If you’re a fan of documentary films, do yourself a favor and check out the work of Billy Corben. Since 2001, Corben and his Rakontur production house have made seven outstanding movies, with an eighth scheduled for release in 2013. Much of Corben’s work has shone the spotlight on his native South Florida (the Cocaine Cowboys duo, Square Grouper, The U), but the young director has not solely focused his films on his immediate surroundings.

First, in 2011, Corben directed Limelight, which told the story of former New York nightclub magnate Peter Gatien and, by extension, the New York club scene of the ’80’s and ’90’s. In Broke, Corben’s latest project and his second film in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, Corben explores the reasons so many pro athletes lose the majority of their seemingly astronomical earnings so soon after their careers end.

Corben conducts several interviews with a variety of people throughout his film in an attempt to answer the question so many of us workaday types ask whenever we hear about a former athlete filing for bankruptcy: “Well, how the f**k does one guy go through all those millions?”

To most 9-to-5ers, the very idea that a professional athlete—or any person who has made a lot more money in a few years than average American workers could expect to see in their lifetimes—would ever come under financial hardship is nothing short of ludicrous. Yet the statistics are there, plain as day.

This Sports Illustrated article from 2009 (which is referenced several times in Broke) points to some alarming numbers where pro athlete finance is concerned. Read the entire article when you’ve got the time, but here’s the gist:

According to a number of sources consulted for the SI article, 78 percent of NFL players go bankrupt or are under financial stress within two years of their retirement from football. Sixty percent of NBA athletes are broke within five years of retirement.

The reasons for the epidemic of poverty among once-rich athletes go pretty much along the lines one might expect. Athletes make bad private equity investments (a friend of a friend has a great business idea for phone card dispensers and Athlete X gives him $100,000 that he never sees again), misplace trust in those close to them (Athlete Y gives his AAU coach power of attorney and he squanders a large percentage of Athlete Y’s income behind his back), and marry with the wrong people (Athlete Z doesn’t have his high school sweetheart sign that prenuptial agreement; she divorces him a few years later and gets half). This isn’t even getting into the financial strain children can put on a person, especially if that person has more than a few of them.

However the money disappears, though, the point is that a large number of professional athletes lack the proper financial wherewithal to make their money last in the years following their exit from the professional sports arena. Andrew Brandt, a former vice president for the Green Bay Packers who negotiated player contracts and managed the team’s salary cap, tweeted during Broke that he once had to teach a new member of the team how to write a personal check. (For some tremendous insider info on this issue, you should check out Brandt’s Twitter stream from the night of Oct. 2, when Broke first aired.) The consequences of this level of financial blindness can be seen in the sorts of situations described above, and the results of those situations leave too many professional athletes with little else to show for their sporting success than semi-functional joints and tendons.

This is another one of those areas in MMA—along with the potential long-term physical and mental ailments suffered by veterans of the sport—that’s tough to predict given the comparatively small amount of time the sport has been part of the mainstream. Who knows how the few fighters who have gotten rich from their time in the Octagon will find themselves financially in five or ten years. At the same time, however, the inherent differences between professional football/basketball players and professional MMA fighters—both in how the different athletes start out in their respective sports and the varying pay structures in place—might serve as protective forces for those in the UFC who are able to get into that seven-figure salary range.

For starters, athletes that eventually make it to the NFL or the NBA, especially those who are able to achieve superstar status (and the paychecks that go with that status) start playing their sports when they’re very young. Many teenagers across America strap on shoulder pads for a few years in high school before realizing that professional athletics is not part of their future. These kids mostly blend into the background on the field, some occasionally tasting the brief glory of being part of a highlight-reel play.

But then there are those special players once every few years who look like men among boys on Friday nights. They’re faster, stronger and better than everyone else on the field. These players are destined to at least be part of a major college football program, and many are tabbed at a pretty young age to be NFL superstars. The point is, not only do future NFL players begin their sports very early in life, but they stand out from the start as the best.

