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“Booze, birds and fast cars” were the memorable temptations that George Best said accounted for much of his spending during a brilliant but wayward footballing career. “The rest I just squandered,” he added.

With weekly pay packets of hundreds of thousands of pounds, top footballers and other high-earning professional sportspeople have always been subject to the lure of lavish spending. But there is a good reason why they should adopt a more rigorous approach to personal finance than the rest of us: the period of their peak earnings is often vanishingly brief.

If a career in the spotlight — and the high salaries that come with it — lasts typically less than a decade, how can sports stars make those earnings last a lifetime, guaranteeing a comfortable standard of living long after they have hung up their boots?

Tales of bankruptcy, gambling debts and divorce — luridly documented by the tabloid media — show where things can and regularly do go wrong for even the biggest talents. But for players and athletes with the right temperament and advice, careful planning and a disciplined approach can bring them closer to the golden goal of a debt-free, fully invested retirement.

FT Money has spoken to financial advisers, lawyers, tax specialists, agents to ask how they keep players’ finances in good shape for the long term.

Elite players and journeymen

When a player of the calibre of Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney can earn more than £15m a year, asking how they can survive comfortably until retirement and beyond seems a redundant question. But these staggering sums are earned only by the beautiful game’s elite; the average weekly salary for a Premier League player was about £31,000 in 2012/13, according to Deloitte.

With a Premiership career lasting just eight years on average, this can add up to much more modest figures when spread over a lifetime. Pay also drops off quickly in lower leagues, averaging £6,000 a week in the Championship, £1,700 in League One and £800 in League Two in 2013/14.

Neither is football’s generosity matched in other sports. The titans of rugby presently colliding on UK pitches in the World Cup will be lucky to earn in a year what a leading Premiership footballer earns in a week. And much of the big money in tennis and golf is to be earned not through winnings, but in ancillary sponsorship and commercial deals.

So for most sportspeople, the wealth earned in the good years needs careful husbanding if it is not disappear through unfettered spending or poor investment decisions.

Peter Fairchild, partner at accountants Smith & Williamson, is asked by big clubs to speak to groups of their younger players and spell out the realities of their finances. For most, football has been the unremitting focus of their life since their early teens, leaving little space for learning about concepts such as pensions or investment funds.

He begins by explaining how income tax, national insurance and the agent’s fee (5 per cent) for an average Premiership player might reduce their gross pay by roughly half. “They have to pick their jaws up off the floor,” he says.

What should they do with what remains? His key recommendation is that players consider three “pots” for their weekly wage. First is day-to-day living expenses, including indulgences; second comes debts such as a mortgage or a car; third are the long-term investments, such as funds, a pension or property that are designed to ensure a comfortable standard of living through to a pensionable age. They should put at least two-thirds into investments and debt repayment, leaving no more than a third on their living expenses, he says. “If they can put away more, they get brownie points.”

For more modest earners, the usual rules of thumb apply: maximise the gains that can be made annually through tax-free Isa investments and load up on pensions contributions, even as George Osborne pares back the lifetime and annual allowance. But where higher earners find they rapidly reach the tax-free limits, advisers suggest diversifying into other asset classes.

Sean Scahill, founder of EOS Wealth Management, says that in a low interest rate environment, “there are three games in the world: cash, property and fund management”. Property is a popular asset class among footballers, but the returns should be closely compared with those of funds or deposits. “What you buy with property is a yield,” he says.

Some players fall into the trap of believing that money in a savings account is always working hard for them. One had up to £5m in the bank, earning £20,000 a year in interest. But at the time, inflation was higher than the savings rate, eating away at the spending power of his nest egg. “You haven’t got to shoot the lights out, but you have to try to beat inflation,” says Mr Fairchild.

Jonathan Booker, founder of agency Chiron Sports and Media, encourages players to take out life insurance and insure against critical injury — a vital consideration when a wrong turn on the pitch can end a player’s career. Wear and tear is endemic: it is not uncommon for players in their 20s to show signs of arthritis in their knee joints.

But players should exercise care here too, as standard insurance policies will often rule out professional sportspeople or injuries triggered by the profession itself. “We’ve seen players contract illnesses and they’re not covered,” says Mr Booker.

Essential expertise

A good agent will help a player find financial advisers, an accountant and a sports lawyer. Questions should be asked if an agent suggests a single adviser to handle all finance and legal issues: second and third opinions are vital. Even so, selecting professional advice is not always easy when young players are publicly recognised and seen as rich pickings for unscrupulous operators. “Footballers are targeted more than anyone you can imagine,” says James Hall, a senior associate at Anthony Collins Solicitors.

Family trusts are a good idea for protecting assets for children, Mr Hall says, in spite of the limitations on what can be put in. Prenuptial agreements are another sensible precaution for wealthy players, if for no other reason than the big savings they offer on legal fees should the relationship break up.

This is not, though, to confirm the shallow stereotype of the footballer’s WAG (wife and/or girlfriend). “In my experience they usually have a partner who’s very switched on as well. They generally want to do the right thing and do the best for their families,” he adds.

Good advisers will therefore seek not only to educate the player but their partners and close family members about money matters, leading ideally to a point in retirement when the client can manage their own affairs.

Yet professional sportsmen tend to be natural risk-takers. Does this push them too far towards the perilous end of investment? Advisers say this can be a problem, particularly when they have a taste for gambling.

