From the Field to the Boardroom

Some ex-athletes have successfully made the transition into the corporate world.

Shimon Gershon struggled to hold back the tears last week. Gershon, one of Israel's best known soccer stars, convened a press conference in which he announced that he would retire from the sport due to a congenital heart defect. "It's hard to believe that it's over," he said. "I don't remember myself without soccer."

Gershon joins a long list of athletes who finished their careers - sooner or later - and were forced to find a new occupation in a completely different field. The former Beitar Jerusalem star has himself dabbled in the entertainment industry, releasing an album with his wife Mali Levi and his brother Savi. He also authored a children's book. Yet it remains unclear whether the soccer star truly intends to become a cultural icon.

Miki Berkovich
Photos: Assaf Kutin, Eyal Toueg

The key dilemma facing retiring athletes is how to make the transition from a diverse, competitive and instinct-driven career that often places them on the back pages of newspapers to another profession in the business sector, which is usually calmer, if not duller.

In addition, a large number of athletes head into the workforce without proper training or an academic degree, since they did not have time to complete their studies between practices. A few of them elect to remain in the world of sports. Itzik Kornfein, the former Beitar goalkeeper, made sure to earn a university degree in economics while he was still playing. He also finished a master's degree in business administration, which would help him rise to the post of Beitar chairman.

Other ex-players become coaches. Oded Katash, a superstar basketball player with Maccabi Tel Aviv, is today coaching its Super League rival, Hapoel Jerusalem. He also served as Maccabi's head coach. Some players are given positions on the boards of non-profit associations while others become commentators.

Those who do not succeed in finding a position in the sports world reach their mid-30s and find themselves trying to develop a second career in a field with which they are unacquainted.

Meir Tapiro, a guard on the national basketball team, is at a crossroads at which he must decide what to do next. After a 17-year playing career, retirement is just around the corner. Although he still has two years remaining on his contract with Maccabi Ashdod, the time has come to begin looking for a new job.

"I've dabbled in real estate and I took a coaching course, but I'm still looking for something to do in two years," he says. "I have many concerns. Until now I have worked and made money in basketball. I'm looking at options and meeting with a lot of friends who are also ex-players, who are trying to point me in the right direction. Everyone says it will take me between a year and two years until I find something new."

If you ask Miki Berkovich, widely considered the best Israeli basketball player ever, he would advise players to enter the business world while they are still suiting up for their professional teams.

"A playing career is brief," the former Maccabi Tel Aviv star said. "An athlete needs to find another profession while he is still in his first career."

"I had a long career," Berkovich recalls. "I played in the [top] league until I was 41 years old, but even then I was active in business. I owned a chain of sporting goods stores known as 'Point 9,' which was the number of my uniform. I had two stores in Tel Aviv and a few more all over Israel. This was before the era of chain stores. I told shirts, shoes, socks and sports equipment."

It wasn't long before Berkovich put an end to his career in retail clothing. "I believe that everyone needs to change their field every 15 years," he says. "I learned about insurance and I became an insurance agent who built his own company. I sold the company five years ago to Clal Insurance."

Now Berkovich works in real estate and development.

Does an athlete have an advantage in business that mere mortals do not? Do the competitive juices that fuel sportsmen during their playing careers positively impact their decisions as businesspeople? There is no clear answer.

Yoav Bruck, widely acknowledged as one of the best swimmers the country has ever produced, became the CEO of Issta Sport, a travel agency that offers fans in Israel the chance to fly abroad to countries for the purpose of viewing sporting events. Bruck believes that what drove him as a swimmer should be credited with his success as an executive.

"Fear of failure is a significant factor, but it's something that stays with you constantly as an athlete," he said. "The fear of losing gives you even greater motivation during competition, and this is so in business as well. It pushes you further."

In contrast, Berkovich says that fear of losing does not affect his business career. "I was involved in a number of purchasing groups [in which private individuals band together to buy property] and had real estate deals in Israel and abroad," he said. "Sometimes you trip up. I also have properties in eastern Europe, and the situation there is not dazzling, but it's not something that threatens my livelihood. I treat it as one loss, after which begins a new game that I need to win."

For athletes, there is also the added advantage that their celebrity could bring in pushing their products. Yet some warn that star power can only take an ex-jock so far.

"It isn't always helpful [to be a celebrity]," says Amir Shelah, the retired soccer star who turned to a career in interior architecture. "Initially I began working with my family, friends, fellow soccer players and high-profile personalities, but most of my customers are average folks who just want to design their homes."

"Some people actually thumb their nose at me, as if to say, 'What? Amir Shelah the soccer player is going to design my home?' Sometimes this is a good way to break the ice and begin a dialogue with the customer, but many times when people approach me on the street they don't look at me as Amir Shelah the soccer player. They already see me as Amir Shelah the designer."