The harsh truth about playing for money: A career in sport isn't always as glamorous as it seems. Niall Edworthy reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN NOVEMBER of last year Patrick Ewing, of the New York Knicks basketball club, signed a contract which, it is calculated, will earn him pounds 20m over six years. In 1986 Boris Becker negotiated a pounds 15m marketing contract that gave him security for life. In Britain, Nigel Mansell has been earning pounds 10m a year, Nick Faldo five, Willie Carson two and Stephen Hendry one-and-a-half-million a year.

The rich pickings of our top sportsmen are a far cry, however, from the financial realities facing the majority of the 400,000 people involved in professional sport. The average active life of the sportsman is just eight years, and those who will have achieved financial security within that time can be counted on two hands. A sportsman will always need a second career to turn to after his playing days are over.

Aware of the myths surrounding the issue of earnings, the Institute of Professional Sport has published a guide to spell out the grimmer truths of pursuing a career in sport. It amounts to a sobering reminder to all starry-eyed youngsters that Mansell and Gascoigne-size incomes are very much the exception. The guide also provides practical information about the variety of ways the institute can help sportsmen deal with life after their playing days. You need only ask Wayne Larkins, the former England Test player whose home is threatened with repossession, or the QPR star of the mid-1970s who ended up selling the Evening Standard on the Central Line, to get a picture of what is often the reality for professional sportsmen.

'It has not been our aim to deter youngsters,' Peter Lawson, the general secretary of the institute, said. 'But when an excited mother rings up to say her 12-year-old son has beaten his father at snooker, we need to make her aware of the difficulties her son might face.'

The income of professional sportsmen varies considerably. While a Premier League footballer can expect to earn pounds 1,000 a week, plus bonuses and sponsorship, a Third Division player (many of whom will have another job) will earn a maximum of pounds 250 a week. A trainee must make do with just pounds 29.50, the equivalent of dole money. The problem for many aspiring footballers who do not make the grade is that often they will have neglected education and job training. The problem for players who have hung up their boots is that their skills have become redundant. Vacancies in management and coaching are hard to come by.

'You always have your fears as a player,' the Watford manager, Steve Perryman, says. 'When I was at Spurs we heard stories about the players who won 'The Double' in 1962, and then found themselves out on the street a few years later. You don't get so many hard-luck stories these days because people are better at preparing themselves for the after-life, so to speak.'

Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, says: 'My advice to youngsters coming into the game is unless getting to the top is their all-absorbing and single- minded ambition, then forget it. There are a lot of pitfalls, risks and distractions for a professional footballer. The Alan Shearers of this world may earn sums approaching pounds 250,000, but 50 players a year are forced to retire through injury and part of my job is to encourage players to prepare for an alternative career.

'I agree with what Steve Coppell said when he was chairman of the PFA, that young footballers are like tortoises coming to shore to lay their eggs. Only some will make it.'

As most sports are seasonal, money will not be paid all year round. Of the 450 full-time professional cricketers, most will earn pounds 20,000 for their efforts over the summer. Many who cannot play or coach abroad during the winter are forced to seek alternative work at home.

'It is tough for a lot of players,' the former Test opener, Tim Robinson, says. 'When I wasn't selected for the Australia tour in 1985 I spent the winter on the dole. The main thing is to have qualifications. I'm lucky to have a degree and a sports business of my own, but for others it can be a struggle.'

Very few sportsmen make the professional grade. Still fewer earn enviable sums of money. In golf, only the top 50 players on the European Tour take home good money. In motor racing there are only 30 full-time professionals on both the racing and the rallying circuits in this country. In snooker, the player ranked at 50 on the WPBSA ratings for the 1990-91 season earned just pounds 14,250.

The institute is active in looking for ways to give direct help to former professionals who have suffered a sharp drop in their earnings after retirement. In association with the education, commerce and industry sectors it has been developing training programmes to help professionals in a second career. But the youngster who dreams of scoring the winning goal at Wembley or opening the batting at Lord's would do well to bear in mind that the provision of low-rent accommodation and sheltered housing is just another of the ways the institute has been trying to help.

Playing at The Top - A Guide To Professional Sport, available from The Institute of Professional Sport, Francis House, Francis St, London SW1P 1DE. Tel. 071-828- 3163. Fax. 071-630-8820.