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Financial Planning > College Planning

Pro Athletes Going Broke? Not on Frank Zecca's Watch

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Frank Zecca means it when he says he’s out to “stop the cycle of professional athletes going broke.” That starts, and continues, with advisors who serve as the players’ “personal CFOs,” Zecca, managing director of OFS Wealth, specialists in advising pro athletes, told ThinkAdvisor. The RIA’s roster of high-profile sports clients boasts stars such as basketball greats Steph Curry and Chris Paul and Olympic swimming phenom Michael Phelps.

“Our job is to simplify the player’s life off the field or court so they can maximize their earnings on the field or court,” says Zecca, a CFP who joined Octagon, sports agency subsidiary of Interpublic Group, 27 years ago and spearheaded the creation of an RIA within it.

Managing more than $500 million in assets for about 250 clients and families, the in-house OFS Wealth serves both Octagon agency clients and other players.

The biggest obstacle to putting an end to pro players going bust is their own reckless spending and denial of reality: Those big earnings from their short careers must be parlayed smartly to provide an income stream when they retire and onward for the next 50 or 60 years.

So, first, Zecca, 53, gives young players, typically fresh out of college or even high school, a thorough schooling in Finance 101 and helps with everything from opening a checking account to designing financial plans. All that builds a foundation of trust, essential when they’re ready to invest in the market.

ThinkAdvisor recently spoke to Zecca by phone from his office in McLean, Virginia. Off-hours, the New York City police officer’s son keeps buff by playing hockey and lacrosse. “Ninety-five-percent of my clients are young or younger than I am,” he says. “The two players we most recently signed are less than half my age. I have to stay super-fit — I need to last!”

Here are highlights from our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: What’s the biggest challenge in advising young professional athletes?

FRANK ZECCA:  We’ve got to stop the cycle of athletes going broke. That can be fixed. For years, my goal has been to professionalize wealth management for athletes.

Please explain why your RIA calls itself the “personal chief financial officers for professional athletes.”

We’re the business side. So our offices have very little sports memorabilia — like jerseys — around.  We’re a professional financial advisory shop for athletes that’s trying to change the landscape because these guys have had so many bad experiences with money.

But there’s fun in your offices too: I read you have a ping-pong table. Who plays?

It’s cool when professional tennis players play against the employees on occasion.

Also, someone in the firm reportedly has a sports bobble-head collection. Is that you?

No. I don’t have a bobble-head collection. I have spreadsheets and investment [documents]! At cocktail parties, my job sounds super-cool — but at the end of the day, it comes down to sitting at my computer and dealing with plans and details, and taking care of stuff.

Does the same idea hold true for your colleagues too?

Yes. It’s cool for the guys the first time they do tax returns for Michael Phelps, say. But when you’re doing it for five years, you’d better make sure you like doing tax returns.

What’s the biggest challenge for young pro athletes when it comes to financial planning?

First, it’s financial literacy. Our job is to be educators. Most of our clients are right out of college or high school. Second, it’s having the players understand how much of their contracts are guaranteed — that is, what they’ll earn after taxes.  We’re dealing with a very short window of income generation. The average length of time in pro sports for any player is about 3.8 years.

How do you explain how significant that is to players?

Stressing that they’re earning a decent sum of money over a short period of time but that this money has to last a lifetime. That’s really the biggest challenge.

It’s hard to project the future when they’re starting out at such a young age. Right?

Yes because you really don’t know who’s going to be a star or who’s going to struggle or who’s going to get hurt. So you have to educate early and start saving early, and prepare for life after the professional sport.

What’s the secret to your success in building trust with the players?

Trust develops. In the first three or four years, there’s really no money because they’re buying cars and houses. Or you’re helping them get their first apartment or checking account or to move out from college to a city where they’ll [be based], or helping their parents with their 401(k) plan.

What does all that work do for you, the advisor?

By the time you get to investing or making bigger decisions, you’ve already built that base of the relationship. Once the athletes get that feeling, you’re able to enact financial plans and good investments because they trust you.

What prompted you to go into financial services?

After [college], I did a rotation at KPMG: taxes, auditing, consulting, financial planning. I was an “accounting person” — that’s what I liked. I also like helping and guiding people.

You played football and lacrosse in college. Has that served you in your job at OFS?

Maybe the coaching and goal-driven aspects played into what I do now — you’re setting goals, coaching, pivoting. The characteristics that I have and things I like doing led me this way. I landed in a place that’s perfectly suited to my skill and temperament.

When did OFS move into financial advisory?

When I joined 27 years ago, it was a sports agency [only. At that juncture], we decided to ramp it up and do wealth management [too]. Originally, we were doing tax returns and paying bills for some tennis and basketball players, like Arthur Ashe and Moses Malone [now both deceased].

Any advice for FAs who want to develop a niche advising pro athletes?

This isn’t [about] sports; it’s a financial advisory-practice job. The basics come into it: financial planning, allocations, diversification. The job is very labor-intensive. It’s not paving roads, but there are a lot of phone calls, meetings and plane flights.

How realistic is it for a beginning advisor to break in?

Getting access to the athletes is tough. For a young advisor,  getting in front of them is really hard to do.

Why did you decide, six years ago, to ask Dynasty Financial Partners to help you?

I don’t have the bandwidth to actually run the business. So we employ the “outsourced CIO model.” Dynasty is a part of our investment committee and helps us build portfolios. They provide access to money managers, due diligence and help with our relationship with our custodian, Fidelity.

Do you still play sports?

Hockey twice a week and a lacrosse tournament every year.  Hockey is a great sport when you get older. It’s not pounding on your legs — it’s gliding; that’s low impact on your knees, hips and back.

What’s a way you take your mind off business altogether?

For peace and quiet, I’m really into reading anything that’s World War II-related. I’m addicted to World War II books. When I meet with Chris Paul in New Orleans, I go to the National World War II Museum and Eisenhower Center for American Studies there.  And two miles from me, in D.C., there’s the Marine Corps Museum. Learning about different time periods is a great way to relax.

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