An early scene in the pilot episode of HBO’s comedy-drama “Ballers,” which chronicles the exploits of Spencer Strasmore, a retired NFL linebacker turned financial manager for football pros portrayed by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, plays to the song “Fantasy” by Earth, Wind and Fire.
But how much of a fantasy is “Ballers,” which is currently in the middle of its third season on Time Warner-owned
“Ballers” ostensibly depicts Strasmore’s efforts to “monetize his friendships” with NFL clients at Anderson Financial, the firm he runs with partner Joe Krutel (Rob Corddry). Along the way, the show dives headlong into a high-rolling lifestyle of sex, drugs and socializing.
Theoretically, the show should be rooted in reality and on target about football players’ off-field exploits. After all, The Rock played football at the University of Miami only for his career to be curtailed by shoulder injuries, which led him to his wrestling stardom. Donovan Carter, who portrays one of Strasmore’s star clients, Vernon Littlefield, was himself a defensive lineman for the UCLA Bruins. And Rashard Mendenhall, who won Super Bowl XLIII with the Pittsburgh Steelers, is a writer on the show.
When I interviewed The Rock in 2015 just before “Ballers” premiered on HBO, he said he was drawn to the project because it “was a very well-written, cool show,” adding that he woke up at 4 a.m. to do cardio exercises in order to bulk up for the role.
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Several creative forces on “Ballers,” most notably creator Stephen Levinson and executive producer Mark Wahlberg, worked on the HBO comedy “Entourage.” Like that show, “Ballers” is rife with celebrity cameos that inject realism to the fictional world of NFL players and agents.
Sports stars who have been featured include Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver DeSean Jackson, New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, tennis player Caroline Wozniacki and NBA two-time MVP Steph Curry.
Football and finance: Is it for real?
But aside from featuring real-life athletes, does “Ballers” paint an accurate picture of football and finance? Randall Bacon, a record-breaking high school football player in Sacramento who later became Russell Wilson’s commercial body double and is now an actor, believes that the show does get it right.
“Ballers reflects the struggles of what athletes go through and the uncertainty of the business of football,” he says. One plot point that particularly impressed Bacon with its veracity was when Strasmore’s client Charles Greane retired from the Miami Dolphins to work in a car dealership.
Spencer Strasmore is well-observed, according to Bacon. “You see a lot of companies who use athletes to get hold of other athletes and trust them with their money,” he said. “I have a friend that is in the business right now: Eric Frampton [a former Minnesota Vikings safety who now works for Morgan Stanley in California]. They created a new position for him so they would have a draw on former athletes.”
Strasmore’s antics on the show have included lending and borrowing money from his clients, failing his NFL registration, undergoing hip surgery and driving a monster truck in a packed Las Vegas stadium.
Bacon says all this isn’t that far-fetched: “Strasmore goes through the ringer to keep his clients. The same respect you earn on the field as a rookie crosses over into other business relationships where you have to do extra things to earn respect. I like how “Ballers” shows how the culture transcends,” he said.
How about the financial adviser side to the story?
“’Ballers’ is a good show and the producers have done their homework so there is an element of truth to it,” says Ken Gunsberger, senior vice president of wealth management at UBS Financial Services who advises leaders in sports and entertainment on their money.
“The core of the show about players spending money and people taking advantage of them is essentially true,” he said. “It’s even worse in football because the amount of time they’re playing is shorter and they’re making their money younger, so they’re probably spending more money than they should. But it is a TV show so there’s embellishment as well.”
When it comes to finance, Gunsberger says “one of the areas where it falls short, and I don’t blame them because you don’t want to make it boring, is that players have a financial adviser but they also have CPAs who act as their business managers and an attorney. It’s done for streamlining but the reality is many of these more successful players have teams and they’re really only showing the investment side.”
On the show, Strasmore’s philosophy is, “Don’t invest in depreciating assets. If it drives, flies, floats or f—s, lease it.” His business partner Joe tells Reggie, Vernon Littlefield’s corrupting friend, “If I could pay you less than nothing, I’d pay you that!”
Sports financier Fred Spencer says such banter is not unbelievable. “That fast-talking in “Ballers” is very much in the HBO style but you find quick-witted, quick-talking guys tend to fare well in sports,” he said.
But he notes “Ballers” might be behind the curve in terms of how it depicts the financial interactions. “The culture in sports management has become more sophisticated. Players now go to guys who are a cut above what they used to be. Players are increasingly being advised to go and talk to Goldman [Sachs] or Credit Suisse,” he said.
That a financial manager should borrow money from his client struck Spencer as “creative license.” But he does rate well the current plotline involving Strasmore’s plan to bring an NFL team to Las Vegas (something that is happening in real life with the Oakland Raiders relocating to Las Vegas to play in the NFL in 2020). “The conversations that The Rock’s character has been having with Wayne Hastings [the casino magnate played by Steve Guttenberg] about Vegas are realistic as they are starting at a non-granular high level,” he said. “’Can we do this?’ ‘Is there the political will?’’
That story seems ripped from the headlines and yet “Ballers” director Julian Farino told Entertainment Weekly “The weird thing was that we were there first and suddenly, real life kicked in in a very parallel sense.”
Party like a player?
What about the freewheeling lifestyle depicted on the show?
“As far as the partying goes, I’m sure some of that goes on,” said UBS’s Gunsberger. “But that’s the exception. The NFL has been cracking down on behavior.”
One NFL player-turned-financier, whose bank would not give him clearance to speak publicly, said “It’s enjoyable but I don’t think it’s an accurate representation. Not everyone who works in finance has a huge yacht and not everyone in football parties with models all the time. It’s a select few.”
Yet Bacon added, “Some of the socializing is glorified but there are definitely aspects that are right out of real life. Like when [Vernon] gets photographed on the boat doing cocaine. That reflects the fact there’s no privacy in sports anymore. Ezekiel Elliott [the Dallas Cowboys running back who has just been suspended for six games] just learned that the hard way.”
Older-generation football players may not hold “Ballers” in as much affection as their younger peers do. Former New York Giants and L.A. Rams defensive end Fred Dryer, 71, is now an actor but you’re unlikely to see him in “Ballers” anytime soon.
“I hated it,” he said of the show. “It’s about nothing but narcissism.”
Given the “Ballers” creators’ previous HBO enterprise, what the show really nails is the present-day sports entourage. “’Ballers’ accurately shows how guys go broke quickly by making bad decisions and trying to impress people that don’t have the best impact on their career,” Bacon said.
But there’s room for improvement, according to financier Spencer. “I wish ‘Ballers’ would focus more on the low-end football guys surviving on the minimum,” he said. “It really needs the equivalent of ‘Entourage’s’ Johnny Drama!”
View more information: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/we-asked-football-players-and-financial-advisers-how-realistic-is-hbos-ballers-2017-08-18