Denver Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith is breaking the mold. An 11-year veteran and Pro Bowl player, Smith isn't a stereotypical, big-spending sports star. He banks about $1 million of his $2.5 million pre-tax annual salary, lives in a $228,000 house near Denver, shops at WalMart, hasn't bought a new suit in three years, doesn't support hangers-on and owns no jewelry.
Smith, 34, is a self-described "student of money" and a leader of a growing group of professional athletes who adhere to a relatively modest lifestyle, practice wise financial planning and save prodigiously.
"Guys are scared of money," said Smith, who recently addressed NFL rookies about managing money. He has saved nearly half of his $11 million signing bonus two years ago and has not settled on a post-football career. "Money is so technical. I've seen so many guys come through and they lose millions of dollars because they just don't know."
Professional athletes' salaries have skyrocketed over the past two decades. The average baseball salary has grown from $329,408 in 1984 to approximately $2.3 million in 2002. NFL salaries have gone from $225,600 in 1984 to $1.25 million last year.
With that kind of money, even average players can sock away enough cash during short-lived careers to build a solid financial foundation for years to come, although financial planners say most athletes must plan on having another career when their playing days are over. The problem for the majority of athletes, however, is that even though leagues and teams stress responsible money management, most athletes lack even basic discipline and fritter away their money, managers say.
"We have had players go out and buy five homes within the same 12 months their first year," said Steve Piascik of Piascik & Associates, a tax accounting firm that handles finances for more than 70 professional athletes. "They go out and get their bonus, buy a house or two for mom, one for their girlfriend, brother, sister. We have had players go through all of their money in two years and have nothing left."
"Most are not saving nearly enough," said Kathy Lintz, a St. Louis-based financial adviser who manages money for nearly 100 athletes and consults with the NFL and the Los Angeles Rams. "The balance between what they want to do today and how they want to live today, juxtaposed with how much it takes to save to sustain that lifestyle from age 35 to 85, is just a huge challenge. The party line is, 'If I go and have a good career, I shouldn't have to work any more.' The goal should be to take advantage of the opportunity to accumulate a great base for the rest of your life. You still need to find your life's work."
Lintz calculates that athletes can draw a maximum of 5 percent annually from their retirement savings once their career is over, with 4 percent even more desirable in order to make their nest egg last. That means an athlete must save $2 million just to give himself or herself an $80,000 annual income.
"That's not enough to live in a million-dollar house and cover most of their expenses in order to stay there a long time," she said. She encourages clients such as Smith and Anthony Pleasant, a defensive end with the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, to plan for jobs after their careers are over so they can stretch their savings over a longer span.
Pleasant banks around $300,000 of his $1 million salary in a good year. At 36, he is nearing the end of his career and hopes to work in a construction industry job that will pay him about $50,000 to $70,000 annually when he retires.
"If you can get a job that pays you benefits as well as [health] insurance, you won't drain all your investments," said Pleasant, who has saved several million dollars over his 14-year career, including $250,000 in his 401(k). "Football has been a steppingstone to get ahead in life . . . a job, not a career."
It's a similar view shared by former NBA guard Cory Alexander, 30, who still earns about $1 million a year playing basketball in Rome and has put enough aside to assemble a group of automotive and real estate businesses in Richmond that he hopes to run the rest of his life.
"I wanted to establish the businesses because I knew five years from now I would not be playing basketball," he said.
Alexander said it took years of smart saving to fund his businesses. And it wasn't easy. He splurged nearly $100,000 on a Toyota Land Cruiser and a Dodge Viper when he signed with the San Antonio Spurs for about $560,000 a year after coming out of the University of Virginia in 1995.
Alexander quickly got on a savings track when then-teammate David Robinson told him to take advantage of his money-earning sweet spot and not try to keep up with everybody else. Alexander lives well beneath his means, with a $1 million home outside Richmond, where he resides with his wife and daughter. His net worth is in the single-digit millions.
"The budget is the most important thing, especially for someone not making the huge money," said Alexander, who eventually signed a seven-year contract with the Denver Nuggets for more than $10 million before he was bought out of the deal. "I was making great money at 21 years old. I was a millionaire. My income was high from 21 to 30, so I had to make my money then and be able to allow it to carry me through the rest of my life."
That's the kind of thinking that financial advisers are trying to instill in the players. Lintz, Piascik, Steve Trax of SFX Financial Advisory Management Enterprises Inc. and Frank Zecca of Octagon Financial Services are all working with athletes, trying to give them the financial coaching they will need for the rest of their lives.
"My biggest concern is that . . . [my clients are] not trying to keep up with their teammates or what society expects," Trax said.
Most advisers charge their clients a fee equal to about 1 percent of the athlete's investments or net worth.
Former Cleveland Cavaliers star center Brad Daugherty said the one mistake he made was giving his former Little League coach $10,000 in seed money for a cosmetics start-up. Daugherty has resisted giving his family members jobs or straight out cash.
Daugherty started saving in his rookie season of 1986, saving $5 million in his first four years in the NBA by living like someone who earned $50,000 per year instead of the $1 million the Cavaliers were paying him. He earned another $500,000 or so a year from an endorsement deal with Reebok.
"I rented an apartment in Cleveland for $625 a month," said Daugherty, who even drove a complimentary Chevy Blazer from an area auto dealer rather than buy his own car. "I had nothing to spend my [$1 million salary] on. I was a single guy. I had nothing to buy."
Daugherty, who splits his time between a home in Florida and a 65-acre farm near Asheville, N.C., began investing in car dealerships while playing for the Cavaliers. He now owns interests in four Ford Motor Co. dealerships, including one of the largest Ford agencies in the United States, and is estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars; he has 65 percent of his investments in municipal bonds and the rest in blue-chip stocks.
Pleasant, the Patriots' defensive end, doesn't have nearly as much money as Daugherty but he saved enough to keep his three children in private school and pay for a beautiful home in Cornelius, N.C. He also owns another home in Florida, where his sister lives.
When Pleasant got his first signing bonus for $132,000 in 1990, he was tempted to go out and buy the BMW 850 he had longed for while playing football at Tennessee State. But the bonus shrunk to $96,000 after taxes, so Pleasant decided to put the money in the bank and save it for a house.
"I said, 'I can't live in a car.' So if I put the money into a house, I can live in a house," said Pleasant, who started with the Cleveland Browns in 1990.
Matt Light, 25, a starting left tackle for the Patriots, banked about $500,000 of a $1.3 million signing bonus when he was drafted from Purdue University in 2001. Though he still has most of that money, Light could end up with $10 million in the bank if he gets a double-digit signing bonus when his contract is up next year and is healthy enough to save most of his salary the next several seasons.
"I try to save as much as possible," said Light, who owns modest homes in Boston and in his home town of Greeneville, Ohio. "When we get the next deal done I'm going to try and save well more than half of my bonus."
Smith is sitting back and watching his investments grow, looking for a new place to put his money. He is eyeing a Subway franchise and a car wash. In a good year, the stock market can boost his worth by a million or two. He owns real estate in Atlanta and 20 units in Texas, where his sister runs the properties.
"I have a great life. I do what I want, when I want," said Smith, who grew up poor in the Chicago projects. "A lot of guys say I'm cheap. On the street you may look better. But you look at me in the bank, I look better than you."