Accounting for professional athletes

The UK sports sector is valued at around £24 billion a year and supports 450,000 jobs.

When top athletes focus so much time and energy on achieving sporting glory, it’s all too easy for them to drop the ball on their financial affairs. Though Premier League footballers earn an average of £35,000 per week, two in five face bankruptcy within five years of their retirement.

“In the case of professional athletes, we’re often dealing with young men and women who have little experience of managing their finances,” says Lorraine Whittaker, a specialist sports accountant at the firm Mitchell Charlesworth. “Other high-income clients usually come from a business background, and therefore spend or invest their money much more wisely.”

It’s not uncommon for sports professionals to lead lavish lifestyles while overlooking how quickly their income stream from professional competition will dry up. Accountants can play a vital role in helping athletes plan for their financial future and avoid racking up millions in debt by splashing out on mansions with 109 rooms or having Bengal tigers as pets.

Play the long game

“The average footballer will probably only play into his mid-30s, which means that these clients need to plan for their futures from a much younger age than most of us do,” says Nick Hall, a sports accountant at UHY Hacker Young. “They can’t all get a job as a Sky Sports pundit once they’ve retired.”

Accountants with professional athletes on their books usually work alongside sporting agents and wealth managers to safeguard their clients’ earnings for when their competition days are over. With successful athletes often earning six-figure salaries, it’s common for them to attract people with strong opinions about they should spend their money. Not all suggestions will be sound.

“It’s important that sports professionals don’t fall victim to get-rich-quick schemes – which are extremely high-risk,” says Hall. “Good financial planning should be bespoke, not a pre-packaged product that can be taken off the shelf.”

Wayne Rooney is one athlete facing the consequences of ill-judged financial decisions. He has been charged with paying into a film investment partnership to avoid paying tax on his £4 million annual salary for three years.

Accountants can steer athletes away from dodgy investments and advise on a variety of lawful options to minimise tax liabilities. In some cases, this involves ensuring they claim tax reliefs based on kit they’ve bought or mileage they’ve logged for training. For a non-domiciled athlete, an accountant reviews overseas tax holdings and looks into reliefs for flights to and from their home country. This can make a career in sports accounting a global undertaking, which makes this niche within the finance sector a unique and exciting proposition for aspiring accountants.

Step up to the tax plate

Dealing with an athlete’s various income streams is often more complex than overseeing the finances of other high-income clients. While the director of a private company has their income structured mostly in the form of dividends, sports professionals usually have many benefits in kind, which are not included in their salary. This can result in an unexpected tax bill come year-end.

“The perk that usually trips up sports professionals is fees paid to their sporting agents. In football, these are usually paid by the club on the player’s behalf and appear on the Expenses and Benefits form at the end of the year,” says Hall. “If the accountants haven’t adjusted the tax code to include these fees at the start of the year then the client will pay too much tax at source.”

Know your image rights

Many high-profile athletes sign deals with manufacturers such as Adidas and Nike, and their image can form an integral part of a sports team’s branding. Accountants play a key role in structuring an image rights company to hold an athlete’s commercial contracts in a way that meets HMRC requirements. For the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, who grabbed £22 million in endorsements last year, this generates massive tax savings.

“Money that goes go into an athlete’s image rights company will generally be used for investment purposes and left within that corporate vehicle,” says Hall. “This builds up a pool of funds that are taxed at a lower rate, to be used when they retire.”

If sports professionals don’t work closely with accountants to maintain peak financial performance, it’s like they’re leaving their future to the lottery of a penalty shootout. While physical prowess can take an athlete to the top, it takes careful tax planning to ensure sports stars are supported long after the final whistle.

Sophie Jardine is an editorial assistant at Flibl. She writes, researches and reports stories about finance and technology.

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