Commentary

Underwriting with the stars

Inside the world of insuring high-caliber professional athletes

Updated: October 8, 2009, 4:29 PM ET
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the October 19 Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine.

How much is a vital body part worth?

For an athlete, it's like real estate. It's all about location -- and occupation, too. In 2006, David Beckham reportedly took out a $78 million policy for his legs. Just this past summer, fellow soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo was fouled so often that Real Madrid insured his lower body for $153 million. Outside of sports, celebrities have been insuring their body parts since the silent-film era, when a cross-eyed vaudevillian named Ben Turpin bought a policy at Lloyd's of London to pay him $20,000 if his eyes went straight. In recent years, insurance has been taken out on supermodel Heidi Klum's legs ($2.2 million), "Ugly Betty" star America Ferrera's smile ($10 million) and on coffee taster Gennaro Pelliccia's tongue for $14 million.

Generally, sports disability insurance covers the entire body, whether teams are paying (as happens when a player has a guaranteed contract) or when athletes pay themselves. While Yankee pitcher Joba Chamberlain's right arm is his most valuable part, Chamberlain (who will earn $432,575 this year) purchased insurance that will pay him $5 million if anything keeps him from being able to pitch -- "even if he walks outside and gets hit by a bus," says Paul Garnett, a financial planner at Edward Jones who advises Chamberlain. "We made sure he was providing for his economic future."

Sometimes, though, a specific body part is exposed to so much risk that insurers won't cover the rest of the athlete unless that part is exempted. In such cases, an athlete will often take out a special policy, called a buyback. "It's business-interruption insurance," says Jonathan Thomas, head body-parts underwriter for Lloyd's. "Athletes with risky body parts can still try to protect themselves from economic catastrophe." If they can get an insurer to agree to cover them, that is.

To put all this in perspective, we asked three specialty insurers to assess the body parts of seven different athletes for one year of coverage. To come up with their figures, the underwriters considered the athletes' age, sport, our estimate of yearly income (including available endorsement figures) and injury history. What did we learn?

You can't cover everybody.

Athlete No. 1: Felipe Massa, F1 driver, Age 28

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Estimated yearly income: $12 million-plus

Premium part: Head

Injury history: Skull fractuce and concussion in July of 2009

Insurance quote: $1.2 million premium

The insurers say:

Likely to be subject to an exclusion due to unresolved head trauma. And likely to have an exclusion within that for any epilepsy-related problems stemming from head injury.

Athlete No. 2: Brett Favre, NFL quarterback, Age 39 (turns 40 on October 10)

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Estimated yearly income: $19 million

Premium part: Right arm

Injury history: Torn biceps tendon in November/December of 2008

Insurance quote: $22.8 million

The insurers say:

Given his age and the violence of his sport, it would cost $1.2 million for every $1 million of insurance to keep his arm covered.

Athlete No. 3: Takeru Kobayashi, competitive eater, Age 31

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Estimated yearly income: $150,000

Premium part: Stomach

Injury history: Arthritic jaw, diagnosed in June of 2007

Insurance quote: Coverage Denied

The insurers say:

No one will consider any part of an athlete whose job involves inhaling 57 cow brains in 15 minutes. Policies exclude "exposure to exceptional danger except in an attempt to save human life" for good reason.

Athlete No. 4: Cheryl Ford, WNBA All-Star, Age 28

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Estimated yearly income: $90,000

Premium part: Knees

Injury history: Cartilage tear in left knee, July of 2007; Torn ligaments in right knee, July of 2008

Insurance quote: Coverage denied

The insurers say:

Doctors aren't sure why, but female athletes are far more likely to tear ACLs. Women basketball players are some of the worst risks in pro sports because of their gender's history of knee injuries.

Athlete No. 5: Johnny Damon, New York Yankees OF, Age 35

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Estimated yearly income: $15 million

Premium part: Eyes

Injury history: Severe concussion in October of 2003; eye fluttering in June of 2009

Insurance quote: Coverage Denied

The insurers say:

Pending a CT scan and a detailed review of his eyes, Damon is uninsurable. Remember Kirby Puckett?

Athlete No. 6: Venus Williams, women's tennis star, Age 29

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Estimated yearly income: $15 million

Premium part: Wrists

Injury history: Sprained right wrist in January of 2006; sprained left wrist in July of 2006

Insurance quote: $75,000 - $525,000

The insurers say:

The wear and tear of playing the game the way Venus does has resulted in numerous injuries, and her makeup for recovery is unexceptional. Translation: very (very) high premium.

Athlete No. 7: Wayne Rooney, soccer star, Age 32

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Estimated yearly income: $20.4 million

Premium part: Feet

Injury history: Broken metatarsal in right foot, June of 2004 and April of 2006; Broken metatarsal in left foot, August of 2007

Insurance quote: $510,000

The insurers say:

He's so valuable to Manchester United that before the 2010 World Cup, the national team may end up having to insure his lower body for the club team.

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Peter Keating is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His online archives can be found here.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.