By Robert Weintraub
The Initial Public Offering of shares in Arian Foster, the Houston Texans running back, is a nice start, but let's face it -- you're much better off shorting Foster stock.
So where should the smart investor place his dough? With an eye toward highest potential returns, your friendly neighborhood Gordon Gekko is here to help. I made a list of the top investments in today's sports world. These are the athletes you should buy a piece of (avoid the knee ligaments, stick with the abs) in order to reap future rewards that will allow you to buy that new 144-inch television, to better watch your portfolio in action.
(NOTE -- This is a list of current professionals only, as there is no listing for the likes of Andrew Wiggins or Jadeveon Clowney yet. The wise investor will avoid the volatility and huge risk of amateur athletes.)
Age -- 21
Current salary -- $10 million
The Brazilian wunderkind and FC Barcelona forward is hardly suffering on the payment front, but he's like Apple before the advent of the iPhone, a stock just waiting to explode. His play for Barca thus far hasn't lit the Catalan nation afire just yet, but that is only holding his offering price down for the moment. Jump on it while it is still affordable.
The real action on Neymar will come after his native country hosts the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Neymar figures to star for the his country in both events (Olympic soccer allows for three players over 23 per side, and barring injury or the Christ the Redeemer statue collapsing on him, Neymar will be on that team), which should focus the globe's eyeballs on him and guarantee he becomes a house, hut, and igloo-hold name. Neymar's international numbers are staggering already, with 27 goals and 20 (unofficial) assists in 44 matches. He already has an action figure in his likeness; three years hence the entire world will be sporting his signature fauxhawk. The best future buy on the planet.
2. Mike Trout
Age -- 22
Current Salary -- $510,000
The investment world prizes numbers and provable metrics, thus Trout is already a two-time MVP on Wall Street. Regardless of hardware, Trout is the best of an exciting corps of young hardball talent, and so severely underpaid relative to his brilliance that the reward on his future earnings has investors salivating. He is also likely to benefit from external factors. The New York Yankees are moving mountains to avoid luxury tax jail, and presuming they do, the franchise will be able to bid into the heavens for Trout's services when he is eligible for free agency in 2017. His current employer, the hardly poor Angels, will be equally desperate to keep Trout. A deal north of $300 million dollars is virtually certain, with another enormous one possible after that. With a fishy name and winning smile, either coast will serve the "next Mantle's" endorsement potential well, provided he avoids The Mick's injury history.
3. Kyrie Irving
Age -- 21
Current Salary -- $5.61 million
Finding NBA players with huge growth potential is difficult. The current superstars (LeBron, etc) are hugely expensive, while the recent influx of talent aiming for their first big payday doesn't set calculators ablaze in anticipation. The real issue is injury risk. Certainly no young player approaches the King's unbreakable physique, and the most glorious of talents carry histories of missing significant time to breakage.
That certainly applies to Irving, but he is the lone young player whose talent is transcendent enough to guarantee him a max deal, if not two, and also features enough personality to keep the endorsement revenue stream flowing, if not gushing. Investors with LeBron's ear should buy Irving stock and then push James to return to Cleveland. Playing alongside LBJ would give Irving's earning potential a substantial push.
4. Andrew Luck
Age -- 24
Current Salary -- $390,000
NFL players are an inherent risk in the futures market, with the injury factor and lack of guaranteed money leaving investors with hearts in their mouths every Sunday. If anyone is a sure-fire bet to cash in on not only a $100-million dollar contract but an endorsement suite to match that of Aaron Rodgers (and approach that of Peyton Manning), it is Luck, who combines exceptional talent with a savvy former NFL quarterback father to help guide him to the riches he deserves. The only X-factor that might hold Luck's off-field earnings down is his hillbilly look and Buffalo Bill voice, a combination that makes Steven Linder from the Bridge a natural for doppelganger ads in the near and long-term.
5. Billy Horschel
Age -- 26
Current Salary -- $3.5 million (2013 YTD)
Golf is a tricky sport for futures investment. The established stars (Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy) pull down a fortune, but their share price is exorbitantly high. The potential greats (Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Keegan Bradley) cost plenty and aren't sure-fire returns, given the depth of the PGA Tour and the inconsistency of the second and third-tier golfers. So why not take a shot or two on some young penny stocks with a fine pedigree and a chance for substantial earnings? Luke Guthrie is 23 and loaded with talent, and Stanford's Patrick Rodgers would be the choice but he's still an amateur. So give Horschel a buy. The 26-year-old with the aggressive game won at the TPC Louisiana and tied for fourth at the U.S. Open this year, has made 22 of 26 cuts, and is up to 36th in the rankings, despite being known by only the most rabid of golf fans. His cost is low and the potential for dividend is large, so pounce now.
