Education and Training: College recommended
Salary: Median—$48,310 per year
Employment Outlook: Good
Definition and Nature of the Work
Professional athletes play sports for a living. They have achieved top standing in their chosen field through years of training. Professional athletes are people with natural talent, stamina, and competitive drive. They have excellent reflexes and coordination and are well disciplined when it comes to rigorous practice and training.
Most professional athletes have risen from the ranks of fine amateur athletes. Amateur athletes play for the joy of competing and winning and occasionally for awards such as Olympic medals. Some play for schools, colleges, or clubs or in tournaments. Unlike amateurs, however, professional athletes earn money for playing sports. They play for profit-making teams—professional football, baseball, basketball, and hockey teams to name several. In individual sports including golf, tennis, and boxing, athletes play in tournaments in which prize money is awarded to the winner.
Professional athletes must keep their bodies in excellent condition. Even those players whose sports are seasonal must be concerned about fitness all through the year. Their training intensifies before competitions: the ice hockey or basketball star who plays for twenty or thirty minutes per game may prepare for an entire week by practicing, analyzing strategy, and watching films of the opposing team.
Education and Training Requirements
In many sports from basketball to baseball to golf, a college education is invaluable. Professional players are often first noticed by scouts who are sent to watch college players. Professional athletes in most sports retire from their games when they are still fairly young, and a college education can help them advance in the careers they choose after sports. Athletic scholarships are available at many colleges in several sports, although most are given to football, basketball, and baseball players.
Training for sports includes maintaining general fitness and playing at all levels, including community, school, and club teams. Good eyesight is essential in most sports, and glasses or contact lenses may be a drawback. Professional athletes must also be able to perform under intense competitive pressure.
Getting the Job
Prospective professional athletes must start playing sports early—in any court, field, or back lot they can find. They should try to make it onto school or club teams, especially in high school. Scouts may be watching or coaches may be looking for Olympic hopefuls. Athletes who play individual sports should try out for national amateur tournaments or competitions.
The Professional Baseball College Scholarship Plan offers scholarships to promising players. The idea behind the scholarships is to give athletes jobs in professional ball upon graduation. As time goes on, those college players who do not make the grade still receive the tuition unless they fail to attend classes or stop playing baseball. Many colleges offer football and basketball scholarships, the terms of which vary.
Methods of getting into professional athletics vary with the particular sport. For example, professional baseball and football teams draft outstanding players from colleges. In the case of baseball, players are usually sent first to the system of farm teams, which are owned by the major league teams, where they continue to try to qualify for the big league. Football players are drafted directly from colleges to the professional teams.
Getting a job in professional athletics depends on winning in amateur competition. Some sports have special avenues to pursue; for instance, outstanding amateur ice skaters can apply for auditions for a limited number of companies that put on ice shows all over the country. Some of the less established sports such as professional skateboarding or jai alai have associations and leagues that sponsor competitions for prize money.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Advancement possibilities in professional sports depend on performance. Very few athletes reach the top-paying positions in any sport. For instance, of all the players who are given a chance in one of baseball's minor league farm clubs, only about 25 percent get to play major league ball. Only a few of these major league ball players become superstars with very high salaries, but even the superstars cannot play forever. Professional athletes need to examine their employment options before their short athletic careers are over. Athletes with college training often find work in such fields as advertising and broadcasting. Some athletes go into coaching, training, or managing professional or school teams; others open restaurants or sporting goods stores or work for community recreation departments.
Employment of athletes is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2014. The outlook for jobs in professional sports is brightened by the growing public interest in sports of all kinds. Such sports as rugby, soccer, and ice hockey continue to gain a fan base. The large baseball and football leagues have expanded as avid sports audiences have grown. However, the competition among athletes is stiff because of the large number of people trying to enter professional sports.
Where to Go for More Information
Ladies Professional Golf Association
100 International Golf Dr.
Daytona Beach, FL 32124-1092
National Football League
280 Park Ave.
New York, NY 10017
National Hockey League
1251 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
The Professional Golf Association of America
100 Avenue of the Champions
Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33418
Women's National Basketball Association
645 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10022
Professional athletes face fierce competition, long hours of practice, and a great deal of travel. Constant competition can create tension for many players, so they must develop the ability to concentrate under stress. Professional athletes must be able to perform in front of huge crowds. If they play well they are cheered by their fans; if they fumble or strike out they are booed by the same fans.
Athletes may have to be away from their families when they are on the road. They travel, eat, and work with the same people for weeks or months at a time. Injuries can keep them out of games or may end their sports careers altogether. Yet most players find that the thrill of playing well and winning makes up for the hazards of playing professional sports.
Earnings and Benefits
Income varies greatly among professional athletes. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary of all athletes was $48,310 in 2004, but the top performers can earn several million dollars per year. There are no set salaries in individual sports. Athletes earn their income by participating in tournaments and meets. Professional golfers may make anywhere from nothing to several hundred thousand dollars a year or more, depending on the number of tournaments they win. A boxing champion can earn well over $5 million for a single defense of a title—or far more with television receipts. Professional athletes receive many fringe benefits, and the best-known athletes usually become celebrities who earn even more money through product endorsements, television commercials, and personal appearances.