The only thing more stunning than the stratospheric salaries commanded by many professional athletes is how few of these million-dollar-men approach retirement age with financial security.
Leigh Bodden is one of the few.
The District native and former Cleveland Brown, Detroit Lion and New England Patriot is sitting pretty with $10 million in the bank, the fruit of a nine-year NFL career that earned him more than $25 million before taxes.
Now he is launching a post-football career as a business investor, financing the first of three Retro Fitness gyms he plans for Washington. The first is to open in December in a shopping center in the Prince George’s County community of Lanham.
Bodden, 32, has put $1.2 million of his own money into the project. The investment includes renovating the leased space for the gym, leasing the equipment, and providing the capital to get the business staffed and opened.
After covering sports business for a decade and writing about a number of athletes and their business interests (so to speak), I confess to being skeptical about athlete investment. In my experience, most put their hard-earned assets into high-risk, high-profile thrills like bars, restaurants, recording companies, films, clothing lines and weird real estate ventures.
And Bodden has no business experience, except he likes to work out and live a healthy life. So I asked, “What do you know about running a gym?”
I was impressed by his response.
Not much, he said. In other words, he knows what he doesn’t know. That’s one of the smartest things any aspiring business person, or any person for that matter, can say.
“I have partners to help me,” said Bodden, who has a business degree from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. “It’s all my money, but I have a team around me. I want to have people help me grow it to make it bigger.”
He said he always wanted to get into a franchise and thought about Subway, McDonald’s and even hotels. But those businesses felt foreign to him.
“I have been in fitness my whole life, and you want to go into something that you know.” He heard about Retro at a franchise convention and liked the fact that the New Jersey-based company is relatively small, with just about 100 outlets.
Even though he is investing roughly 10 percent of his net worth in the company, he said future expansion will be financed from cash generated by the business. He doesn’t plan to use more of his money for expansion.
The first gym is in leased space in a shopping center, but he said he’s looking forward “to places where I can buy the land and own the land.”
Bodden said he comes from a family that has a good work ethic. His mother held down three jobs, including working as a cashier at Hecht’s and having a paper route in addition to working for the Daughters of the American Revolution.
He did not get drafted by the National Football League after a distinguished career at Duquesne. But the Browns signed him anyway as a cornerback, thanks to his knack for interceptions. He holds second place for interceptions in NCAA Division 1-AA history.
He was signed to a standard, three-year deal with the Browns, earning $225,000 his first year. When he got his signing bonus of $9,000, he got a quick reality check at age 21.
“I really didn’t know about taxes, so when I got the check, it was for $5,100. I was kind of shocked.”
One of the smartest things he did was find a Merrill Lynch adviser through the Cleveland Browns player-development program, and the adviser helped keep him from making dumb decisions early in his career.
A friend later introduced him to Allan Boomer, who was vice president in the Goldman Sachs private wealth-management group at the time. Bodden stayed with Boomer even after Boomer left Goldman to run his own wealth-management firm.
Bodden had some big paydays. Here’s a taste: In 2008, he made $2.7 million with Detroit. The next year, he earned $2.25 million with New England. And in 2010, he signed a four-year, $22 million contract with New England. He earned $14 million of the $22 million the first two years, then left the game after the 2011 season because of back injuries.
He lived far beneath his means for most of that career, he said. He would deposit the lion’s share of every paycheck, whether it was $7,000 or $200,000 a week, after tax, into his savings account.
“When I got paid, I put all my money away. I lived very comfortably on a fraction of it. I only used my American Express card for pretty much everything.” He even maxed out in his 401(k), which now is around $300,000.
He said he remembers one teammate on the Cleveland Browns advising him to pay off all his debts by the time he retired, so Bodden paid off his $1.1 million house in Bowie and bought his mother a $500,000 house.
His indulgence? A fleet of cars, including a $120,000 Bentley, a 2010 GMC Yukon Denali and a 2006 Range Rover. He also bought a Hyundai Sonata for his girlfriend.
Bodden said he was mindful that the average NFL career is only slightly over three years (the NFL says it’s around six), so he wanted to leave with something other than just bruises once he retired.
“Most people are just starting at that age,” he said. “I just thought, ‘This was going to be over, and what am I going to do after that?’ ”
He discussed his idea for the Retro Fitness investment in detail with Boomer.
“We didn’t want to invest more than 10 percent of my net worth,” Bodden said. “If it fails, I am only out of 10 percent of my wealth. If I lose it, I will be mad. But it won’t be the end of the world.”
One refrain among NFL players is that they sacrifice their body and mind for a paycheck.
Bodden got a paycheck, but he got a life after football as well.