AT a glance, sportsmen and women seem to have the perfect job - they are in a profession that they love and they make loads of money doing what they do. Insome countries, the amount of money in question is simply insane.
Football players are a fine example. According to Forbes, England's David Beckham topped the list when he netted US$40mil for the 12-month period ended May 2011.
In second place was Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, who earned US$38mil during the same period. In third place was two-time World Player of the Year, Lionel Messi of Argentina, who received a US$32mil pay cheques in that year.
The earnings, according to Forbes, include salaries, bonuses and endorsements.
On the local front, the wages for representing Malaysia as an athlete is nowhere near the figures mentioned above. And, if one were to look to sports as a career in this country, the remuneration and whether it is sufficient has to be considered?
According to Malaysia Super League chief executive officer Stuart Ramalingam, the local football scene is “like a lottery” for those who are good and lucky enough to make a living from it.
“Some of our top footballers make about RM25,000 a month in salary alone. This is excluding allowances and bonuses,” he tells StarBizWeek.
However, an athlete's career span is often shorter than that of other professionals. Most hit their prime in their late 20s, and in exceptional circumstances, they go on to play into their 30s.
With this limited time, can an athlete make enough money to sustain him into retirement? Ramalingam certainly believes it's possible.
“The amount of money that they (footballers) make in the short term is equivalent to that made over a 50-year period by those in other professions. Ultimately, it's how they save and invest.
“Also, in football, the network is huge. They (the players) mix with politicians and even with the Prime Minister. You're on the lips of everyone! Their network is larger than the money they earn. It's just how they utilise their income and make the best from the network that they're building.”
Ramalingam adds however that a major problem among local footballers was that many of them are from impoverished backgrounds and did not know how to manage their finances.
“A lot of these players did not go through a proper schooling system. For a lot of them, whatever money they get is what they would spend. Saving becomes secondary.
“A lot of them, after their careers, (they) end up getting jobs with local football associations, with banks or become coaches. It's a nose-dive to their income,” Ramalingam says.
Former Malaysian football player Serbegeth Singh, better known as Shebby, has leveraged on the experience he learned over the years during his time on the pitch and now earns a living as a football analyst and sports commentator.
He believes that being prudent with your finances is something that applies to all walks of life and not necessarily footballers.
“I think everyone needs to know how to manage one's finances and for footballers, they should seek good advice when they're still playing and not do it only after they've stopped.”
Not wanting to disclose the salary scale of national badminton players, Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) general manager Kenny Goh admits, however, that an athlete within the sport makes “sufficient money” to earn a decent living.
“With the sport getting more popular, competitions being held abroad, and more corporate sponsors coming into the sport, one can earn a living playing badminton.
“BAM already has a structured pay scheme for our players. As time goes by, that structure is reviewed to make it more relevant.”
Goh acknowledges that life as an athlete can be short but adds that if athletes perform well, the money made during their careers should sustain them and open plenty of opportunities once they retire.
“There are many things they can do after their playing days. They can become coaches while some can start their own businesses. With the experience that they have, it certainly helps. With good planning and good management during their playing days, it should help them after their playing days,” he says.
However, success as an athlete, at least in the financial sense, is not necessarily a given as even the best of the best have fallen on tough times. Case in point are former Malaysian badminton brothers Jailani and Rashid Sidek, who were both declared bankrupt in 2002.
Says one industry observer who requested anonymity: “There are some athletes who do not manage their finances during their playing days because of the amount of money that they make. Some don't realise that things change after they stop playing.
“Others, on the other hand, end up falling on hard times because they get bad advice or get involved with the wrong people. Some people have hidden agendas with bad intentions. Because you're a famous athlete, they just want to use you for their own gain.”
World number 10 national squash player Mohd Azlan Iskandar feels that prize money for squash tournaments can be better.
“Squash players don't make great prize money compared to those who play tennis, golf or basketball. However, I believe the viewership for squash needs to grow before the prize money grows.
“Malaysia has a few sports that excel in the international scene, so I think corporate companies do see the value in investing in the athletes who are household names or who have been consistent over the years.”
Azlan feels that lack of exposure for squash is partly because it is yet to be recognised as an Olympic event and this is a challenge for squash players. However, he says many Malaysians excel in squash on the world stage so this definitely helps.
Like any athlete, age is definitely an issue, he adds. “Athletes pretty much have to make the bulk of their money when they are in their prime. I often hear people say that athletes should be less concerned with money and be passionate for the sport. I disagree. It's almost like me saying to another professional, don't worry about your monthly salary, work for your passion.'
“Of course it (money) is a factor. We all have bills to pay, a lifestyle to maintain and we all need our finances to survive. Of course, being an athlete, the better we do, the more successful we get. So, there is a plus point there, but for how long?”
At 29, Azlan reckons that he still has some time left to “improve his game.”
“My long term goal was to be top 10 in the world and I've achieved that. I am obviously hunting down single digits but I need to be realistic as things take time. I believe I still have a few good years left in me, as the average squash players retires between 34 and 35 years of age.”
For professional female bodybuilder Lilian Tan, the bodybuilding industry seems riddled with obstacles, especially for a woman striving to compete in a predominantly male-dominated sport.
“It is sad to say that male and female bodybuilders do not have a bright future in Malaysia. It is a dying sport. One example is the turnout at our annual National Bodybuilding event. The participation is getting lesser by the year.
“In the olden days, bodybuilding competitions were held in very nice auditoriums. Today, most of the state competitions are held in malls.”
It's no secret that bodybuilding is not a cheap sport. “The issue is always about budget and expenses. Bodybuilders struggle to make it in terms of expenses for food, supplements and training yet there is little reward or recognition. People are losing the interest and motivation to compete as the returns are close to nil.”
Tan says that when she competes, all costs and expenses are to be bourn by her.“It is sad to say that most professionals, despite their status, struggle to make ends meet.
It also does not help that women's bodybuilding has been banned in Malaysia since the late 1980s.
“Since Malaysia does not recognise female bodybuilding and fitness, there are no funds allocated to sponsor the female athletes. I think it is a shame, as the ban isdue to the way the athletes are attired. It closes the doors for women to be able to compete and basically gives female bodybuilders no future in Malaysia.
“Unlike other neighbouring countries, female bodybuilders in Malaysia do not have local competitions as a platform to soar to greater heights. The only option is to compete abroad. Eventually, more female bodybuilders will turn away from competitive bodybuilding.
Tan says she has brought up the issue of women's bodybuilding being banned in Malaysia with the Malaysian Bodybuilding Federation.
“Sadly, little or no work has been done,” she says, adding however that the level of acceptance for female bodybuilding has improved over the years.
“The acceptance from the general public has improved considerably. I have been getting warm responses as well as stares. People often compliment me and request for photographs. They are impressed to see a woman being so successful in a male-dominant sport,” she says.
Tan, who has been weight training since 1997, resided in the US for 20 years. During her time there, she competed in natural bodybuilding competitions held by the International Natural Bodybuilding Association.
In 2010, she represented Malaysia in the Asian and World Physique Championships held in Singapore. In October, Tan will be competing in the 2011 Asian & World Women's Physique Championships in Thailand.
For aspiring female bodybuilders, she has this advice: “If bodybuilding is truly your passion, you have to find the strength within you to go all the way. As I have experienced it first hand, you may not always receive the warm welcome and support you deserve.
“The journey is not an easy one but you would not want to trade the valuable experience for anything else. Each time you feel like giving up, remember why you hung on for so long in the first place.”
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