PRE

Athletes and Sports Competitors

Career, Salary and Education Information

What They Do: Athletes and sports competitors participate in organized, officiated sporting events to entertain spectators.

Work Environment: Athletes and sports competitors often work irregular hours, including evenings, weekends, and holidays. They usually work more than 40 hours a week for several months during their particular sports season. They frequently work outside, so they may be exposed to all weather conditions.

How to Become One: No formal educational credential is required for anyone to become an athlete or sports competitor. Athletes must have superior athletic talent and an extensive knowledge of their sport. They usually get such knowledge through years of practice and experience at lower levels of competition.

Salary: The median annual wage for athletes and sports competitors is $77,300.

Job Outlook: Employment of athletes and sports competitors is projected to grow 38 percent over the next ten years, much faster than the average for all occupations. Competition for most professional athlete jobs will remain very strong.

Related Careers: Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of athletes and sports competitors with similar occupations.

What Athletes and Sports Competitors Do[About this section] [To Top]

Athletes and sports competitors participate in organized, officiated sporting events to entertain spectators.

Duties of Athletes and Sports Competitors

Athletes and sports competitors typically do the following:

  • Practice to develop and improve their skills
  • Maintain their sports equipment in good condition
  • Train, exercise, and follow special diets to stay in the best physical condition
  • Take instructions regarding strategy and tactics from coaches and other sports staff during games
  • Follow the rules of the sport during competitions and games
  • Assess their individual and team performance after each event and identify their strengths and weaknesses

Many people dream of becoming a paid professional athlete. Few people, however, beat the odds and make a full-time living from professional athletics—and when they do, professional athletes often have short careers with little job security.

When playing a game, athletes and sports competitors must understand the strategies involved while following the rules and regulations of the sport. The events in which athletes compete include team sports, such as baseball, softball, hockey, and soccer, and individual sports, such as golf, tennis, swimming, and skiing. The level of play varies greatly. Some athletes may compete in regional competitions, while other athletes compete in national or international events.

Being an athlete involves more than competing in athletic events. Athletes spend most days practicing their skills and improving teamwork under the guidance of a coach or a sports instructor. They review videotapes to critique and improve their own performance and technique. Athletes also must study their opponents' tendencies and weaknesses so as to gain a competitive advantage.

Some athletes work regularly with fitness trainers and instructors to gain muscle and stamina and to prevent injury. Because of the physical demands required by many sports, career-ending injuries are always a risk. Even minor injuries may put a player at risk of replacement.

Because competition at all levels is extremely intense and job security is always in question, many athletes train throughout the year to maintain or improve their form and technique and remain in peak physical condition. Very little downtime from the sport exists at the professional level.

Work Environment for Athletes and Sports Competitors[About this section] [To Top]

Athletes and sports competitors hold about 16,700 jobs. The largest employers of athletes and sports competitors are as follows:

Self-employed workers 42%
Spectator sports 36%
Fitness and recreational sports centers 3%

Athletes and sports competitors who participate in outdoor competitions may be exposed to all weather conditions of the season in which they play their sport. In addition, many athletes must travel to sporting events. Such travel may include long bus rides or plane trips, and, in some cases, international travel.

Injuries and Illnesses for Athletes and Sports Competitors

Athletes and sports competitors have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. Many of these workers wear pads, gloves, goggles, helmets, and other protective gear to protect against injury. And although fatalities are uncommon, athletes and sports competitors experience one of the highest rates of occupational fatalities of all occupations.

Athlete and Sports Competitor Work Schedules

Athletes and sports competitors often work irregular hours, including evenings, weekends, and holidays. During the sports season, they usually work more than 40 hours a week for several months as they practice, train, travel, and compete.

How to Become an Athlete or Sports Competitor[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Athletes and Sports Competitors near you!

No formal educational credential is required for anyone to become an athlete or sports competitor. Athletes must have superior athletic talent and extensive knowledge of their sport. They usually get such knowledge through years of experience at lower levels of competition.