Manchester United and England captain Wayne Rooney receives a £15m annual salary

Mel Stein, chairman of the Association of Football Agents and former agent of Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne, has seen problem gambling throw some of his clients’ lives off course. One hid his gambling addiction from everyone, until it had cost him his marriage and his financial security. His profligacy was not in doubt: he had bought 12 cars, all using expensive financing arrangements. “He didn’t know where some of them were because he’d lent them to friends,” Mr Stein says. The agent ended up taking him to an insolvency practitioner to help him gain some control over his finances.

Bankruptcy is more common than it should be among people earning six- or seven-figure salaries. In July, former Leeds United and Liverpool defender Dominic Matteo was declared insolvent after running up debt. Former England goalkeeper David James was forced to auction his personal football memorabilia last year to pay his debts, after going bankrupt.

Dud investments

One way that players’ finances can come a cropper is through the unmediated influence of their peers. Team bonding, imperative for performance on the pitch, can have a darker influence in the dressing room. If a senior player talks about an investment, younger players are keen to get involved, says Mr Hall. “All you need is one really loud voice in the dressing room and you’ve won most of them. It’s the nature of any team dynamic.”

Overseas property developments are a common vehicle for separating an impressionable player from his cash. One of Mr Fairchild’s clients told him they wanted to put money into a high-end Moroccan property scheme, on the strength that a respected senior player was also investing.

“I asked him whether this was really the case and we took a look at the project location on Google Earth. It was in the middle of nowhere, hours from an airport or road network. I stopped him from writing a cheque for more than £100,000 — and here we are five years later and it’s still a dust bowl.”

From rookie to senior pro: Fantasy footballers’ monthly incomings and outgoings (£)
21 year old  33 year old
Gross monthly salary10,833216,667
Less — income tax -3,803-96,345
Less — national insurance-489-4,606
6,541115,716
Less — agent fee (5%)-542-10,833
Net spendable income5,999104,883
Recommended split:
Day to day living2,00034,961
Houses and cars1,99934,961
Investment/retirement funds2,00034,961
Source: Smith & Williamson

In the 1980s and 1990s, brokers and advisers sold footballers unsuitable endowments, fixed for 25 years, which would leave them paying high premiums well after their retirement from the game. “These are absolutely the wrong thing,” says Mr Stein. “How are they supposed to be paying that off at 50?”

More recently, players have come unstuck on film finance schemes that effectively reduced their annual tax bills. But HMRC did not always share the view of their creators that such structures were legal, leaving players facing huge tax bills often much greater than their original investment. Following lengthy disputes with the taxman, players who signed schemes during the good times are now facing demands for payment in retirement, when they can least afford them. HMRC, too, is beginning to flex its controversial new powers to issue so-called advanced payment notices (APNs), which force disputed payments of tax to be made before they are proven to be due.

Financial products have improved in some respects, with bespoke mortgage deals now available to allow a player to fix a term length of 8 to 10 years — the average length of a career — rather than the 25-year standard. Paying off the loan so that the player is debt-free when leaving the game is the ultimate aim. “I think an agent hasn’t done their job if the player doesn’t own his home by the time he retires at 35,” says Rachel Anderson, an agent at RA Management.

Flood of money

The wealth pouring into the game is set to continue rising, widening the divide between football and other sports, and between the Premier League and other leagues. Earlier this year, the Premier League announced a 70 per cent rise in the value of its British television rights for 2016-19, after Sky and BT paid more than £5bn to show live matches. That money will go to clubs, and much of it flows through to the players.

But this does not mean they can relax over money: the more that sloshes around, the greater the opportunities for shady brokers and intemperate spending. Recently, Mr Fairchild was asked by worried club managers to speak to a young player who had just signed his first professional Premiership contract, and had celebrated by buying a Range Rover Sports car on hire purchase terms. When Mr Fairchild sat down with him and calculated his take-home pay, he found he was spending more on the car than his monthly net wage — before any other expenditure.

“He’d got confused with gross and net,” he says. “The shame he felt about it was a valuable lesson. He’s in a better place now.”

‘A lot of guys are ripping players off’

Seyi Olofinjana, a 35-year-old former midfielder with Wolverhampton Wanderers, retired last year after a nine-year career for Championship and Premiership clubs.

Former Wolves player Seyi Olofinjana

Mr Olofinjana, who graduated in chemical engineering and played for his native Nigeria before coming to Europe, is now studying for a Masters degree in sports directorship as well as coaching at his old West Midlands club.

He says the general public mistakenly see footballers as lavish spenders who give little thought to their future. “I think a lot do, actually — it’s just that there is a lot of naivety and ignorance about finance.”

While footballers typically put money away for their retirement, he says, they don’t always pay enough attention to the investments they make. “We think we’ve invested, but there are a lot of guys out there who are ripping players off. It’s a question of making sure you know what you’re investing in.”

Mr Olofinjana says he was careful to keep up with his old friends from Nigeria, turning to them for a second opinion on investment recommendations or financial advice. “Players are easy targets. We’ve got a lot of money to throw around and half of us don’t know what to do with it. I was lucky to have very good friends who were sensible enough to tell me when I was going astray.”

He declined to discuss his earnings, but says he set aside more than half to invest in UK property and businesses in Nigeria among other assets. “You can enjoy your life and still make sizeable investments,” he says.

But he believes clubs and the professional footballers association (PFA) should do more to educate young players about money — and the reality of life after football. “They need to be educated, mentored and warned about the risks of the sport. It’s a beautiful game but it can make you a bad human being if you don’t get the right advice.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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