Sidelined by 35

Professional athletes’ retirement conundrum.

At 33-years-old, Scott Hunter’s career was over.

After setting school passing records as starting quarterback at the University of Alabama under the legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, Hunter had gone on to play professionally in the National Football League (NFL). But nine years, four teams, and one knee injury later, his time was up.

“I wasn’t going to start anymore,” he acknowledges 36 years later, reflecting back on the decision to retire from football. “It was a good time to get out.”

Most athletes will tell a similar story: They play for a few physically demanding years; they grow older; they get injured; they get out. They retire in their 30s or even their 20s, decades before the average American worker—and decades before any normal pension or 401(k) payout would come into effect.

“It is an issue that certain workforces have to deal with, typically those that favor physical fitness and strength-based skills,” says James Gannon, managing director at Russell Investments. “Someone like myself who has a job at a computer and a desk is able to accumulate wealth over a period of 55 years. Athletes don’t get that many.” 

It’s hard to imagine wealth accumulation being a problem for the Cristiano Ronaldos and LeBron Jameses of the world, who reportedly earn $56 million and $23 million annually apiece—before the lucrative endorsement deals. Even those players who aren’t household names far outearn the general population: The minimum pay for an NFL rookie in 2016 is $450,000, while a National Hockey League (NHL) player makes at least $575,000—and the salary minimums for National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB) players fall somewhere in between.

But the paychecks—fat as they may be—don’t come for very long.

“At some point, that career will end,” says Jonathan Miller, a financial advisor for athletes. “And it ends abruptly. Very few players get to choose when they retire.” Miller is the founder and president of the Sports Financial Advisors Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating players and advisors on the specific financial challenges facing professional athletes. Many of his clients’ careers last just three or four years—and their earning power plunges when those careers are over.

“That high standard of living is temporary,” Miller says. “And many athletes will understand their style of living is temporary. The hard part is transitioning to the reality of that—and that goes for any one of us who go from income x to income y. The reality of actually living to a different standard is much different than the concept that one day you’re going to have to.”

Miki Yaras-Davis, senior director of benefits at the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), seconds Miller’s concern. “A higher salary means a bigger cliff to fall off,” she says. “You get an injury and you’re done playing at all of 28-years-old—but you were making millions. That’s a very big cliff to fall off—not the normal model by any means for planning for retirement.”

At the football players’ association, Yaras-Davis’ job is to ensure athletes are well provided for once their playtime is over. She tackles the challenge all sports league plan sponsors face: how do you design a retirement plan for employees with career spans well below the average?

Over the years, American sports leagues have made numerous attempts at solving that puzzle—with varying degrees of success. Each round of collective bargaining between the players’ associations and the leagues is another opportunity to get it right: to increase league contributions, to add a 401(k) plan, to change the age at which retired players can begin collecting benefits.

“We address players’ needs as they come across,” Yaras-Davis explains.

Today the NFL’s retirement plan is considered among the best in any industry. Miller, for one, calls the league benefits “amazing,” while defined contribution ratings provider BrightScope puts the NFL’s 401(k) provision at the top of its rankings. But the multi-tiered pension package football players receive today is not the same retirement plan that was available in Scott Hunter’s day.

“You get an injury and you’re done playing at all of 28-years-old—but you were making millions. That’s a very big cliff to fall off—not the normal model by any means for planning for retirement.”Hunter’s nine years in the league—first with the Green Bay Packers, followed by stints with the Buffalo Bills, Atlanta Falcons, and Detroit Lions—included enough play time to vest in the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan. At the time of Hunter’s retirement, the defined benefit (DB) pension—named after the league’s first two commissioners—promised qualifying players $105 to $110 in monthly benefits per credited season, according to plans archived by former player Tom Baugh (a credited season was any season an athlete played in three or more games, was injured, or was absent for compulsory military service). In 1980, when Hunter retired, players needed five credited seasons under their belts to receive a pension—but they couldn’t draw from it until they were 55-years-old. Retirees at that time were offered the option of starting payments as early as 45—but with reduced benefits. “A lot of the players were taking it early and then struggling later on,” Scott says.

A third option—the road Scott took—was to defer the pension until 65 and be rewarded with increased payouts in the future. Deferring his pension meant Scott could maximize the amount received later in life. But it also meant a 32-year gap between the day his football career ended and the day his retirement began—without the oversized bank balance and extravagant endorsement deals with which a player today might expect to leave the NFL. “Back then we didn’t earn millions and millions of dollars,” Scott says. “Pretty much everyone went into something afterwards—coaching, business, real estate, you name it. Players didn’t earn enough money in those days to not have a second career.”

For Scott, that was sports broadcasting. He joined the local CBS affiliate in Mobile, Alabama, where he grew up, but that career too was cut short when the TV station was sold to Media General in 2000. Today he works as a branch manager at broker-dealer Raymond James & Associates, drawing on the finance degree he earned back when he played football for the Crimson Tide.

“Rarely do these individuals just retire and be no longer employed,” says Russell’s Gannon. “They have to transition to a different job. And there’s only so many announcing jobs, only so many office jobs geared toward former players. They have to be able to transition to jobs outside the industry. That might be very difficult if they have no type of training necessary for other types of employment.”

So how can athletes make that transition? Through the Sports Financial Advisor Association, Miller gathers accountants and investment advisors at annual conferences to help former players answer that exact question.

“Even normal retirees at age 60, 65, or 70 will look at someone else and say, ‘What do I do now?’” Miller says. “If you’re an athlete and you’re retiring at 30, you’ll likely go through that limbo.”

