Decision to turn pro isn’t money in the bank
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
April 23, 2006
Ask Debbie Ferguson about her life as a professional track and field athlete, and she’ll tell you racing to the finish line comes naturally. It’s trying to meet the bottom line that causes her to take a step back.
“It’s not like tennis. It’s not like golf. It’s totally different,” said Ferguson, a three-time Olympic medalist from the Bahamas. “It’s become brutal.”
Ferguson, who celebrated her 30th birthday on Jan. 16, has spent nearly a decade keeping pace in a corporate climate where even the swiftest and most agile competitors struggle to avoid financial pitfalls.
This weekend, she’ll join a new generation of business-savvy sprinters at the 97th annual Drake Relays in Des Moines.
Ferguson entered an invitational 100 meters that also features Allyson Felix, a silver medal winner as the youngest member of the 2004 United States Olympic team.
Felix, now 20, and fellow Drake Stadium headliner Jeremy Wariner, 22, both sacrificed their college eligibility so they could profit from early success.
Ferguson faced similar opportunities as a 19-time all-American for Georgia, and estimates her decision to stay in school another year resulted in $30,000 to $50,000 in lost revenue.
When Ferguson won NCAA 100 and 200 titles in 1998, agents promised lucrative contracts.
When she finished second in both events the following season, Ferguson settled for a deal that paid her about $25,000 annually.
“Then, I was at their mercy,” Ferguson said. “I had to go with what they offered.”
Ferguson graduated at the urging of her mother, but she was just starting to learn about the fickle nature of professional sports.
“I think you should always get that NCAA experience and get that degree,” Ferguson said. “That paper is important.”
Still, Ferguson understands why some choose to focus on their athletic opportunities - especially since elite performers such as Felix and Wariner are able to continue their studies during the offseason.
“If I can get someone to pay for college and let me compete,” Ferguson said, “who wouldn’t do that?”
Felix, last year’s 200-meter world champion, sought advice from family before giving up her amateur status at age 17.
“I talked to a lot of people about my decision,” Felix said. “Other athletes and then ultimately my parents.”
Wariner’s decision came after he won Olympic gold in the 400 meters and helped the United States to a victory in the 4 x 400.
“We thought basically, if I medal, we will think about it,” said Wariner, who will run in a special 200 meters at Drake. “After I won, (Baylor) coach (Clyde) Hart and I sat down and we both agreed that there is nothing else in college for me to do.”
Ferguson has been down that career path, and she knows what Felix and Wariner might encounter.
Winning silver, gold and bronze medals the past three Olympics hasn’t prevented Ferguson from getting the cold-shoulder treatment.
She recently tried to negotiate a new contract with Puma, but representatives from the sports apparel company just shrugged.
“In a way, I’m a risk,” Ferguson said, referring to how some executives view a potential 30-something client.
There also has been times when Ferguson has finished out of the money during a meet. She’s experienced the emptiness that comes from placing ninth in a race where only the top eight finishers earn prize money.
That’s why you won’t hear Ferguson complain when a younger crop of athletes gets a head start on their dreams.
“You can’t fault them,” she said. “They feel they have to do it while they can. It might not be there tomorrow.”
Excellent jump field: Miguel Pate, ranked second in the world, will compete Friday in the men’s long jump, owning a personal best of 28 feet 2 inches, set at the 2002 U.S. Indoor Championships.
Kenta Bell, ranked second in the U.S. last year, and Arik Wilson, who won the Drake long and triple jumps last year, will compete in the triple jump Saturday.