Danielle Collins graduated from the University of Virginia in 2016 with a degree in media studies. But what she really needed as she embarked on a career in professional tennis was a better understanding of money.
“I graduated from one of the best schools in the country,” she said earlier this year at the Miami Open, “but not every program prepares you to be the most financially savvy person. When I got out of school, I didn’t really know how everything worked – I still don’t.
“One of the unique things about being as professional athlete is you have this opportunity to make a lot of money at a really young age, and when you’re younger you don’t always know how to manage that. Unfortunately, we all know of professional athletes who have been taken advantage of, we’ve heard the horror stories.”
Collins, a 28-year-old American, grew up in a lower middle-class family, where her parents have always prioritized saving money. In fact, her father Walter, at 82 years old, runs a landscaping business where he still mows lawns and cuts down trees everyday in the Florida heat. The two-time NCAA single champion wanted to build off that work ethic and take it a step further. With some help, she did. Today, she is a Top 10 player and a powerful advocate for financial literacy.
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It can be a lucrative profession. The $179,940 Collins took home for reaching the quarterfinals in Miami pushed her over the $5 million mark for career earnings. But compared to many jobs, the earnings window is exceedingly narrow; many players retire in their mid-30s.
“That’s why it’s so important to educate yourself and put yourself in a situation where you’re working with professionals who can help guide you,” Collins said. “For a lot of people, finances can be a scary subject. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is not being afraid to ask for help, getting second opinions, trying to educate yourself as best as possible so that you can become the most resourceful.
“And I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve had some incredible mentors outside of tennis that have been able to help guide me, to put myself in a situation where I can be financially free.”
After she reached the final at this year’s Australian Open, Collins joined winner Ashleigh Barty on the stage and proceeded to thank Barty, along with the tournament director, the ball kids, the volunteers, the physios and her tennis team. But when she came to Marty Schneider, her financial mentor, Collins grew emotional.
“I wouldn’t be here without your support,” she said, looking at Schneider in the crowd. “Thank you for believing in me.”
It was a heartfelt thanks, and Collins went even further. When Schneider called to chat about Collins, he held up the engraved silver plate she received for making the final.
“I will not take credit for giving her that instinct – that comes from her upbringing,” Schneider said from his office in New York City. “I will take some credit for being very clear that especially in tennis, the first time you get a paycheck, you should put some money away. It’s just that simple.
“Danielle was game. She understands tennis is a finite period. While you’re making it, literally, you should be putting as much away as the government allows. And she owns that.”
They met at the Connecticut Open three months after she graduated, and Schneider agreed to help Collins gain her footing in the professional game. Schneider, who said he’s “been extraordinarily lucky in the resources column,” is a philanthropist who works with a handful of players, offering financial help, hiring coaches, etc. In retrospect, his advice has been at least as valuable as his financial support.
One of the first things Collins did as a professional was set up a 401k retirement fund.
“One of the primary focuses for me, and it would be a great segue to inspiring people to save money and build for the future, is creating a 401k at an early age,” Collins said. “It’s really important because a lot of people don’t start doing this until they’re in their 30s and 40s and by that time you don’t give yourself enough time to really let that pool of money grow.
“The earlier you can start your 401k, even if you just slowly start putting the money in each month, five percent, 10 percent of each paycheck into that, it really makes a huge impact down the road. You want to have your money working for you.”
After her first big run on tour, Collins had enough to make a down payment on her first home, a two-bedroom condo near the water in Tampa. It wasn’t fancy, she said, but it was far more cost-effective than paying rent. It’s not just a place she calls home, it’s an asset that can appreciate.
“She’s driven by financial independence,” Schneider said. “It’s not like, `Oh, I’m playing the sport I love and I get paid for it.’ Those things come hand in hand. This is a profession. I’ve told her never be shy about making money.”
Spending it, however, isn’t easy for the fiscally conservative Collins. She admits to the occasional spasm of “retail therapy,” maybe a fancy goose-down jacket or even a sofa. Yes, after winning nearly $1.2 million for reaching the final in Melbourne, Collins splurged and purchased a new sofa.
“When you have four dogs, you have to get a new sofa every couple of years,” Collins said. “It’s white, with a special fabric that can go in the washer.”
Scout, a Boxer/Jack Russell Terrier, Harper (German Shepherd), Lola (Boxer/Pug/Bulldog/Beagle) and Quincy (Labradoodle) are all rescue dogs and, based on the myriad photos Collins shared from her phone, they are a handsome group.
The balance of that big Australian payday? Most of it went straight into her investment portfolio. Collins referenced Barty in a pre-tournament press conference in Miami, noting her ability to retire at the age of 25 (having won nearly $24 million in prize money), spoke to the opportunities in professional tennis.
“I think this sport empowers us in a way financially that is really unique to other sports,” Collins said. “We’re the highest-paid women’s sport in the world. I think everything else that we work hard for every day, what we’re able to achieve on court, it leads to so many great things later down the road.
“Just to see somebody retire at 25 years old, this is incredible. It’s something to really celebrate and acknowledge.”
So is Collins’ paying Schneider’s support forward. She mentors young Tampa-area players, and she’s also active with the Save the Children Fund.
During the Miami Open, Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed bill SB 1054 into law, making the state the largest yet to require a financial literacy course for high school graduation.
“Which,” Collins said, “I think is really cool. Especially, high school education doesn’t usually include curriculum that includes that specific subject. And so I think it’s going to be really great for a lot of kids to educate themselves early on. I would have benefited so much from taking a course like that.
“Even if you’re taking economics or some finance classes – you don’t learn about money management, about how to handle debt, about how to pay off debt, how to save and invest money. That’s why education is critical.”
In the wake of a viral illness that knocked her out of action for one month, she played through a chronically aching neck in Miami. To that point, Collins is about to make another investment in herself.
“I’m looking forward to having a full-time physical therapist on the road with me,” she said, smiling. “I think that’s going to make a really big difference in my career. I’m counting down the days.”