Education for Athletes and Sports Competitors

Although athletes and sports competitors typically have at least a high school diploma or equivalent, no formal educational credential is required for them to enter the occupation. They must have extensive knowledge of the way the sport is played—especially its rules, regulations, and strategies.

Other Experience for Athletes and Sports Competitors

Athletes typically learn the rules of the game and develop their skills by playing the sport at lower levels of competition. For most sports, athletes compete in high school and collegiate athletics or on club teams. In addition, athletes may improve their skills by taking private or group lessons or attending sports camps.

Athlete and Sports Competitor Training

It typically takes many years of practice and experience to become an athlete or sports competitor.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations for Athletes and Sports Competitors

Some sports and localities require athletes and sports competitors to be licensed or certified to practice. For example, race car drivers need to be licensed to compete in the various races. The governing body of the sport may revoke licenses and suspend participants who do not meet the required performance or training. In addition, athletes may have their licenses or certification suspended for inappropriate activity.

Advancement for Athletes and Sports Competitors

Turning professional is often the biggest advancement that aspiring athletes can make in their careers. They often begin to compete immediately, although some may spend more time on the bench (as a reserve) to gain experience. In some sports, such as baseball, athletes may begin their professional career on a minor league team before moving up to the major leagues. Professional athletes generally advance in their sport by displaying superior performance and receiving accolades; in turn, they earn a higher salary. Others may receive endorsements from companies and brands.

Important Qualities for Athletes and Sports Competitors

Athleticism. Nearly all athletes and sports competitors must possess superior athletic ability to be able to compete successfully against opponents.

Concentration. Athletes and sports competitors must be extremely focused when competing and must block out distractions from fans and opponents. The difference between winning and losing can sometimes be a result of a momentary lapse in concentration.

Decisionmaking skills. Athletes and sports competitors often must make split-second decisions. Quarterbacks, for example, usually have only seconds to decide whether to pass the football or not.

Dedication. Athletes and sports competitors must practice regularly to develop their skills and improve or maintain their physical conditioning. It often takes years to become successful, so athletes must be dedicated to their sport.

Hand–eye coordination. In many sports, including tennis and baseball, the need to gauge and strike a fast-moving ball is highly dependent on the athlete's hand–eye coordination.

Stamina. Endurance can benefit athletes and sports competitors, particularly those who participate in long-lasting sports competitions, such as marathons.

Teamwork. Because many athletes compete in a team sport, such as hockey or soccer, the ability to work with teammates as a cohesive unit is important for success.

Many professional athletes are also required to pass drug tests.

Athlete and Sports Competitor Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for athletes and sports competitors is $77,300. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $25,270, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $208,000.

The median annual wages for athletes and sports competitors in the top industries in which they work are as follows:

Spectator sports $85,390
Fitness and recreational sports centers $79,610

Athletes and sports competitors often work irregular schedules, including evenings, weekends, and holidays. During the sports season, they usually work more than 40 hours a week for several months as they practice, train, travel, and compete.

Job Outlook for Athletes and Sports Competitors[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of athletes and sports competitors is projected to grow 38 percent over the next ten years, much faster than the average for all occupations.

About 3,400 openings for athletes and sports competitors are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Employment of Athletes and Sports Competitors

Much of the projected employment growth in this occupation is due to recovery from the COVID-19 recession that began in 2020. Employment growth also will stem from population growth and increasing public interest in professional sports.

Growth and geographic shifts in population may lead to an increase in the number of professional sports teams. Some professional sports leagues may expand to new cities in the United States, forming new teams and job opportunities for prospective professional athletes.

However, expansion is rare in professional sports leagues and typically results in formation of only one or two teams at a time. Forming new teams is costly and risky, requiring strong support from fans and both local and state governments.

Employment projections data for Athletes and Sports Competitors, 2020-30
Occupational Title Employment, 2020 Projected Employment, 2030 Change, 2020-30
Percent Numeric
Athletes and sports competitors 16,700 23,000 38 6,300


A portion of the information on this page is used by permission of the U.S. Department of Labor.


Explore more careers: View all Careers or the Top 30 Career Profiles


Search for jobs: