Professional athletes are employed by private and public ownership groups throughout the United States and Canada. At the highest male professional level, there are National Football League franchises, Major League Baseball franchises, National Basketball Association franchises, National Hockey League franchises, and Major League Soccer franchises—more than 140 in all.
Most team sports have some official manner of establishing which teams acquire which players; often, this is referred to as a draft, although sometimes members of a professional team are chosen through a competition. Usually, the draft occurs between the college and professional levels of the sport. The National Basketball Association (NBA), for example, has its NBA College Draft. During the draft, the owners and managers of professional basketball teams choose players in an order based on the team's performance in the previous season. This means that the team with the worst record in the previous season has a greater chance of getting to choose first from the list of available players.
Furthermore, professional athletes must meet the requirements established by the organizing bodies of their respective sport. Sometimes this means participating in a certain number of competitions. Professional organizations usually arrange it so that athletes can build up their skills and level of play by participating in lower-level competitions. College sports, as mentioned before, are an excellent way to improve one's skills while pursuing an education.
Professional athletes in team sports advance in three ways: when their team advances, when they are traded to better teams, and when they negotiate better contracts. In all three instances, this is achieved by the individual team member who works and practices hard, and who gives his or her best performance in game after game. Winning teams also receive a deluge of media attention that often creates celebrities out of individual players, which in turn provides these top players with opportunities for financially rewarding commercial endorsements.
Professional athletes are usually represented by sports agents in the behind-the-scenes deals that determine for which teams they will be playing and what they will be paid. These agents may also be involved with other key decisions involving commercial endorsements, personal income taxes, and financial investments of the athlete's revenues.
In the moves from high school athletics to collegiate athletics and from collegiate athletics to the pros, coaches and scouts are continually scouring the ranks of high school and college teams for new talent; they are most interested in the athletes who consistently deliver points or prevent the opposition from scoring. There is simply no substitute for success.
A college education, however, can prepare all athletes for the day when their bodies can no longer compete at the top level, whether because of age or an unforeseen injury. Every athlete should be prepared to move into another career, related to the world of sports or not.
Professional athletes do have other options, especially those who have graduated from a four-year college or university. Many go into some area of coaching, scouting, sports administration, management, or broadcasting. The professional athlete's unique insight and perspective can be a real asset in these careers. Other athletes simultaneously pursue other interests, some completely unrelated to their sport, such as education, business, social welfare, or the arts. Many continue to stay involved with the sport they have loved since childhood, coaching young children or volunteering with local school teams.
Begin playing a team sport early, in elementary school or high school.
Contact the professional organization of the sport that interests you for more information.
Attend a college with a nationally recognized program in your sport to gain experience that will help you to be recruited by a professional team.