A career as a professional athlete, regardless of the sport, is in some ways a very loose application of the term “career”. Loose in the sense that as far as most standard careers are concerned, one that rarely lasts longer than a decade is at times hardly a career at all and more, as Herm Edwards, former NFL player, coach, and now pundit puts it, like an opportunity.
The opportunity, especially for those competing at the highest level, is to earn a massive amount of money over a very short period of time. In soccer in the UK, according to the Professional Footballer’s Association, the average career length is eight years from the time a players signs their first professional contract, while the average retirement age is thirty five. In Major League Soccer, according to a study done by James Carey and former UCSB and USL Pro player Nathaniel Boyden, in any given season, over 50% of the players who enter the league, are not there in two years, and only 20% are there after five years. Additionally, they found that the average MLS Rookie can expect a two and a half year career.
The PFA’s numbers are oddly the exact same as a guardian study done in 2010 and the Carey + Boyden study is based on data from 1000 players from 1996-2007. Consequently, these numbers are hardly up to date for two league’s whose growth, year to year, recently has been quite large. That being said, the numbers still point to overall “career” lengths of professional soccer players in the modern era being dramatically shorter than any standard overall career path in a modern nation’s economy.
Retirement at thirty five, if the player lasts to that age, puts that player at the end of their income cycle at a point where the average worker doesn’t expect to be until at least twenty five years later. In spite of the massive amounts of money being paid to professional soccer players, they have to earn in eight years what the average worker does in fifty, and do it while dealing with people constantly trying to manipulate and take advantage of their situation including shady investment advisers and agents only looking to make a big bonus check. Add to that the fact that many players have children at young ages and no pay periods in the offseason and it suddenly becomes possible even for millionaire soccer players to be living paycheck to paycheck.
A now famous Sports Illustrated piece found that two years out from retirement, 78% of NFL players were bankrupt, while five years out from retirement, 60% of NBA players were bankrupt. This all paints a picture of a massive concern about long-term financial viability for players post-retirement and in this multi-part series, Business of Soccer will look at the various post-career options professional soccer players have taken to ensure their lives don’t end as soon as their contract is up with over half of their lives left to live.
This first installment, inspired by Tim Howard’s recent multi-year agreement with NBC, looks at broadcasting and match commentary as an avenue for former players to take.
Former players becomes quite attractive as analysts and commentators given their unique insight as former players who played at the highest level. That final caveat is one of the most important regarding this post-retirement route. Seldom do you see a commentator who was an average or below-par player brought on as a pundit, their opinions are less likely to be taken seriously than someone who excelled in their career. While athletic prowess and playing success isn’t a direct indicator of the capacity to intelligently break down a game, the perception is still close to that, which makes it a harder area to break into if a player hasn’t performed at a high level.
Looking at this past World Cup, broadcast in the US exclusively through ESPN and ABC affiliates, their commentary and analyst lineup included a large proportion of former professional players. At least fourteen former professional players including ESPN mainstays Alexi Lalas, Taylor Twellman, Shaka Hislop, Steve McManaman, Kasey Keller, Alejandro Moreno, and Julie Foudy as well as those brought in exclusively for the World Cup including Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Santiago Solari, Michael Ballack, Frank Leboeuf and Gilberto Silva.
In the Premier League, where Tim Howard will be commentating on up to ten games, the broadcast expert landscape is covered in former players. On Sky Sports, former rivals on the field Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher form a dynamic duo of analysis, while BBC’s huge lineup of former professionals includes Alan Shearer, Martin Keown, Phil Neville and Chris Waddle that also added Thierry Henry, Rio Ferdinand, and Clarence Seedorf for World Cup Coverage.
Broadcasting isn’t limited to television though. Sports radio including Talksport radio, ESPN Radio, BBC Radio all employ former players. “Expert commentary” is something that is highly valued among listeners. Producers of sports content, no matter the medium recognize this.
For as many former professional players as there are in the broadcast and sports commentary field, it also means that it can be quite saturated and breaking in may be difficult. What happens many times is players are reached out to about the possibly to come on and if they do well enough, theoretically, they’ll be called back to do more long-term work. Tim Howard’s recent deal was a result of the same process last season, having been brought in as an analyst for six games and once in studio.
Alejandro Moreno was actually called in to commentate for MLS weeks after retiring. No promises were made about advancement but Moreno knew, just like in his playing career, that hard work would pay off. And indeed it has, as he has recently wrapped up TV and Radio coverage for ESPN at the World Cup in Brazil.
It’s possible that Landon Donovan’s recent appearance on ESPN during the World Cup could also be a potential move to line up a future former professional. The thing to remember is that while this can be very lucrative, Mike Tirico earns around $3 Million/year, but more often than not a commentator doesn’t make that much until they’re full time. Many former players are brought in on a contractual basis, which highlights the significance of Tim Howard’s multi-year agreement with NBC. While it probably is closer to a contractual set up due to his commitment with Everton, the deal could signal the intent, from both parties to pursue commentating as a full-time career once Howard decides to retire.
Commentating is certainly one of the more high profile routes to take in post-playing career professional development, but it’s an avenue only open to some. Players like Rio Ferdinand have looked like they’ve been preparing for it for quite a while what with hosting a TV prank show and being heavily involved in twitter and voicing his opinion. Whether it’s on an in-house TV Channel like MUTV or Chelsea TV or all the way up on ESPN or BBC Sport, players are recognizing TV and radio as viable career paths, and if pursued properly, these paths could prove to be the stability needed to build on the life foundation established as a professional player.