Squashed into a meeting room at a real estate office in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 44 brawny men — many far north of six feet — listen to executives explain the business of buying and selling property.
It is unfamiliar territory for many of these National Football League players. They are most likely to have spent the majority of their lives since starting high school intently focused on one thing: professional American football.
Yet for a few days, instead of vigorous training sessions for next season, they are sat behind desks at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Management, learning about the property market, franchising and product innovation. They are being taught how to negotiate deals, read a balance sheet and make a business plan. It is a boot camp to help players start thinking about life after football.
There is a good reason for this. NFL players may have far higher earnings — ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars into the millions — than their peers could ever hope to amass in so little time. But after they retire from short careers (an average of 3.5 years) there are many tales of those who have let their savings dwindle. Even if they are careful, most will not have earned enough to retire completely after leaving the League.
“We’re trying to figure out how to take the bit of wealth we have now and make it last, grow long term and try not to get stuck in working 8-10 hours a day for the rest of our young lives,” says Eric Kush, 26, who plays for the Los Angeles Rams and attended the four-day course at the Ross School with his wife Stephanie, a speech therapist, who says the course opened up all sorts of options for the couple.
Nearly 16 per cent of NFL players have filed for bankruptcy by their 12th year of retirement, according to research published last year by the National Bureau for Economic Research. Ed Butowsky, a wealth manager who advises professional athletes, was featured in the 2009 Sports Illustrated article that exposed the extent of the problems some NFL players face. He says his data show that after removing the top 10 per cent of NFL wage earners, the remaining 90 per cent are in some form of financial distress five years after retiring.
The stories of financial woes have diminished over the past few years, while the NFL and the NFL Players Association have each increased their focus on helping players with their transition out of the game. Both work with universities to provide business courses, boot camps and lessons in financial planning, while the NFLPA’s Players Trust programme, set up in 2013 — provides $25m a year in funding for players working out their transition.
It is an intense experience for the players who are used to living and breathing football to suddenly have to face a world without locker-room camaraderie, glamour, people clamouring for their attention and, of course, the hefty pay cheques.
“I can’t imagine what that future might have looked like, if, when I finished my PhD I was then told ‘right, now you have to do something completely different’,” says Francine Lafontaine, senior associate dean for faculty and research at the Ross School. A franchising specialist, she taught players the ins and outs of the industry during the course.
Those who are enduring long-term injuries can face high medical costs. The lure of indiscriminate spending can be difficult to resist, as is pressure from players’ entourages keen to enjoy the good times. Many a failed business investment by an NFL player has arisen from betting on a venture set up by someone they know. Other players rely too heavily on their agents to handle their finances, while there are plenty of financial advisers with questionable skills offering up their services.
“Football players are the worst to deal with and baseball players are the best,” says Mr Butowsky. “A lot of the time these young NFL players rely on agents for everything. Baseball and NBA [National Basketball Association players] have longer careers, whereas NFL players don’t have the chance to grow up through their sport.”
This is where courses such as the NFL Business Academy at Michigan Ross come in. (The school is named after Stephen Ross, who owns the Miami Dolphins NFL team.)
Unlike Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos quarterback who is finally retiring after 18 years and numerous lucrative endorsements, it is rare for NFL players to retire out of choice. It happens mostly when they are either too badly injured to continue or teams do not want them any more.
The aim of the course is to give players a broad range of career options while emphasising the importance of making business plans, choosing the legal structure of your company and trusting business partners.
Speaking to former players who were making a success of their post-retirement careers is one of the biggest inspirations, many attendees said. Bradie James, 35, who retired two seasons ago, agrees. He set up his own franchise Mooyah, a fast-food burger chain, and has about 100 stores. He also works for the NFLPA Players Trust and spoke at the recent Ross School boot camp.
“Guys get it when they see former [NFL] guys being successful,” Mr James says, adding that developing a new career takes time and that he is still doing so.
He believes that there is now better access to information on how to make a successful transition out of NFL, but that there is still room for improvement. Stories of financial doom that were more prevalent a few years ago are diminishing while those about players being frugal and successful after transitioning are growing.
Dallas Cowboys running back Alfred Morris has made headlines in recent years not only for his football skills but being extremely careful with his money, driving an old Mazda instead of a shiny sports car, or riding a bicycle to work.
Marshall Newhouse, offensive tackle for the New York Giants, says that one of the biggest lessons for him on the course was how important it is “to protect yourself, first and foremost, whether that be legally, with an attorney, company-wise [in terms of the type of company you form], as well as being well researched before you jump into anything”.
Newhouse, 27, who has several ideas about what to do when he leaves NFL, says that the course taught him aspects of franchising he had not considered before, which made it more appealing.
Professor Lafontaine believes that franchising is particularly suited to retiring NFL players because it provides a playbook for them to follow instead of having to start a business from scratch, not dissimilar to the coach and player environment inside NFL. However, she adds that teaching the importance of mitigating risk is an integral part of the course — such as investing in a well-known franchise as opposed to a newer one — though the choice and responsibility is ultimately theirs.
“You just need to go along with that formula and things are more likely to go well in the sense that you won’t make the same mistake that the franchiser already made, or franchisees already made,” she says. “I spent some time telling them that this doesn’t give them a guarantee that it will work. It’s part of my job to tell them that.”
Property investor Brian Khoury, who gave a talk on his business, says the NFL students and attending spouses were the most attentive of any class he has attended over years of giving lectures at universities.
“They’ve been given so much prosperity early on and only hear stories about people who have been unsuccessful. There’s a desire to learn. I’ve never been around a situation like this before. If all the other undergraduate students I’ve been around came in with this type of passion and desire to learn it would be a much more enjoyable teaching experience.”
It is perhaps these skills of football — passion, focus, strategy, teamwork and endurance — that they can bring to their post-football lives, giving them some game in a world where they are playing catch-up.