In MMA, many fighters might have years of experience in a particular discipline (wrestling, kickboxing, jiu-jitsu), but in 2012 there are very few professional fighters that were training as kids. Furthermore, anyone who has spent time as a white belt on a MMA team can tell you that they all started at the very bottom of the heap. There is not the sense of entitlement in MMA that comes with years of superiority over one’s competition, as there might be for NFL or NBA athletes who spent their youth dominating their opponents. That is, by the time most MMA fighters reach the level where they’re making some good money, they’ve had much of their egos choked out of them by their training partners.

Then there’s the fact that most professional fighters, even those who make it to the UFC, don’t make anywhere close to the amounts of money described in the SI article and in Broke. For those not fighting in the UFC, professional MMA is almost certainly not their only source of income. They might make $3,000 to show and $3,000 to win as the headliner of a regional event, but even making that amount four times in a year will only put those fighters in the “just scraping by” category. After taxes and the other fees a fighter must account for, they’d probably need to rely on another source of income to make ends meet. This is especially true if these fighters have families.

In the NFL, the minimum annual salary for a rookie in 2011 was $375,000. In the NBA, that number was even higher—$490,180 for the 2011-12 season. The vast majority of professional MMA fighters won’t even get close to these numbers, even if they’re some of the top UFC draws, and we’re talking about the minimum amount that professional football and basketball players in the world’s top leagues earn.

To put it another way, the vast majority of professional MMA fighters are already broke or just scraping by. Most people simply don’t have the time or energy to both work and train full-time, so almost anyone who is willing to go full-throttle toward making a career in the cage will need to make financial sacrifices that go with that commitment. Even fighting in the UFC is not a guaranteed pathway to the highest income bracket, unlike when athletes make their way onto a NFL or NBA roster.

Some fighters are able to supplement their fight-night paychecks with endorsement deals and other tertiary sources of income, and we’ve definitely seen how well some of the guys who have been in the sport for a while are living, but those men were not simply given a six-figure salary as soon as they turned pro. Rather than earning zero dollars for a decade and then suddenly being handed hundreds of thousands in one fell swoop, many MMA fighters have had to first learn to manage significantly lower sums of money. The hope, then, is that the extra income they begin to earn as they advance their careers is viewed as just that—extra.

This is certainly not to say we won’t soon hear about a once-prominent MMA fighter struggling to pay his bills, but unlike NFL or NBA athletes who outlive their utility to their teams, MMA fighters can continue to compete for many years (for better or worse) after they’ve been jettisoned from the UFC’s roster. When someone washes out of the NFL, that’s it. The income from playing football is gone for good, and the singular focus they’ve maintained on the sport is no longer needed. What do those people do then? Many NFL athletes haven’t considered life beyond the field, and when they are presented with ways to supplement their income, their lack of financial savvy can exacerbate the problems through poor investing.

With MMA fighters, on the other hand, there will always be a cage for them to fight in (provided their bodies and brains are still functional), even if they’ll be paid a fraction of their peak earnings for their efforts. Fighters don’t suddenly have to figure out what to do with their lives when their careers are abruptly ended in their mid-20’s. This more gradual path to another, less physically-demanding career would hopefully lessen the potential for financial ruin.

No matter how many times they’re warned, no matter how many free financial education seminars they’re offered, no matter how much money they make, there will always be athletes in every sport who spend more than they earn and end up broke. We might think that the differences in MMA—the difficulty of one’s white belt phase, the more gradual path to retirement and the fact that most fighters don’t start their careers earning big-time dollars—will protect our favorite fighters from financial hardship in the years to come, but odds are that a percentage of high-level fighters will one day go broke.

Here’s hoping Jon Jones is watching his money, and that Tito Ortiz invests wisely.

Photo: Can retiring fighters such as Tito Ortiz avoid the same pitfalls that derail the finances of retiring athletes in other pro sports? (Sherdog)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.