NFL, NBA players saving up with lockouts looming

Matt Slauson had it all planned out.

Coming off his rookie season as a lineman for the New York Jets, he was going to have a big, fancy wedding at a hotel. He and his bride would buy their dream home and travel next spring or summer, maybe both.

They ended up getting married at a city park with invitations and decorations made by his wife. They found the perfect place to spend the rest of their lives but didn’t even bid on it. They scrapped hopes for a vacation.

This holiday season, Slauson is facing the same budget crunch as many sports fans. He’s scrimping and saving, putting as much as he can into a rainy-day fund for NFL players because he knows a storm is fast approaching — a possible work stoppage. A similar cloud looms over the NBA.

“It absolutely concerns me,” Slauson said. “If this lockout wasn’t a possibility, then I would have been able to get our future house. It was out by a lake and a 20-acre plot, just a really nice place. Unfortunately, we couldn’t move on it. I almost did, but I thought, I just can’t. I couldn’t in all good conscience do it because I don’t know how long a lockout might last.”

Unions representing NFL and NBA players have been warning members for years to get ready for the possibility that their paychecks could evaporate in 2011. With the new year fast approaching, the unions have ratcheted up their message.

NBA players were told there’s a 99 percent chance the 2011-12 season will be disrupted. NFL players received a letter this month urging them to set aside three game checks to help carry them through a likely delay next fall.

“Your whole mindset is different because you know that in all likelihood there will be a lockout,” Knicks guard Roger Mason said. “So I think in everything you do, from your day-to-day spending to the holidays to summer vacations, (you think about it), for sure.”

Ed Butowsky is a wealth manager who works with many pro athletes. At the invitation of the NFL and NBA, and individual teams, he’s spoken to more than 20 clubs and at rookie gatherings, explaining the threat a lockout poses and urging them to use it as an opportunity to get their finances in order.

“Are they are aware? All. Are they prepared and doing things? It’s on a case-by-case basis,” said Butowsky, managing partner of Chapwood Investment Management. “Some of these people, because of their spending, are a train wreck waiting to happen. It’s not crazy spending, they just spend too much money. Throw on top of that the lockout potential and now you could have a catastrophe.”

The superstars shouldn’t have to worry about paying their bills. The athletes affected most by a lockout would be guys like Slauson — those on the low end of the salary scale, players on their way in or out of their league, backups or newly minted starters yet to cash in on their status.

Many realize any day could be their last as a pro athlete, so they’re always looking to save. As Kansas Chiefs fullback Mike Cox put it: “My wife and I always prepare like there’s a lockout every year.”

For Jacob Bender, a member of the Washington Redskins’ practice squad, the situation has meant more trips to grocery stores than to restaurants.

For New York Giants tight end Bear Pascoe, who has gone from practice squad to active roster in both of his NFL seasons, it was buying a truck and paying it off “so I won’t have to worry about it.”

Frank Zombo wasn’t drafted coming out of Central Michigan. Although he’s now a starting linebacker for the Packers, he doesn’t take anything for granted.

“There is no ‘save my last two paychecks,’ ” he said. “I’ve been saving everything.”

Slauson was a sixth-round pick in 2009. He got a four-year deal that started at $335,000 per year, slightly over the league minimum, plus a $100,000 signing bonus, chump change in the pro sports world, especially living in the New York area.

If a new collective bargaining agreement isn’t reached before the existing deal expires March 4, the lockout would begin and the Slausons would say goodbye to their New Jersey apartment.

“We’re going to take our stuff here, put it in storage and break our lease,” Slauson said. “I wouldn’t be able to afford to keep that place if I’m not getting paid. So, we’d be moving back to Nebraska.”

NFL players get paid only during the regular season. Slauson already has put about $25,000 — the equivalent of his single-game salary — into that rainy day fund set up by the players union.

“Now I can just focus on daily stuff and not have to start another whole new account for savings,” Slauson said. “I give it to them and I don’t have to think about it anymore.”

Dallas Mavericks rookie Dominique Jones is worry-free, too. His financial planners have had the lockout in mind since the day he began earning an NBA paycheck.

“We went over my whole budget so my bills will be paid all the way till not this February coming up, but the next February,” he said. “We feel the lockout should be over by then.”

The possibility of a lockout is a big part of why Jones is playing in the NBA instead of at South Florida for his senior season. He feared the 2011-12 season would be compromised, delaying the start of his professional career — and the start of his paydays.

Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings has been getting paid to play basketball since leaving high school, spending a year in a European league before being the 10th overall pick of the 2009 draft. He will get a big raise once he becomes a free agent, but he’s locked up through the 2011-12 season and doesn’t want to spend money he hasn’t made.

“Right now, I’m really keeping a good budget, a tight budget,” he said.

Tom Condon of Creative Artists Agency represents Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and many more guys who won’t miss any meals if they miss a few paychecks.

However, their huge salaries mean they would be missing out on the most money. So Condon’s advice to them is simple: Pay attention.

“We tell them they need to involve themselves in the process, the entire process,” Condon said.

Browns kicker Phil Dawson, a free agent after this season, has been saving up, but worries that not enough players have done the same.

“Ultimately, that will be our weakness — if guys are desperate,” he said. “If we got a bunch of knuckleheads who have gone through all their money, that hurts our position. Hopefully, guys will be smart with their money and be able to budget wisely and be able to absorb any work stoppage that may come.”

Broncos linebacker Jason Hunter thinks he’s ready. After all, he’s followed the NFLPA advice about saving some paychecks, perhaps a bit too literally.

He puts them in a safe.

“That’s the best way not to spend,” he said. “When you get your checks, don’t cash them.”