How 5 Athletes Afford to Stay in the Game and Still Make Rent

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Last year, baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani made global news when he signed a $700 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The decade-long deal secured the Japanese player the title of world’s highest-paid athlete, but he’s hardly an outlier. 2023 was punctuated by multiple brain-breaking arrangements: Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United for Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr and an estimated annual salary of $75 million. Lionel Messi signed with Inter Miami for a more modest, but still astounding, $20.4 million a year. Forbes named LeBron James the first active, certified-billionaire athlete, while some financial experts predict that tight end Travis Kelce’s new relationship could earn him an extra $5 million in commercial opportunities. Potentially, but still: You’d be forgiven for thinking the lives of professional athletes are plush.

Yet for every Ohtani, there are countless pros struggling to stitch together any kind of living. A 2020 athletes’-rights group survey of nearly 500 global sportspeople found 58 percent didn’t feel financially stable. For them, the pressures of sport aren’t confined to training and competing. Lacking platinum contracts, global sponsors, and international attention, many athletes must also tailor their rigorous training schedules to full- and part-time jobs. Often, that means practicing at night, competing on weekends, playing in international leagues offseason, and even foregoing recovery time — balancing the dream against paying the rent.

While financial stress impacts athletes across all sports and leagues, the cavernous gender pay gap makes it particularly difficult for women. We spoke to five female athletes from around the world about squaring sporting aspirations and financial realities.

Simi Pam, semi-professional rugby player

I’m a semi-professional rugby player. I play in the women’s premiership in the U.K. for the Bristol Bears, but in all honesty, what I get paid from the club wouldn’t cover my rent. So I’m also a locum doctor in a hospital: That’s my profession, how I can survive.

Working as a locum means I pick up shifts on an ad hoc basis, depending on my training schedule. I have a degree of flexibility in that regard, although there isn’t really ever a good time for me to work as a doctor if I want to prioritize my athletic performance. At a bare minimum, I need to work enough to afford rent, and then depending on expenses, I just keep evaluating my priorities at any given moment. For example, in summer, or toward the end of the season if we’re in the finals, I probably won’t work because I want to perform as optimally as I can. But then I have to work enough shifts in the lead-up to afford that time off.

When I’m playing, it’s pretty intense. Rugby is such a physical sport: You’re taking collisions, you’re training in the gym, you’re lifting weights. There are so many times where I’ve played a match on Saturday, had an 8 a.m. shift on Sunday, then gone right into training on Monday. It’s not the optimal recovery. That constant juggling act takes a mental toll too, and at times I feel like it impacts my ability to be the athlete I want to be. The solution would be to get myself an England contract, but the nature of the women’s premiership now is that every team has a catalogue of international athletes. It’s inspiring to play with them, but you can only ever have 15 players on the pitch at one time, which means I have to work harder to earn my game time. Competing against full-timers can sometimes feel like an unfair fight: I can’t give all of myself all of the time in the same way they can. Right now, for example, I’m working six days out of seven because I injured my ankle in a match six weeks ago and wasn’t able to take any locum shifts for a while. I’m still trying to get back on track from that financial pressure. Unfortunately, that comes at the expense of my ankle, but in terms of my finances, I haven’t really got a choice.

Catherine Parenteau, professional pickleball player

Right now, I make a full-time living through paid tournament appearances, prize money, and sponsorships. But when I first started about five years ago, I also worked as a pickleball instructor at a country club. I’d play tournaments from Thursday to Sunday and then be back on the court teaching for eight hours by Monday. It was hard to recover, work, and still focus on training: After being on my feet teaching all day, I had no interest in going to the gym.

But to get better, to ever make a career of it, I knew I had to keep practicing, because your prize money depends on how well you do in the tournaments. If you don’t get top three, it’s hard to break even. Maybe your appearance fee covers flights, hotels, and car rental, but if you’re not performing in the tournament, then you’re not making money. Sometimes I’d actually lose money.

