bonus to be shared by athletes winning all their Golden League meetings. Appearance money varies from event to event depending on what organisers want to pay and to whom. After Golden League meetings come Grand Prix I and Grand Prix II meetings. Eighth place in the 100m at the latter wins pounds 250.
The winner of the world's richest tournament, the Embassy World Professional, wins pounds 42,000 and first-round losers pounds 2,350. Leading non-qualifiers win pounds 700. At smaller tournaments, such as the Windmill World Masters in December, the winner gets pounds 8,000. Of the 360 players who compete, only eight take home prize money, but competitors' national associations usually help with expenses. According to the International Darts Players' Association, fewer than 12 players in the world make more than pounds 30,000 from the sport. Most on the professional circuit survive on small levels of sponsorship and playing exhibitions.
Paul Lawrie won pounds 350,000 for winning the Open at Carnoustie from a total prize fund of just over pounds 2m. Those who failed to make the cut also received money, with the player in last position of 156 taking home pounds 700. At the Dutch Open last week, the total prize money was pounds 807,000 and Lee Westwood took home pounds 133,000 for winning. Players who failed to make the cut received nothing. The 100th-placed player on the European Tour earnings list can earn more than pounds 50,000 per year, but those on the lesser Challenge Tour can expect to have to fund themselves or find sponsorship before breaking into the higher echelons.
The richest tournament is the Embassy World Championship, in which the winner receives pounds 240,000 and prize money runs as far as the final 128. The smallest payout is pounds 1,050 per player. There are eight other major World Snooker Association tournaments paying total prizes of between pounds 270,000 and pounds 500,000 and all pay the top 128 players. No one in the world's top 96 earns less than pounds 12,000 per year in prize money. In lesser events, such as those that make up the UK Tour for semi-professionals, the winners receive pounds 5,750, while every competitor gets at least pounds 100 for reaching the last 128.
Even first-round qualifying losers at Wimbledon win pounds 1,080, and those who reach the first round proper earn pounds 6,830. The men's winner takes home pounds 455,000. In smaller ATP events, such as the Mercedes-Benz tournament taking place this week in Los Angeles, the winner will take home pounds 29,000, first-round losers (such as Tim Henman) receive pounds 2,000 and those eliminated in the first qualifying round pounds 250. On the Challenger tour, which includes events such as the Northern Electric Open in Newcastle and the Scottish Tennis Championship, the total prize pot is around pounds 30,000, with first- round losers making pounds 300.Reuse content