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How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke
PABLO S. TORRE
March 23, 2009
Recession or no recession, many NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball players have a penchant for losing most or all of their money. It doesn't matter how much they make. And the ways they blow it are strikingly similar
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March 23, 2009

How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke

Recession or no recession, many NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball players have a penchant for losing most or all of their money. It doesn't matter how much they make. And the ways they blow it are strikingly similar

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You might say Ismail had a run of terrible luck, but the odds were never close to being in his favor. Industry experts estimate that only one in 30 of the highest-caliber private investment deals works out as advertised. "Chronic overallocation into real estate and bad private equity is the Number 1 problem [for athletes] in terms of a financial meltdown," Butowsky says. "And I've never seen more people come to me about raising money for those kinds of deals than athletes."

For the risk-averse investor, an adviser such as Butowsky would suggest allocating 5% to private equity, 7%--12% to real estate, 50%--65% to a mix of public securities (stocks, mutual funds and the like) and the rest to alternatives such as gold and hedge funds. Yet with athletes, who are often uninterested in either conservative spending or the stock market, those percentages are frequently flipped. Securities are invisible, after all, and if you don't study them, they're unintelligible. Not to mention boring. Inventions, nightclubs, car dealerships and T-shirt companies have an advantage: the thrill of tangibility.

Many players, consequently, are financial prey. "Disreputable people see athletes' money as very easy to get to," says Steven Baker, an agent who represents 20 NFL players. In May 2007 former quarterbacks Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer and five other NFL retirees invested at least $100,000 apiece in a now-defunct start-up called Pay By Touch—which touted "biometric authentication" technology that would help replace credit cards with fingerprints—even as the company was wracked by lawsuits and internal dissent. (The players later sued the financial-services firm UBS, which had encouraged its clients to invest in Pay By Touch, for allegedly withholding information about the company founder's criminal history and drug use.)

About five years ago, Hunter says, he invested almost $70,000 in an invention: an inflatable raft that would sit under furniture. The pitch was that when high-rainfall areas were flooded, consumers could pump up the device, allowing a sofa to float and remain dry. "The guy I invested with came back and wanted me to put in more, about $500,000," Hunter says. "Then I met [Butowsky], who just said, Hell no! I wound up never seeing that guy—or any of my money—again."

Hunter, who in November 2007 signed a five-year, $90 million contract, has been able to absorb the loss. But innumerable other athletes have not been so lucky. Former (and perhaps future) NFL quarterback Michael Vick filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last July and recently put his mansion in suburban Atlanta on the market. That's partly because he is unable to repay about $6 million in bank loans that he put toward a car-rental franchise in Indiana, real estate in Canada and a wine shop in Georgia. "It's always so predictable," Butowsky says. "Everyone wants to be the next Magic Johnson."

But Johnson is the rare, luminous exception of tangibility gone right. In 1994 he started a chain of inner-city movie theaters and diligently built a business empire. Today Magic Johnson Enterprises includes partnerships with Starbucks, 24 Hour Fitness, Aetna and Best Buy, and its capital management division has invested over a billion dollars in urban communities.

The rule, unfortunately, is a mogul manqué like McAllister. According to a civil suit filed on Feb. 20 by Nissan, the running back owes the car company more than $6.6 million plus almost $300,000 in interest on his car dealership. Or Muhammad, whose Cleveland music company, Baylo Entertainment, is being sued by Wachovia for allegedly failing to pay back $24,603.24 on a Visa Business Rewards credit card. Muhammad's 8,200-square-foot lakeside estate, which boasts a custom spa and the "largest residential aquarium in the Southeast," can now be had on eBay for $1.95 million, $800,000 less than he initially asked for.

"Without question, this recession is increasing the velocity of what's taking place with athletes," Butowsky says. "They're suffering tremendously." Retired NBA forward Vin Baker's seafood restaurant in Old Saybrook, Conn., was foreclosed on in February 2008 due to nearly $900,000 in unpaid loans. (It has since reopened with help from an anonymous investor.) And former major league infielder Junior Spivey's portfolio of real estate has lately assumed the form of a sinkhole. "I'm taking a huge hit," says Spivey, who has been buying homes to sell and rent since 2001. (He won't say how many properties he owns.) "It's very tough, especially for someone like me who's not playing."

Then there are the unnamed athletes and team personnel who pawned 400 title rings to the online reseller championship-rings.net over the past three months, a spike of about 33% from the same period last year. (A 2008 Giants Super Bowl ring was among them.) "It's mostly younger players who've been selling," says Tim Robins, the site's owner. "It's the economy. Selling these items is always embarrassing, a last resort."

II. MISPLACED TRUST

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