On the team sport side, fewer than 1% of amateurs “make it.” In individual sports like tennis and golf, where more can theoretically get “in,” but in which athlete expenses (travel, coaching, training, hotels, food) are the responsibility of the athlete, many don’t actually turn a profit after factoring in those expenses.
Still, playing sports for a living is a damn good job to have, isn’t it? Yes, it is — even if, like me, you’re a pro in a league that’s not the #1 league in the world. There’s no job or career I would have traded it for.
Let’s add up all the reasons why pro sports is such a great score.
- Fulfillment. I can’t say this applies for all athletes; there are some who don’t really love their sport and play because of environmental factors such as parental pressure to live out mom or dad’s unlived dreams, or, for example, a really tall kid who fears he would be ridiculed for not playing basketball. For the rest of us, athletes who genuinely want to play their sport and do “make it” to some professional situation, there’s nothing better.
- Money (team sports). Even if you’re not on a $30 Million yearly salary like LeBron or Russell Westbrook, you’re still getting paid for a job in which your food and housing and transportation expenses are already covered. Playing overseas, I didn’t need to spend any money. All earned money that doesn’t need to go towards bills or basic necessities is, to me, great money to have. You’re also on salary, which means, as long as you’re on the team, you’re being paid — regardless of your performance or how often you’re at work.
- Easy work. Some athletes may take exception to this one, but I’m the author; write your own post. Compared to what we could be doing for a job, playing professional sports is damn easy work. I can remember days in Montenegro when I was pissed at the coach’s limiting of my game minutes — I then reminded myself that I could see the Mediterranean Sea out of my window, and that my only job was to play basketball, which entailed all of two 90-minutes practice sessions per day on the long days. What could I complain about — and who could I complain to? Friends back home who were on their way to 8- or 10-hour shifts at work? Professional athletes have more downtime from work than any other salaried professional that I know of. If you’ve ever wondered why athletes start music labels, record albums, play video games, spend so much time on social media and otherwise start businesses, it’s not that the athlete is not dedicated to his work (what many people incorrectly think) — it’s that there’s just so much non-work time. And being that our bodies are literally our business, we can’t just work for 8 straight hours.
- Attention and Admiration. Tell someone that you play a sport professionally, and watch how they perk up and that conversation changes. As a pro athlete, you’ve done or are doing something that everyone knows about, everyone would do if they could, yet over 99% of people will never come close to doing. As a pro athlete, you’re instantly elevated in the minds of others. And all humans have egos.
- Body Pride. Most athletes are in pretty good shape; your body is literally your business, after all. And, even if you’re not super-ripped with 8-pack abs, people know what your body can do, your performance abilities. In case you haven’t noticed, many people who have sedentary jobs aren’t in the best physical shape, by looks or by performance, especially in the junk-food-addicted United States. Also, look at the bodies of some former athletes: It’s not always so easy to maintain once you’re out of the game.
- You’re A Winner! You have the job most will never have, even those who try hard to get it. You did it. You MADE it. And everyone likes to associate with winners.
Becoming a professional athlete is The Life, winning the lottery, and it’s a huge Powerball-level jackpot, not some $160 Daily Big 3. I fully understand why so many people go after the dream, or encourage others to go for it. There’s not a better job out there than to use your physical body to perform in front of crowds and be paid and admired for it all the while (that could be a description for stripping too — athletes are more widely celebrated though, and in basketball, the pay is guaranteed).
My college economics professor often repeated to us that the lottery is “a tax on the stupid,” and that anyone who understood the real odds of winning would stop wasting their money trying.
While I don’t play the lottery, I don’t think it stupid to go after a pro sports career. However, one should understand the odds and challenges you’re up against when you purchase that ticket and try to become a professional athlete. Don’t count your jackpot winnings too soon.
- The best pro athletes have already hit a jackpot. I knew a trainer who worked with multiple NBA players. I once asked the trainer what was it that separated NBA players from all other basketball players (even the international pros). His first response was that NBA players had “hit the genetic lottery; they’re just on another level, physically, from everyone else.” My father is 5’7” and I’m 6’4”; I hit the lottery on that alone and it got me to Overseas Basketball. Others have height, supernatural speed and quickness, can jump over the moon, or an inordinate amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Look at yourself and answer this: Have you hit the genetic lottery? If so, in what way(s)? If you have, you have a (possible) leg up on your competition, in that you can do certain things naturally that others will never be able to do. If no, your pro goals are not a lost cause, but it will be harder for you, because you have to outperform players who have this performance head start. Unfair? Nobody said anything about fair. Fairness ended after kindergarten.
