(Xinhua/Chong Voon Chung)

This article was first published in the 4th quarter 2017 edition of Personal Finance magazine.

CAPE TOWN - When the transfer of a football player from one club to another equals the price of a Boeing 787, it’s small wonder that talented sports players dream of getting in on the action.

The humongous sums of money to be had as a professional sportsperson were highlighted in August, when Brazilian footballer Neymar was transferred from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for $263 million, which works out at nearly R3.5 billion. Neymar, whose full name is Neymar da Silva Santos Junior, pocketed $34 million (after taxes) as his share of the super deal.

When boxer Floyd Mayweather took on Conor McGregor recently in the massively hyped cross-code fight in Las Vegas, the American, who goes by the apt moniker “Money”, was guaranteed $126 million and the Irishman $37.8 million.

To a talented youngster, becoming a professional sportsperson is alluring. Seen through the shimmer of TV screens, it seems to be a life of glamour, flashlights, exotic destinations, fine clothes and fast cars. However, those in the know warn about the pitfalls of pursuing a career as a professional.

“There are many obstacles,” says former Proteas player and coach Gary Kirsten, while top football coach Gavin Hunt says, “there are lots of landmines along the way”.

Professional golf
In South Africa, with trailblazers such as Bobby Locke and Gary Player, and the likes of Ernie Els and Retief Goosen following in their footsteps, golf has long enjoyed a high profile as a professional sport. More recently, players such as Trevor Immelman, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen have carved out successful, and lucrative, careers travelling the fairways of the world.

Golf arguably provided the model for playing for pay, and the Professional Golfers’ Association  of South Africa (PGA) is alert to the challenges of taking up the sport as a career.

Professional golf splits into two categories: the “professional golfer”, who plays in tournaments to earn his or her keep, and the “golf professional”, who works in the club environment or a golf shop.

Ivano Ficalbi, the chief executive of the PGA, says there are three avenues open to young people looking to make golf their vocation. “If you’re a really talented youngster, have done really well, perhaps earned South African colours, then you go pro quite early and start going on tour to play competitively. 

“Nowadays, it is possible to study golf. The PGA has accredited providers, and you can do a PGA Diploma in club professional golfing. In that way, you can remain an amateur and don’t have turn pro.

“The third avenue is to work under a qualified PGA professional and do what in the old days used to be called an apprenticeship and learn about the club side of things from the ground up. In this way, a youngster can qualify to become a member of the PGA.

“A big change now is that you no longer need to be attached to a golf facility to be a member of the PGA,” Ficalbi says.

The PGA’s education and training programme is three-year apprenticeship through accredited colleges where students study as amateurs and end up with a diploma. It takes in coaching, equipment, sports and fitness science, business law, finance and management, the rules of the game and the history of golf.

Andrew Gunn, who runs the programme, says the overwhelming majority of youngsters approaching the PGA want to be playing pros, rather than golf directors or club managers.

“What’s good about it is that young hopefuls have a structured way of finding out that they’re not good enough to make it as players,” Gunn says.

He warns that being a professional golfer who earns a living playing the circuit is a lot tougher than it looks.

“You can have more than a 100 guys playing for less than 10 places in a tournament, and if you get in, you have to make the cut to earn a cheque. The standard is incredibly high, and some very good players don’t make it.

“You also have to factor in that, as a tour player, you have double living expenses. You have to maintain a place to stay at home, find a base overseas, pay for travelling and accommodation – it can be brutal,” Gunn says.

Nigel Roscoe, who has managed professional golfers over the past six years, most of whom play on recognised tours worldwide, says there are three important elements in being a professional sportsman, which can be broken down into three Ps: performance, principles and personality.

“First of all, a guy (or girl) has got to be able to play. You also have to learn the correct behavioural principles associated with professional golf, how to conduct yourself. Third, if you don’t have the right kind of personality, you’ll never make it in this game.”

Roscoe, with a background in playing and running the club side of things (he was director of golf at the Moscow Country Club), as well as being instrumental in founding the Challenge Tour (the European Tour’s development component), is able to pass on to his charges the benefit of his experience. His company’s business model – covering aspects such as finance, logistics, tax, insurance and medical – has been successful, and the players under his wing boast 26 wins and over 200 top-10 finishes.

“We get a lot of phone calls from aspirant players who want to turn pro, but there’s a ladder you need to climb.

“First, you have to have a pronounced amateur career – have won titles, got provincial and even national colours – or been successful in the American college circuit. 

“It is so competitive these days, and there are so many fine players trying to break through, that it is highly unlikely that you can make it without a winning pedigree. A lot of guys win an amateur tournament and think they’re ready for it, but playing in an amateur environment compared to pro, where you’ve got a 30-centimetre putt for R10 000, is like day and night.

“You have to be confident in yourself, because it is not an easy career and it’s a lonely life. It is not cheap; there are long absences from home with all the pressures that entails,” he warns.

