HBO's 'Ballers' and its star, 'The Rock,' play fast and loose with the financial advice industry

Dwayne Johnson plays a retired football player turned money manager trying to win professional athletes as clients

Jul 8, 2015 @ 12:01 am

By Alessandra Malito

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has played the role of a wrestler, a security agent, the tooth fairy, soldier, the Scorpion King and Hercules. Now he's playing a financial adviser.

In the latest HBO television series, "Ballers," Mr. Johnson's character, Spencer Strasmore, is a retired football player turned Miami-based money manager who tries to enlist his former colleagues — professional athletes — as clients. Rob Corddry of “Hot Tub Time Machine” and “The Daily Show” fame also plays an adviser, Mr. Strasmore's co-worker Joe, on the show, which features cameos from many actual NFL players.

There are some embellishments of course — Spencer lends one person $300,000 of his own money to encourage him to become a client, for example, and talk of a 3% AUM fee is thrown around a bit.

But there is also some truth in the underlying message of the show, and that is that working with athletes takes a lot of comprehensive planning and relationship building.

"I think what they are doing is right on," said Mark Martiak, a senior wealth strategist at Premier Wealth Advisors and First Allied Securities in New York. He is also a designated NFL Players Association registered financial advisor who works with athletes.

"It is a lot of hand-holding with professional athletes," he said.

In many instances, athletes don't know how hard it can be to keep their wealth after they retire. Mr. Martiak added that most professional careers last five to seven years, but injuries or mediocre performance can cut them much shorter.

Melissa Sotudeh, a financial adviser with Halpern Financial in Rockville, Md., said that while watching “Ballers” she noticed a number of true-to-life situations with pertinent messages.

"The first episode was about bad estate planning and risk management," Ms. Sotudeh said, highlighting one character's death and how his lack of life insurance affected his widow. "It's those types of issues — getting hurt, income stopping before you anticipate it and not planning for those emergency situations."

Throughout the three episodes that have aired so far, Mr. Johnson's character is trying to woo NFL players and get them to sign on the dotted line, with the promise of walking them through important financial decisions during their careers.

"It is really managing clients' behavior and making sure that we deliver the message in a way that is going to resonate with them," Ms. Sotudeh said. "It'll be interesting to see how the season unfolds."

Paul Curley, director of college savings research at Strategic Insight in Boston, said that the show could engage viewers, especially Generation X and millennial financial advisers.

"The TV show does a great job of portraying the struggle in reality of helping their clients," Mr. Curley said. “I think this TV show will help engage the younger adviser base."

But the show's financial-planning themes may not mean as much for viewers who are not advisers — they likely tune into “Ballers” for its entertainment value.

Daniel Crosby, a behavioral finance expert who is president of IncBlot Behavioral Finance, said that if the show highlights advisers, then it's for all of the wrong reasons, and viewers will know the difference.

"This certainly isn't the first time Wall Street has received this sort of treatment and I imagine it won't be the last," Mr. Crosby said. "I don't see it having any sort of material impact [on the wealth management industry].

“I say watch it and laugh about the gross misrepresentation [of financial advisers] with your clients,” he said.

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