- It’ll cost you. This one isn’t a metaphor. Equipment, travel, coaching and training ain’t free. And none guarantee you’ll make that money back. And while there are many choices out there for the coaching and training aspects, they all come with price tags. This is not to mention your time…
- You could do everything right for a long time and still lose. There are more good _______ players out there than there are places for all of them to play or be on teams. So know this before you begin: Even if you have all the “game” to compete (or at least you think you do), you could still be left out in the cold, with no career to show for your time.
- Every new player entering the game lowers everyone else’s chances of winning. You read what I just said about job availability. Each new player getting in the game is one more player you (indirectly) have to out-shine to get yourself seen and stand out in the mind of some decision maker. And with social media taking us more and more behind the scenes and into the lives of celebrities, sports like basketball and soccer are only growing in popularity and competition that’s starting at younger and younger ages.
- It’s harder than it looks. Social media (including YouTube) has fooled many athletes into believing that, just because they can do the same pregame dribbling routine as Steph Curry or because they can squat the same amount as some NFL player or because their friends and relatives, who know very little about playing a professional sport, tell them “should be on a team,” that they too can play in the NBA or NFL. Unfortunately, performing in your sport is much more than doing drills or lifting weights or shining in your neighborhood — even when/if your weights are bigger and your drills more impressive.
- Not every professional athlete becomes never-work-again rich. In tennis and golf, sports where players are independent contractors responsible for their own expenses, many professional players barely break even (some do even worse than that). Playing basketball Overseas, I saw players playing for free — yes, $0 — just to get their feet in doors, and not all of them turned that charity into a paying job. You can google practice squad and minor league salaries to see for yourself. Overseas hoops salaries have no set scale or salary cap; you make what you accept or negotiate. Determine how much you’d want to make in your sport, then calculate how many years you’ll be living after your career. Divide your estimated earnings by that number of non-athlete years you expect to live and you see how much you’d have to spend per year for the rest of your life. Barring any other income or investments, is that number enough to support your current or preferred lifestyle? Further, notable players who did make never-work-again money — Kobe, A-Rod, Michael Jordan — all still work after their playing careers are over. Because it’s not about the money. If it is about money for you, know that your salary and winnings may not quite do it.
- Without certain resources, you may be starting from behind the 8-ball. If you’re under 6 feet tall and want to play in the NBA, your size will be held against you, over and over again, possibly for the entirety of your basketball life. I’m 6’4” and thus haven’t had the issue affect me directly, but I know too many players who’ve told me about such “you’re too small” experiences. Other sports have their own size prototype preferences based on the game and the type of players who are currently thriving. Bottom Line: You can have all the game, do everything correctly, and just not get the same fair shot that others got, just because of your (lack of) size.
- Better competition now will make you better for later. Sometimes I’m asked by a player if it’s better for him/her to join a strong team on which he may not play a lot, or a weaker team on which he would be the star and can dominate. While the weaker team choice can boost your confidence and help make you look good on highlight clips, the weak competition also hurts in two ways: One, the weaker competition in no way prepares you for the better players you’ll be facing at the next level you compete at. Two, evaluators from that next level may never give you serious consideration because of the weak company you’ve kept.
- Getting your shot is harder than actually shooting. In basketball, it can be harder to get open for a shot than it is to make said shot. Metaphorically speaking, in basketball as in life, getting yourself seen by the right people (read: Someone who believes that you’re good and has space to add you to their team or knows someone who does) is the real hard part of the game. And trying to get in front of the right people can be costly — in time, money and energy.
- Just because you got in doesn’t mean you’re staying in. I know a lot of one-and-done pro athletes who got into the pros for one season (or less) and never returned. I know a few more who landed college scholarships only to find out they couldn’t cut it and lost that scholarship after one season (if you didn’t know, NCAA athletic scholarships must be renewed each year by your coach; it’s not a four-year deal). Fewer than 1% of high school basketball players even become professionals, which means if you make it pro, there’s at least 100 people working every day to take your job from you. And if your performance is weak or you get injured, your team is looking for one of those 100 to replace you.
Still there? Well, now you know the odds of the game you’re in, and why the odds are what they are. I don’t want you playing your game with inaccurate expectations of what’s ahead of you (if you can get to “ahead of you”).
Anything I missed? Comment below.