Years ago, when children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, they often answered firefighter, astronaut, or teacher. Today, they’d likely say pop star, tech entrepreneur, or professional athlete.
And why not be a pro athlete? Famous and admired, many get paid a lot of money to have fun playing sports. They devote years to perfecting their skills and competing to become the best. And given the long odds of making it, getting drafted by a pro team, signing a contract, or a getting a sponsorship deal can feel like winning the lottery.
But for every savvy athlete-business whiz like basketball stars Magic Johnson or LeBron James, there are hundreds more who squander their earnings by getting involved in sketchy investment schemes, bankrolling risky ventures like restaurants, hiring family and friends for nonessential jobs, or simply living beyond their means.
A widely cited 2009 Sports Illustrated story reported that many NFL and NBA players faced significant financial strain within a few years of retiring from their sports. The NBA doesn’t maintain a record, but makes it a priority to ensure that players have access to financial education.
Whatever the number, athletes have no shortage of hangers-on eager to solicit them to invest in business ideas or fast-talking acquaintances offering to become their financial advisers. What can be in short supply are experts with sophisticated business expertise willing to share their time and knowledge to teach athletes how to make more-informed business moves.
Some Harvard Business School (HBS) students and their professor, Anita Elberse, want to change that. This fall, they launched “Harvard Business School and the NBA: Crossover into Business,” a semester-long program in partnership with the NBA that offers 10 active and recently active players a chance to develop their business acumen and explore business interests with the help of M.B.A. student-mentors.
“This is all about giving them the tools to get smarter and to make better decisions,” said Elberse, the Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration, who leads the program and teaches the popular M.B.A. course “The Business of Entertainment, Media and Sports.”
“I think where it started for me was the realization that many, many athletes make a lot of money during their careers; then they lose it very quickly after their careers,” said Elberse, who runs an executive education program each spring that’s attracted the likes of NBA All Star Dwyane Wade and actor/rapper LL Cool J. “The statistics are pretty sobering. So we said, can we help? We have students who are really willing to help and I think they are more trustworthy than your average person who comes out of the woodwork simply because these players are now rich.”