If you’re a sports fan, then chances are you’re aware of the stories and have seen or heard at least one version of the following phrase: “Millionaire Athlete Goes Broke.”
The light shone especially bright on National Football League players in 2009, thanks to a Sports Illustrated feature which estimated that 78% of NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce within three years of retirement. The article by Pablo S. Torre painted a perplexing picture.
How could that same athlete who signed a contract worth $18 million in his 20s be in financial turmoil by the time he reached his 30s?
How could that same athlete who signed a contract worth $18 million in his 20s be in financial turmoil in his 30s?
The same year the Sports Illustrated article came out, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) approached Financial Finesse, a financial advisory firm in El Segundo, Calif., about a partnership. The main impetus behind the partnership was to prepare players for a potential lockout in 2011, which would’ve resulted in an extended period without pay.
To prepare players for the lockout, Financial Finesse encouraged players to start saving 25% or more of their earnings. They designed a customized financial education program for players and their families, along with workshops and webcasts aimed at building awareness around the importance of financial responsibility. The program leveraged social media and multimedia through videos, podcasts, personalized assessments and contests, all designed to engage Millennial players.
According to Financial Finesse, 50% of the league’s players participated in the lockout preparedness programs and 48% of the players saved more than 20% of their earnings in the process. The lockout never came to fruition, as it was resolved prior to the start of the 2011 season. However, the NFLPA was impressed with how successful Financial Finesse’s comprehensive approach was with the players, so it decided to continue the relationship.
“We shifted our approach from preparing for a lockout to overall managing their wealth,” said Dana Shuler, the NFLPA’s senior director of player affairs. “We felt we could capitalize on the movement that was created during that lockout and really continue to engage the players.”
A Competitive Approach
Financial Finesse and the NFLPA expanded the program after the lockout. In doing so, they added a “Rookie Success Program,” designed to prepare rookies for the life change they would go through as players and to help set themselves up for a successful life off the field. They also offered unlimited financial coaching around all financial issues, with the ability to work with the same financial coach on an ongoing basis.
Ultimately, to get the message across, Financial Finesse tapped into the players’ competitive spirit by utilizing a gamified digital platform where players could compete for a high score based on what they were doing to prepare financially.
“People learn differently,” said Liz Davidson, founder and CEO of Financial Finesse. “You never know when the lightbulb will go on and that motivation, action and the sustained action need that reinforcement.”
Financial Finesse also created an email campaign that allowed players to share their financial stories in a competitive format. One such competition charged players to submit an example of something they didn’t buy but wanted. The best submission, selected by the Financial Finesse team, won roundtrip airfare to a destination of their choice.
“We got players from virtually every team to participate and eventually players banded together and came out with group ideas,” Davidson said. “Then we shared their stories online through email blasts and awarded the winner his prize, which was the roundtrip ticket. So, it was leveraging their competitive nature and their desire for recognition that goes with that. By doing that, it’s enforcing the behavior that’s in their best interest.”
First and Goal
The results so far have been staggering. Remember that 78% statistic from 2009? The percentage of NFL players who file for bankruptcy protection within two years of retirement is now estimated to be a much smaller 1.9%, climbing to 15.7% after 12 years, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Of the NFL players who participated in a series of 2018 post-workshop surveys, 95% of players reported being better prepared to make a financial decision as a result of the information provided. Further, 48% of players who completed a separate savings survey indicated that they are saving 20% or more of their earnings, which is well above the national average savings rate of 5%.
Some of the headlines have changed drastically as well. Former New England Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski, who retired this past year at the age of 30, revealed that he hadn’t spent any of the money he made in his NFL career, instead spending only his endorsement money since his career started in 2010. Gronkowski earned around $53 million in salary and bonuses during his nine-year career.
Marshawn Lynch, a running back who has been in the league since 2007, has become a financially savvy veteran who helps teammates with their 401(k)s.
Carl Nassib, a defensive end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, might be the poster child for the financial wellness movement in the NFL. When he was with the Cleveland Browns in 2018, Nassib’s informal — and expletive-laced — economic tutorial with teammates was featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” and went viral.
