Sweat Equity: A Career in Sports as an Investment

Sweat Equity: A Career in Sports as an Investment

Soccer player Lara Dickenmann and hockey goaltender Jonas Hiller are international stars in their respective sports. The Swiss athletes both talk with rare openness about money in sports – about investments in launching careers, making ends meet after retirement, and the different-sized incomes in between.

“USD 18 million over four years,” reads the terms of Jonas Hiller’s most lucrative NHL contract. The goaltender from Eastern Switzerland broke into the premier North American professional hockey league – the world’s best – in 2007. In 2011, when Hiller was selected to the NHL All-Star Game, the only Swiss athlete who earned more than him was Roger Federer.

Soccer’s Lara Dickenmann can more than keep up with Hiller, now 38 years old, when it comes to athletic success. The woman from Central Switzerland has won the Champions League twice, has hoisted the trophy in a national club championship a record 15 times, was voted Switzerland’s best female soccer player a record eight times, and played in a Swiss national team match a record-breaking 135 times, scoring 53 goals. And her earnings? “Around CHF 130,000 in my best year,” the 34-year-old says.

1.7% 1.7%
Sports account for 1.7% of Switzerland’s annual gross domestic product. The new Sports & Money special exhibition at the Swiss Finance Museumshows the financial side of Formula 1, tennis, equestrian riding, soccer, and skiing. The lone finance museum in the banking country of Switzerland is located on the premises of the SIX headquarters building. Two employees of SIX – Swiss Finance Museum Director Andrea Weidemann and her teammate Simone Kobel – curated the special exhibition.

In the Beginning There’s an Investment

Dickenmann and Hiller belong to a small, elite group of Swiss athletes who have achieved international sports stardom. They have something else remarkable in common: They both talk openly about a taboo topic in Switzerland – money. It didn’t cost much to get Jonas Hiller started on his career. The expensive goalie equipment belonged to the hockey club. He only had to bring skates, a mask, and a stick with him. “Swiss clubs nurture youth players,” he explains, “because later on they can get a cut of any transfer fees.” It’s different in North America, he says, because there are no incentives to sponsor youth players. There, a “hockey kid” can thus quickly cost USD 15,000 per year or more. “Equipment, renting the rink, travel expenses – the parents pay for everything.”

Hiller transferred to the Davos Sports High School at the age of 16 and began to seriously strain his family’s budget – the boarding school costs around CHF 30,000 per year. Moreover, Hiller’s hockey career was in the doldrums. Although he had broken into Switzerland’s professional ranks as a player on HC Davos of the Swiss National League, he sat on the bench for three years. “My parents were somewhat relieved that I left high school with a diploma in hand and a yearly salary of CHF 15,000,” Hiller recounts, “but I had to become a firststring player to be able to make a living from sports.”

Jonas Hiller made it to the All-Star-Game of the National Hockey League, North America’s premier professional league.

Jonas Hiller made it to the All-Star-Game of the National Hockey League, North America’s premier professional league.

The Swiss Finance Museum, in its current Sports & Money special exhibition, shows the yearly expenses facing beginners in a variety of different sports. The spectrum is wide, ranging from CHF 24,000 for equestrian riding to an inexpensive CHF 340 for soccer. Lara Dickenmann confirms that it doesn’t cost much to play soccer. “Plus, my parents believed that I would quickly lose interest like I did before with swimming lessons and ballet.” They bought their daughter cheap soccer cleats, and she “inherited” the rest of her gear from her father, a former player for FC Zurich. Her membership dues for the SC Kriens soccer club were moderate.

The Athletic Success Is Coming

Although only a handful of women could earn a living from soccer at that time, in 2000 Dickenmann declared in a video that “I want to become a pro player.” She was just 15 years old, but a fast starter: She won three Swiss championships with FC Sursee  ̶  her second club, played on Switzerland’s national team, and scored a goal against France in her very first international match.

I had to cash a check for USD 50,000 every two weeks.

Jonas Hiller

After earning her high school diploma, she received a sports scholarship to attend college in the USA, where she studied international business administration in Ohio. But she spent most of her time there chasing a ball. “I had soccer on the brain,” the playmaker says. “I didn’t think for a second about working a normal job, but I wanted to complete my education.” Which she did, earning a bachelor’s degree.

After Jonas Hiller had spent a season on loan to the Lausanne Hockey Club, he returned to HC Davos as the team’s starting goalie and immediately won the Swiss national championship. He was now also a member of Switzerland’s national hockey team, he won another Swiss championship with HC Davos, and then made it over to the USA, joining the Anaheim Ducks based near Los Angeles.

