When Kerri Pottharst OAM left her full-time job in insurance in 1994 to dedicate herself to sport, she admits it was a “scary” call.
"A little voice inside kept questioning: was I really good enough to derive a living through sport?" recalls the champion beach volleyballer who, together with Natalie Cook, famously took out the gold medal on Bondi Beach at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
But through tenacity as much as athletic ability, Pottharst says she earned a “reasonable income” from the sport before winning gold – and has maintained it long since retiring in 2005. This included creative ways to garner the attention of sponsors at a time when there was little publicity for her sport and no social media, such as calling journalists to ask them to come to the beach for a story, sending out newsletters, or “whatever we could to keep ourselves afloat”.
“We gave up a lot and that made us fight really hard for each and every win,” says Pottharst, named International Beach Volleyball Player of the Decade for 1990-2000.
“I remember Natalie and I sitting in the hotel room and calculating how much each win would mean to us financially because that would then pay for our flights and the hotel room for the next event. Sometimes that inspired us, sometimes it scared us, but that’s the way it was.”
It’s a struggle that’s familiar to many Olympians, a recent survey by the Australian Sports Foundation finding most representative athletes earn less than the national minimum wage of $39,000.
But often what can be just as difficult is when professional sportspeople make the “big time” – realising their athletic, sponsorship and prize money dreams – but haven’t been trained to face a very different challenge: how to manage and capitalise on the sudden boost in their finances.
Sadly, it’s not uncommon to see headlines of the financial meltdowns of former Olympians, tennis and golf champions, Soccer players, and NRL and AFL stars after earning millions of dollars during their careers.
In response, many professional sports bodies have made strides to expand off-field support for players, adding money management skills to other programs to improve mental wellness, education and training. For example, the AFL Players’ Association, which has found 37 per cent of AFL players report some difficulty with their transition into retirement, offers one-on-one financial health checks and property workshops, as part of its financial education program. Similarly, each NRL club has a career coach who delivers the “Careerwise” program, including tips about money and budgeting, along with vocational training for players.
In recognition of the issue, the Australian Olympic Committee has also stepped up its support for athletes, introducing the Olympic Opportunities Program. In addition to post-career transition support, the program offers financial education tools developed by Westpac’s Davidson Institute, as part of the bank’s Financial Literacy partnership with the AOC, such as tips to get on track with budgeting and staying on top of debt.
Launching the program in February last year (before the 2020 Tokyo Games’ 12-month postponement), AOC chief executive Matt Carroll AM highlighted the importance for Olympians to “build sound financial knowledge” to help them plan their future.
“Balancing work, training, family and planning your financial future is particularly challenging for athletes,” Mr Carroll said. “This innovative new program from Westpac is really going to help meet these challenges.”
It’s also a topic tackled by Pottharst in her motivational book, The business of being an athlete, into which she’s poured all the lessons she’s learnt turning sporting talent into a lucrative career. In it, she says some athletes who’ve come into a large amount of cash after “barely scraping by for so long” can feel like they’ve “won the lottery”.
“(But) statistics show that 70 per cent of lottery winners have used up all their money within three years,” she says.
“There is 100 per cent a need there for athletes to have good financial education while they're making good money. If they're not getting that, then they need to be seeking it immediately.”
Among many other tips to navigate the struggles often associated with retirement, Pottharst also advises athletes to set transition goals before retiring and not be afraid of changing courses.
“I didn't plan to be doing what I'm doing now twenty years on from winning a gold, but it kind of just evolves,” says Pottharst, who is set to call the beach volleyball competitions at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics from Channel 7’s commentary box.
She’ll fit that in around her other commitments for the board of Volleyball Australia, her own motivational speaking business, media appearances, corporate team building days, running corporate workshops – and as coach to her son’s volleyball team.
“I've made a career out of what I've learnt. I’m now passing on the little gems I’ve learnt that I wish I’d had on hand throughout my career.”