Going Pro After Leaving the Pros

Harvard and Wharton have a new business program designed to help NFL players kick off new careers when they retire

By Jeffrey Gangemi

When the Philadelphia Eagles lost to the Carolina Panthers in the 2003 NFC Championship Game, free agent defensive back Troy Vincent knew his days in an Eagles uniform were numbered. He had just finished his twelfth season in the National Football League, where the average career lasts just three to four years. The Eagles had drafted some promising young talent, and management was growing anxious for a return on its investment. Vincent accepted an off-season trade to the Buffalo Bills, his last stop before he makes his next career transition -- out of the NFL.

"When I walk away from the game, I won't think of it as the end of my career," he says. "I've been looking at different alternatives since the day I was drafted, making sure I kept balanced. I didn't want to be caught off guard."

Now 33, Vincent serves as president of the NFL Players Assn. and spends his off-seasons managing Troy Vincent Development & Construction, as well as his insurance, financial services, and real estate interests. He says that he and many other retired or soon-to-retire NFLers want to become business owners and entrepreneurs, but don't know how to get started. So, he and the league have worked together to create an innovative program slated to kick off on Apr. 6: special classes for football players offered by Harvard Business School and the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School. It will form part of a general initiative by business schools to better serve the $375 billion U.S. professional sports industry.


  Harvard and Wharton will provide not only business education but also advice and networking to help NFL players create successful post-football ventures. Each three-day program will accept 35 players, with participants chosen based on their years in the league and business experience. As an extra incentive, the NFL's Tuition Reimbursement Program will cover the cost.

For retiring players, many potential pitfalls lie in wait. Leaving the NFL, where salaries average almost $700,000 per year, usually means a huge drop in income. According to a report published by the Professional Business & Financial Network (PBFN), an organization that connects professional athletes with business tools, 34% of former athletes rank replacing income as the most difficult part of making the transition out of professional sports, while another 24% said that adjusting to the business world was the most difficult part of retiring. Nearly two-thirds also expressed interest in availing themselves of entrepreneur services, and 36% desired career development services.

To address these concerns, Wharton and Harvard designed their programs to fit the unique needs of NFL football players. Harvard has developed an entrepreneurial management workshop, focusing on finance management, demystifying aspects of the tax code, and understanding business-related law. It places special emphasis on organizational design, as well as the creation of successful business plans. The HBS program concludes with an additional three-day session in May, where players can get advice on projects they would like to pursue.


  The Wharton Sports Business Initiative (WSBI) and Wharton Executive Education have collaborated to develop separate classroom- and field-based workshops. The program inaugurates the Wharton Professional Sports Business Initiative, the school's effort to expand its presence in sports. It aims to make retiring players less vulnerable to the scam artists who often prey on retired athletes, and offers lessons on the fundamentals of business laws, socially responsible entrepreneurship, and planning responsibly for the future. Guest speakers will include successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

The school offers players networking opportunities usually reserved for full-time MBA students -- including unlimited access to Wharton's professors for guidance and counseling on how to manage their money and build entrepreneurial enterprises. "If they don't have a connection to a [major] company, then this program will give them that connection," says Jason Wingard, a senior fellow at Wharton.

Players and ex-players believe that hard-won football skills can transfer from the locker room to the boardroom. "You are what you repeatedly do -- going the extra mile, playing hurt, always studying film," says Ryan McNeil, CEO and founder of the PBFN and recently retired San Diego Charger cornerback. "It's the same in business." Adds Chargers quarterback Drew Brees, who already has a real estate company he manages during the off-season: "I like it because it's competitive -- the experience of finding the right deal and being able to cash in on it."


  Or course, the program can't provide 100 percent of skills needed for business. "I want to stress that this is not a substitute for an MBA or for experience," says Carl Kester, the professor in charge of Harvard's program. Instead of just taking the short course, some retiring NFLers commit to getting a full-fledged MBA. Case in point: Among BusinessWeek Online's journal writers are two former pros (Malcolm Johnson and Mark Fischer), both of whom are pursuing MBAs at Carnegie Mellon.

Still, Vincent believes that the new program offers an excellent starting point and that other professional sports leagues may follow the NFL's lead. "I want these men to be good brothers, husbands, fathers, and businessmen," Vincent says. "I want the best for them, and I believe it doesn't get any better than Wharton and Harvard." Vincent himself will take part in the program. That way, he figures he can retire from football and still remain on a winning team.

Gangemi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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