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Former Eagle Helps Pro Rugby Players Navigate Financial Journey

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Former Eagle Helps Pro Rugby Players Navigate Financial Journey

John Cullen in action for the Utah Warriors. Photo Utah Warriors.

Over 150 rugby players have applied for the Major League Rugby draft, with 39 to be drafted and several more signed as undrafted free agents.

They will become, for a while at least, professional rugby players.

But while being a professional does mean that you’re paid, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re paid a lot. Former capped Eagle and professional player John Cullen is looking to help rugby players navigate the pro rugby maze. Can you chase your professional athletic dream and still stay strong financially? Cullen says you can—it’s not easy, but you can.

You Won't Get Paid Much, So Plan

“Some people really don’t have a good feel for what MLR salaries are,” said Cullen, who is a financial advisor and has been working with rugby players to help manage their finances. “And because players are not paid what you’d call a full-time wage, you have to have an income plan not only after professional rugby, but during.”

Being a professional rugby player is a huge boon to your rugby plans, said Cullen, who played at Hacienda Heights Rugby Club in Southern California and then with the University of Utah Utes. He was a collegiate All American, played with the Utah Warriors, and was capped by the Eagles.

“Being paid money while you work on your athletic goals is great,” he said. “But you can’t think that that is all you will be doing.”

Cullen points to the history of professional sports, and during most its history athletes had jobs in the off-season. It wasn’t until relatively recently that even below-average players in the major pro sports started making big money.

Today’s MLR draftees and new signees can’t expect big money, or even medium-sized money. 

“You have to be working toward something in addition to your rugby—education, developing work skills, or boosting your income. Yeah you want a long career in rugby, but what does that look like? A long career is seven to 10 years. During that time it’s unlikely you’ll be making so much money that you can set something aside. Even with a long career, you will still need a Plan B.”

You Have to Find Additional Income

This is true worldwide. Longtime pros overseas still need to plan for post-retirement, and in fact the Gallagher Premiership in England actually has a program and an award to encourage players to plan for post-rugby careers.

But how can you make that extra cash? Cullen talks to players and helps them plan out ideas.

“Time balance is one of the toughest things,” he explained. “Players struggled with that. For me, in my first three years as a pro we practiced from 6:30pm to 10pm. I would have been working a full day up to about 6pm so I would have to go quickly from work to practice. Then I’d also need to be watching film and work on recovery. I didn’t have a lot of time for sleep.”

But you can be creative, said Cullen. And in this world of remote work and contract work it’s possible to be essentially a full-time rugby player on a part-time wage and also get income from other sources.

“But there were times when I wondered if I had enough money for gas to get to practice; whether I had enough to buy quality food,” said Cullen. “Nutrition is a huge part of what you need to take care of to be a successful rugby player, but it can cost money.”

Money problems can leak into other aspects of your life. If you’re worrying about bills, that hurts your focus on the rugby field.

Sacrifice Can Mean Living Frugally

Cullen wants to help players work through all of that. He advises players on their budgeting and spending. He finds ways for them to have money saved in their bank account every month. But it’s also about personal and professional development.

“The players see that I’ve been there, done that,” he said. “And I help them understand that you have to commit more than just to play your sport, and you have to do the same with your finances and your non-rugby plans. Sometimes all we do is help with a budget and make sure the players stay with it. When you’re just starting out you don’t have the luxury of a disposable income. But I also talk to them about how they can keep their non-rugby professional life going. 

“You don’t want to be done with rugby at 28 and be starting from zero in another career. You need to build that resume. Did you finish your degree? If not, what’s the plan for finishing? I am not affiliated with any one team; I’m not a league general manager. My priority is you, the player. I want that player to succeed to the fullest of his ability as rugby player, but also succeed in managing the money they make, and help them make and keep more.”

This, said Cullen, is how he can give back to the sport and the players. But if nothing else, he wants new MLR signees to go into the league with their eyes open. Love for the game and a great work ethic gets you the contract, but you need that same focus to ensure your financial game plan is solid, too.