Roscoe advises players heading into the potential wilderness of the professional circuits “to make sure you have a good support team behind you, because it is almost impossible to go it alone”.

Tennis and other sporting codes
“There is no doubt you have to have exceptional talent to break through,” says veteran Cape Town tennis coach Mike Barwell. “Many a hopeful young tennis player has gone overseas, either to an American college or to try to get into professional tournaments, only to find there are hundreds of Spaniards, Russians and Czechs who are better than they are, because they have emerged from better systems.”

Football, cricket and rugby are the big team games in which the dash for cash is prevalent.

Hunt, who is in charge of Absa Premier League champions Bidvest Wits, is concerned about the lack of an effective structure to nurture young football players.

“We should not have broken down the old structures. Football did away with the amateur Currie Cup – that used to be the best place to find potential players. But they did away with the whole tournament, and now there’s really nothing below the professional leagues. 

“Rugby has Craven Week and cricket the Coca-Cola Nuffield Week, but the biggest sport in the country doesn’t have something like that. You’re finding players by accident – you’re not finding them because a good programme is developing them,” Hunt says.

Hunt says this gives rise to what he believes is South African football’s biggest problem: the identification of positions.

“They’re all midfielders, and very few are defenders or strikers. They get brought up on dusty fields where the situation doesn’t require heading the ball, or tackling or shooting or crossing or staying in position, so they all become midfield players where they do all kinds of little tricks (which are largely ineffective). 

“I’ve taken players and moved them in positions, and they’ve ended up having good careers, whereas they wouldn’t have made it in their favourite position. In Europe, these sorts of things are sorted out in their teens.

“Safa (the South African Football Association) has to get better structures. They’ll say they’re doing all that and prove it with statements of intent, but the reality is that it is just not happening. We have plenty of potentially outstanding footballers who get by because of their natural athleticism, but it’s all pretty hit and miss.” (Safa failed to respond to a request to comment.)

In contrast, cricket and rugby have comprehensive development programmes and competition structures across the age groups.

The South African Rugby Union (Saru) has the Elite Player Development programme that identifies and nurtures promising players from under-16 to under-20. Cricket South Africa (CSA) has a Cricket Services Department that focuses on all aspects of amateur and professional cricket, starting with KFC Mini-Cricket right up to the Proteas. 

CSA’s aim is to allow players to educate and develop themselves while playing cricket, and to prepare for life after cricket.

In addition, the South African Cricket Players’ Association runs the Player Plus programme to provide members with comprehensive personal development, education and support. Player Plus, developed by Gill Taylor, who is in charge of life skills and mentoring at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, aims to educate and support cricket players across all aspects of their sport, from personal development to being aware of the dangers of drugs and betting. Taylor’s modules are also used by rugby.

Former provincial player Hans Scriba, who started the Sharks academy and manages Saru’s academies, says Saru has a co-ordinated scouting programme encompassing all 14 provinces. Initially, as many as 80 under-16 players are invited to attend camps.

“We monitor them as they go through to matric,” he says. “We do aptitude tests and give them guidance as to a study direction. We try to create an environment where they can study, train, get life skills, proper nutrition and manage themselves should they be offered professional contacts.”

Scriba says players are encouraged to start studying straight after school, “when it is still manageable, because, once they are senior pros, it becomes difficult to spend significant time learning”.

Saru maintains a list of accredited agents (administered by its manager of legal matters, Christo Ferreira), and Scriba’s advice to young players wanting to turn professional is: “Attend a professional academy and study while there. Try to balance very hard training with a commitment to formal studies. Get into the players pipeline at a good provincial franchise where there is good coaching and you are assured of playing time.

“In a nutshell, our aim is to give talented players a fair opportunity to become successful on and off the field,” he adds and points with pride to a great number who have done just that by graduating through Saru-supported structures.

Cricket is something few know better than Kirsten. The former Proteas opener encored a most successful playing career by turning his talents to coaching and guiding India to the top of the test rankings and a World Cup triumph in 2011.

His advice to a young player wanting to go professional is sage. 

“If someone wants to chase a dream of that nature, you can’t say, ‘Listen, I don’t think it’s a good idea.’ I think what one can do is try to give them a holistic picture of what they are going to experience along the way.

“Each guy’s experience is going to be different, but I ask, ‘Do you know what it takes to break in? Are you prepared to be patient? Are you prepared to work extremely hard? Are you prepared that it (success) might not happen straight away? Do you appreciate you’re going to need some luck along the way?’

“There will be obstacles on the journey that you’re going to have to overcome. It happens to every sportsman – no matter how successful you’re going to be or how much talent you have. So be confident about your ability to play, take advice from seniors who have been through the mill, be very wary about who’s mentoring you, choose your agent carefully, steel yourself to cope with setbacks and, most of all, be prepared to work, work, work.”

Kirsten should know. He did not make the Proteas until the age of 26, but along the way he learnt life’s lessons, and when the opportunities arose he knew how to spot them and make the most of them.