Things began to change in 2019, when the Pro Pickleball Association (PPA) came into existence. Pickleball also blew up during COVID — it was one of the only sports people could play during quarantine because you’re always standing more than six feet apart. We got a lot more eyes on us, a lot of celebrities started playing, and the prize money really expanded. By 2022, I was able to stop being a pickleball instructor and go full-time as a professional player. I still coached amateur players on the side, but instead of teaching in a country club, if I was traveling for a tournament I’d stay an extra day and hold pickleball camps. I did that until this past year, when there were so many tournaments I felt like I didn’t need to be teaching as much. I was finally able to make enough money to just focus fully on playing.

Libby Birch, professional Australian Rules Football player

I make my income across a lot of different areas, but most of it comes from physio, media commentating, and writing columns, on top of footy. Payment from footy is currently contributing to approximately 40 percent of my total income. Sponsorships equate to another 25 percent, physiotherapy is 15 percent, and media is 20 percent.

A week for me might look like this: Monday in the club for a half-day, then Tuesday is a full day, Wednesday’s my media workday, Thursday will be training, and Friday I work as a physio. During the season, I have Friday night games, too, and then do a full day of AFLW commentary on Saturday and Sunday. That means I’m working three games, including my own, over the weekend. It goes without saying that at the end of the year, I’m absolutely spent.

But while being paid as a full-time athlete would change everything, I don’t know if focusing only on footy is wise in the long term. Even if you can make enough money through sport to live this year, you have to think about the rest of your life. Opportunities to make a living as an ex-athlete aren’t the same for women. My male counterparts who probably make $500,000 or $1 million don’t have to make sure they have a second career waiting for them. But even full-time female players don’t make enough to sustain that “ex-player life.” I hope we’ll end up like that one day, but we don’t have the luxury yet.

Kate Smith, professional golfer

I currently play on the Epson Tour, the tour below the LPGA Tour. I also work full-time for my company, Ground Under Repair Design. Plus, I’m sponsored by a couple small companies that I represent while I play on tour.

Looking at my net income this year, it was about half and half, golf and design. But during my first year on tour, all my income came from the design company. Our expenses for travel and competing are so high that rarely anyone makes a profit. That first year, I was 81st on the Women’s World Golf Rankings money list and made $19,000. I probably spent at least $34,000.

Last year, I was 19th on the money list and made over $60,000. But I still had the same amount of expenses.  All the money I make from golf, I put back into golf.  The money I make from the company feels like my money and my savings for the future.

Having to have two careers is very messy. It definitely requires me to use all hours of the day. Golf is a sport you can only practice during daylight, so after the sun goes down, I try to utilize as much time as possible for business. And if I’m on the road, a day might  consist of competing for five or six hours, getting a workout in, and then doing some drawing and emails until I go to bed. I have taken a few client calls on the course, or missed important meetings because I double-booked myself, but that is just how it goes. There is really no way to live off professional women’s golf alone, unless you’re on the LPGA and doing well out there. Typically, in women’s golf, time is money, and once you run out of money, you run out of time to play and compete. It is a sport where people often quit, not because they aren’t good enough but because their bank account is empty.

Raheleh Asemani, professional Tae Kwon Do athlete

In 2012, I moved from Iran to Belgium to start a new life and experienced many ups and downs. When I was in Iran, I was living in my parents’ home, and they paid for food, clothes, and everything else. But when I came to Belgium, it was different. I had to rent a home by myself and pay for what I needed. To do that, I started working as a postwoman while I was still training in Tae Kwon Do. I started my job early in the morning and would work until about midday. Then I’d go train in the afternoon. From Friday to Monday, I also had competitions. There was never enough time for recovery and rest.

I qualified for the Olympic Games in 2016, and got a contract with Flemish sports agency Sport Vlaanderen. That meant I could afford to stop work and just focus on Tae Kwon Do and physical training. But that contract was only until December 2023. So after this year’s Olympic Games are over, I will have to start working again.

How 5 Athletes Afford to Stay in the Game and Make Rent