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What is it like to be a professional athlete?

Very athletic people might want to consider getting a job as a "pro" athlete. But they should know that very few athletes ever make it that far. It's a good idea, then, to have another job in mind as well. Professional athletes include baseball, football, and basketball players, tennis players, golfers, ice skaters, skiers, stock car drivers, rodeo riders: anyone playing a sport for money.

Professional athletes play in front of an audience and get paid for it. Fans enjoy seeing these athletes play so much that they are willing to pay to watch. Professional athletes are performers or entertainers. In this way, they are a lot like actors and musicians. They must perform well in each game or risk losing. If they don't play well, they won't last long.

The work of professional athletes is very demanding. This includes both physical and mental stress. They must be in the best possible shape. Most modern athletes work out all year, both during the season and in the off-season. They must be able to perform their jobs at the highest level at all times. Professional athletes also face the constant threat of injuries that could end their careers. For these and other reasons, this kind of job can be quite stressful.

During the regular season, professional athletes often practice more than 40 hours a week. They may have other duties related to the team as well-for instance, going to meetings or watching films about the opposition. Athletes often move to the place where their team is located. If management decides to trade them, they may have to move again. At least in team sports, professional athletes often have curfews and other restrictions on what they can and can't do. They can't just leave the job at the office like workers in other jobs can.

How do you get ready to be a professional athlete?

Most professional athletes spend a good part of their lives practicing. Basketball players, for example, spend hours and hours working on their dribble or jump shot. Ice skaters may practice several hours a day. Playing organized sports at an early level can only help. Most pro athletes played their sport in both high school and college. Schools usually require that students have good grades to play their sport. So, those wanting this kind of career must keep up with their studies.

How much do professional athletes get paid?

Median annual earnings of athletes were $45,320 in 2002—this means that half earned more than this amount and half earned less. The lowest-paid 10 percent earned less than $14,090, but the highest-paid 10 percent earned $145,600 or more annually.

Pay for professional athletes varies with the sport. Jockeys, for example, may get a part of the purse or a set fee. Stock car drivers may earn several hundred thousand dollars for a race. Boxers can earn millions of dollars for a fight, and baseball, football, and basketball players may earn millions a year if they are superstars. Tennis players and golfers usually get paid according to how well they play compared to other players. It is only the star professional, however, who earns the "big" money. Those in the "minors" earn very little.

How many jobs are there?

In 2002, 158,000 people held jobs as athletes, coaches, umpires, and sports-related workers.

What about the future?

Jobs for athletes, coaches, umpires, and related workers are expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2012.

Competition is intense for the relatively few professional athlete jobs. This is true because many young men and women dream of entering this occupation. Some sports, like baseball, basketball, hockey, and even football have "minor" leagues. Jobs in the minors are a little easier to get, but you still must compete with many other people for these jobs. Also, this profession doesn't offer much job security; an athlete can lose his or her job because of an injury, or can be replaced by a "better" player at any time.

Are there other jobs like this?

  • Recreation and fitness workers
  • Recreational therapists
Where can you find more information?

More information about athletes, coaches, umpires, and related workers can be found in the Careers Database.

Source: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics

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