CIO916_Portrait-Feat-David-Plunkert.jpgArt by David PlunkertThat immediate post-career period of ‘What next?’ is one of the challenges the NFLPA has tried to tackle in more recent iterations of its retirement program. “We saw that former players needed money during the transition period,” Yaras-Davis says. “Guys were taking their pension plan early and reducing their benefits significantly. So we added a severance benefit to help with that.”

The severance plan—a lump sum paid to players with two or more credited seasons who’ve been without an NFL contract for 12 months—compensates newly retired players with a fixed amount for each year they played. The payouts range from $5,000 in 1989 when it first went into effect to $20,000 for the 2016 season.

In 1993, the football players’ association also added a 401(k) plan known as the Second Career Savings Plan, available to players once they turn 45. This supplemental DC fund is “very, very generous,” says BrightScope research head Brooks Herman. “The NFL plan does very well in our ratings metrics—and for good reason. The league is putting a huge amount of dollars into the plan.”

He’s not exaggerating: the NFL currently matches every 401(k) contribution up to $26,000 by double for athletes with two or more credited seasons. With just under 8,300 total participants in 2015, the Second Career Savings Plan had $1.8 billion in assets, giving players an average account balance of $210,000 on top of their Burt Bell/Pete Rozelle payouts. (The median 401(k) account balance for Americans was $91,800 in 2015, according to Fidelity.)

The defined benefit payouts have also increased, with players today accruing $560 to $760 in monthly pension benefits per season. The eligibility requirements changed too, dropping from five credited seasons to just three.

The final piece of the retirement plan is an annuity. For athletes who’ve played at least four credited seasons, the NFL now contributes $80,000 per season—a payment that will increase to $95,000 in 2018. “There’s nothing better than the plans set up for the professional athletes,” Miller says. “The unions have done an amazing job of fighting for the players. Regular companies won’t do that—it’s too expensive.”

“We have a lot less money than the NFL,” points out Robin Diamonte, CIO of United Technologies. She describes traditional defined benefit pensions as the “ultimate retirement plan”—for employers that can afford it.

“In the old days, you worked for the company and when you retired, you got an annuity for the rest of your life,” Diamonte says. “You didn’t have to worry about how you invested it, you didn’t have to worry about contributing into the plan—the company did it all for you. As long as you earned raises and you were with the company for a long time, you had a nice guaranteed annuity that provided 40% to 50% income replacement.”

But people are living longer, accounting regulations have changed, and providing a traditional pension has become very difficult for corporate plan sponsors. The model shifted from the original annuity to cash balance plans to today’s defined contribution plans—and the risk moved with it, from the company to the retirees themselves. “Traditional plans are for the most part gone,” Diamonte explains. “They’re frozen. Most people are not starting brand new pension plans.”

“There’s nothing better than the plans set up for the professional athletes. Regular companies won’t do that—it’s too expensive.”But professional athletes are not most people. In 2013, following a four-month lockout, National Hockey League players won a new DB pension, which provides retirement benefits based on the number of seasons played while the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) remains in effect. The maximum annual payout, available to athletes who play a minimum of 82 games each year between 2012 and 2022, is $255,000.

“A defined benefit pension plan is a great for hockey players who have short and uncertain careers,” says John Weatherdon, spokesperson for the NHL Players Association. “The players placed a high priority in negotiating a defined benefit plan during CBA negotiations in 2012 and 2013 to provide retirement security given their short career span.”

Previously, hockey players only had a defined contribution plan: the Canada-based NHL Club Pension Plan and Trust launched in 1986, or the National Hockey League Retirement Plan, implemented in 2001 for American players. The Canadian plan has since been frozen, but the US version still exists today as a voluntary 401(k), sans league contributions.

An earlier DB pension existed beginning in 1947—but the benefits were “not very good,” says Grant Mulvey, a former right wing for the Chicago Blackhawks who played professional hockey from 1974 to 1984. “The incomes we made back then were not high enough to live on after you stopped playing. If you only depended on your pension—it really wasn’t enough money to support yourself and your family at that time.”

Like ex-footballer Scott Hunter, Mulvey is currently choosing to defer his pension in order to compound his future earnings. “Frankly, it’s not worth taking out right now,” he says, estimating that the value of his pension—currently held in Canadian funds, as all pensions were for NHL players in Mulvey’s day—would fall by more than half after being exchanged into American dollars and taxed.

Today, Mulvey works in Chicago as a managing director and vice president of sales at the Merrill Corporation, while serving as treasurer and membership chair of the Blackhawks Alumni Association. At 65 years old, he will begin receiving an additional annual stipend from the NHL—a retirement provision added for former players in a recent collective bargaining agreement.

Barring major financial mistakes in the vein of heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson’s 2003 bankruptcy—the result of extravagant spending and a costly divorce—today’s average professional athlete can expect to retire comfortably, provided they save well and use the leagues’ retirement plans to their best advantage. But as generous as the benefits may be for modern athletes able to sustain their careers for five or ten years, some retirees still fall through the cracks. The players of previous generations, like Scott Hunter or Grant Mulvey, face impending retirements without much financial support from the league—despite the legacy benefits that have been tacked on over the years.

And then there are the athletes who don’t play long enough to qualify for any retirement plan at all. “They get nothing,” says Miller. “Or what they do get is minimum.”

It’s these athletes, whose professional sports careers end before they truly begin, who face the real retirement challenge.