6. Gennady Golovkin
Age -- 31
Current Salary -- $20 million (YTD approx.)
Star boxers have an exceptionally high return on investment (which is why syndicates backed Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier when they were young heavyweight contenders). The asking price for the likes of Floyd Mayweather and Timothy Bradley are far too high, but the next foreign superstar is still unknown enough to be bought at a low price before he explodes on the scene a la Manny Pacquiao. Golovkin, a Kazakh and the WBA and IBO middleweight champion, is 27-0 (24 KOs) and the owner of boxing's baddest knockout of the year. He should make short work of Curtis Stevens in a couple of weeks. That fight, at Madison Square Garden and televised by HBO, should boost the profile of "Triple-G" enough to earn him a super payday in 2014.
The only warning for investors is the cynical nature of boxing. The big name fighters who might boost Golovkin's earnings into the stratosphere are more likely to drink arsenic with their raw eggs than they are to climb into the ring with Golovkin, so while returns should be high, shareholders could still be left wondering what might have been.
7. Clayton Kershaw
Age -- 25
Current Salary -- $11 million
Baseball pitchers carry an injury risk that makes them unpleasant buys, and Kershaw already received an extension that puts his current income higher than preferred, so profits aren't in the Trout range for his investors. But as a left hander, Kershaw's likely longevity offsets concerns about a potential elbow or shoulder breakdown. Despite recent returns, it seems Kershaw may bypass the $200 million contract and go right to $300 million, so splash out on some shares before Magic Johnson and his fellow owners do.
8. Cheteshwar Pujara
Age -- 25
Salary -- $1.1 million (approx.)
Indian cricket is in a state of transition, with the Michael Jordan of the sport, Sachin Tendulkar, retiring from competition, and the stalwart captain (and extremely well compensated) Mahendra Singh Dhoni about to turn 33. The canny investor will put his money into the future of the next India captain, who stands to make a modest income on the field (Doni clears about $3.5 million), but rake it in when it comes to endorsements. India's Premier League is turning supernova, cricket in general has never been more popular, and India's burgeoning population (which is expected to surpass China in about 2030) guarantees a ton of marketing dollars will flow into the pocket of the highest-profile cricketer in a country mad for the game (Doni makes about $18 million from his roughly 25 sponsors).
Cheteshwar Pujara is already considered the game's next top batsman, and at 25 he is only getting better. The man who took Rahul Dravid's number three spot in the Indian order has already surpassed 200 runs in a single at-bat eight times in top-flight play, and soared over 300 thrice, an extraordinary feat (even if you don't know test cricket from Jiminy Cricket). And Pujara has yet to fully impact the T20 game, the shorter version of cricket that has exploded on the Indian scene. Provided he stays fit (and Pujara has been injury prone thus far), he could well become the next captain of the national team before he hits thirty. And then the endorsement dollars will handsomely pay off for his shareholders.
9. Sebastian Vettel
Age -- 26
Current Salary -- $16.4 million
Vettel, en route to a fourth straight Formula One championship, is already well paid, but is due to become a free agent after the 2014 season. Ferrari will back up the Brinks truck in order to pry the classy German driver away from Red Bull, looking to re-establish the glory days when another German, the legendary Michael Schumacher, dominated the sport. The combination of a new deal and Vittel's growing endorsement power makes him a definite buy.
10. Zhang Shuai
Age -- 24
Current Salary -- $283,000 (YTD)
Given the explosion in China's interest in sport, endorsement cash, and upwardly mobile population, the next great tennis player from the Middle Kingdom stands to make current star Li Na's hefty earnings look piddling by comparison. Zhang is young and on the rise, number 61 in the WTA rankings with a bullet. She isn't to be confused with Peng Shuai, who won the Wimbledon doubles title this summer. While Peng has more current cachet, Zhang has the higher singles ceiling, and if she can break through to the top ten on the court, her off-court earnings stand to make investors willing to take a gamble smile.
Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.