His first NHL contract guaranteed the then 25-year-old an annual salary of around USD 650,000. “The crazy thing,” Hiller recounts, “is that my salary was paid by check.” Teams in North America pay salaries in installments spread over the 180-day hockey season. “I had to cash a check for USD 50,000 every two weeks.”

An asset management firm looks after his earnings to this day following a rather conservative investment strategy with welldiversified assets that was mapped out together with Hiller. “I wanted to make sure that my money didn’t suddenly disappear after my career as a result of taking on too much risk,” Hiller says.

Lara Dickenmann landed on the roster of the up-and-coming Olympique Lyonnais soccer team in 2009 almost “by accident.” The head coach of Olympique Lyonnais had once trained an opposing team that had faced Dickenmann’s squad and remembered her. She was invited to a tryout and was immediately given a contract. In her first season there, Lyon reached the semifinals of the European Champions League. In her second season, Lyon made it to the final, and in her third season, the team won the world’s most prestigious soccer club competition. Lyon today is the Champions League record titleholder.

If I had chosen a different path than playing soccer, I probably would have earned a lot more money.

Lara Dickenmann

During her time in Lyon, the woman dubbed the “Swiss soccer icon” by Germany’s newspaper TAZ earned EUR 3,000 per month and frequently had to fight for her money. When she signed with Olympique Lyonnais, the club assured Dickenmann that the contract paid her a net salary, but it later turned out the then 22-year-old had to pay the taxes out of her own pocket. In the exhibition at the Swiss Finance Museum, one can read that the French league today pays the highest average season salary (EUR 42,188) in European women’s soccer, followed by the German Bundesliga (EUR 37,060). In comparison, the average annual salary for male players at FC Barcelona stood at EUR 12.3 million in 2019.

1 Man or 833 Women

“I’m a terrible negotiator,” Dickenmann says. “Especially at the start of my career, I was afraid that a club would withdraw its offer, so I always signed right away.” Today an agent does the negotiating for her. Other considerations such as the makeup of the team, the head coach, and the club’s longer-term goals are now more important to her than her salary. Dickenmann is realistic: “If I had chosen a different path than playing soccer,” she says, “I probably would have earned a lot more money.”

Dickenmann’s contract in Lyon expired in 2015, and she now was free to pick a new club. For male players, that would be a dream scenario: A player of her stature could negotiate a handsome payday. But that doesn’t go for women, for whom transfer fees are still the exception. A transfer in men’s soccer in 2019 brought in an average of USD 475,328. The Swiss Finance Museum has calculated that the above amount would have been enough to pay for a total of 833 transfers in women’s soccer (USD 652,032).

Lara Dickenmann has sprinted several times to the Champions League final – and won it twice.

Lara Dickenmann has sprinted several times to the Champions League final – and won it twice.

At her new club, VfL Wolfsburg in Germany’s Bundesliga, Dickenmann actually earns even less than before, but she says she really wanted to try something new one more time. Despite pocketing a meager salary compared to what male players get, she manages to save some money each month. Her father looks after her financial matters. After an injury cut his soccer career short, he embarked on a career in asset management. “We have talked extensively about how I would like to invest my money,” Dickenmann says, “and now he is implementing the strategy for me.”

After seven years in California, Jonas Hiller moved to the Calgary Flames in Canada for two years. Afterward, the veteran of 437 NHL matches returned to Switzerland to play for the EHC Biel-Bienne hockey club. Hiller’s exit from active playing was arguably the least glamorous moment of his career: Shortly before the playoffs, ice hockey was suspended in Switzerland due to COVID-19.

Passing on Experience

Will he now be spending his days on a lounge chair? No. Hiller holds financial interests in a number of different companies and has taken over as the president of the Swiss Ice Hockey Players’ Union. He now wants to represent his hockey colleagues in a bid to standardize player contracts, to help players ease into post-career employment, to impress upon young talents how important it is to prepare for retirement from hockey, and to perhaps even establish a salary floor.

Lara Dickenmann retired from the Swiss national team in 2019, but her contract with Wolfsburg runs until 2021. This year she won the double crown of German soccer with Wolfsburg and reached the Champions League final. While she continues to play, she is finishing a master’s degree in management with a focus on sports.

Last stop of a successful career: in Biel, Jonas Hiller caught his last pucks.

Last stop of a successful career: in Biel, Jonas Hiller caught his last pucks.

When she hangs up her cleats one day, she wants to get involved in the business side of Swiss women’s soccer, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020. She’s not sure yet exactly what role she wants to play, but “mainly I want to advance the growth of Swiss women’s soccer.” Ever since Dickenmann first laced up for SC Kriens – playing on a boys’ team, mind you – the situation for women has improved a lot, she says, but “women’s soccer has to work as a business case. It has to become possible to earn money in women’s soccer not just for players and coaches, but also for clubs.”