Davidson and the Financial Finesse team saw the video clip and invited Nassib to participate in a two-week financial training camp in the offseason to further cultivate his interest in financial wellness. Davidson asserted that it was a mutually beneficial endeavor, as her team received advice on how to better reach players, while Nassib came away from the program an even bigger financial advocate.
“I’ve had coaches pay for specialists to come in and try different breathing and sleeping techniques. Anything to gain an edge,” Nassib said. “Financial stress is real and can be an X-factor on gameday, just like anything else.”
Financial Reflections Lead to Financial Wellness
Davidson is well aware of how superfluous this whole thing might seem.
The majority of workers in the United States won’t earn in a lifetime what some NFL players make in a year. But it’s worth noting that most people build up their wealth as their career progresses over multiple decades, while athletes accumulate a majority of their wealth at a point in their life when people are least suited to manage large sums of money.
But Davidson sees the financial maturity of the NFL as a microcosm of the cultural shift that’s taken place when it comes to the concept of financial wellness. Sports are often a decent reflection of society. ESPN Films 30 for 30: “Broke” highlighted the point that the tech and housing bubble in the late 1990s and early 2000s coincided with rising salaries for athletes at a time of great economic prosperity in America.
There was financial irresponsibility across the board in that era, which led to the Great Recession. As a result, the NFL became more proactive in educating their players on finances and employers across the country began doing the same with their employees.
Thus, the term “financial wellness” became a mainstream concept.
“(Financial wellness) is truly an industry and what we feel is the fastest growing part of the market,” Davidson said.
“We really look at this from the angle of how do you take this money now and the resources that are available to leverage a lifetime of financial security?”
Organizations realize that personal finances and health are often closely linked. That’s why nine out of 10 large and mid-sized companies now offer financial wellness programs, and another 10% are considering adding them, according to the National Business Group on Health. Employers understand that these programs can boost employees’ productivity, engagement and health.
But, to achieve the desired goal of financial wellness, organizations must take an individual approach, said Alan Glickstein, managing director of retirement at Willis Towers Watson.
“One of the things that is central to being successful here is to meet people where they are and recognize that there are different objectives that people have,” Glickstein said. “Whether they’re an NFL player, or someone struggling to make ends meet or someone else on the spectrum.”
Financial Finesse and the NFLPA zeroed in on this with the competitive approach and their aggressive 25% or more savings model in preparation for the lockout. Many players were also given individual advice around potential investments in outside business interests, specifically real estate decisions, which Shuler said is one of the top ventures for NFL players.
And the fact that this financial advice and education comes free of charge is a significant factor in its success, Shuler said.
“I think what really makes this appealing is the ability to provide financial education to a group of individuals who generally have all types of people offering them advice, but not necessarily for free — they generally want something from them,” Shuler said. “So, to have an opportunity to gain information and learn in an engaging environment where there are no strings attached, it allows them to really engage much better without the fear of ‘what can happen if I take this advice and if I take this counsel?’”
What’s helped this individualized approach that’s led to an evolution of financial wellness is the improvement of technology, Glickstein said. Like Financial Finesse’s web-heavy approach, organizations can use online platforms that provide support tools for each employee.
“There’s the ability to do so much more now with decisions and support,” Glickstein said. “The bottom line is computers are smarter and faster and everyone’s got one, so smart employers are figuring out how to leverage that technology to get that personalized support that you need to be successful.”
Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement in this area, Glickstein said. Many employers oversaturate their financial wellness offerings in an attempt to attract employees with a wide range of choices. That can often lead to lots of unconnected programs and a lower level of engagement from employees.
Glickstein said for organizations to truly improve their employees’ financial well-being, there needs to be targeted messages to help inform people about important life decisions when they need them, such as buying a house, a car or having kids.
“Those are the moments that matter,” he said. “When you can reach people in those moments that matter with customized help, that’s relevant to their situation, that is where you start to see action being taken and people getting better about their finances.”
Ultimately, the end goal of all these programs — be they for millionaire athletes or low-level associates — is to equip people with the tools and knowledge to help them accomplish a sense of security and freedom.
“We want them to have the ability to focus on the game and not worry about the fact that they mismanaged their money,” Shuler said. “We really look at this from the angle of how do you take this money now and the resources that are available to leverage a lifetime of financial security?”
Brett Christie is a staff writer at WorldatWork.