Two-time collegiate All-American Stephanie Ochs “literally had nothing to do” living in a New York apartment when she was playing soccer in 2012. Now that the U.S. Under-23 Women’s National Team standout from San Diego has found a family in Germantown, there’s always someone around.
Professional athletes are bunking with host families in Maryland and the District. It’s not a study abroad exchange program. It’s the National Women’s Soccer League – the third shot at a professional women’s soccer league, which is set to kickoff on April 13.
The living arrangement has become tradition for the country’s best women soccer players, and it helps build a fan base for the sport that needs support to become financially sustainable. It’s also born of necessity for a profession where salaries are a tiny fraction of those for male professional athletes.
“Good enough for Abby (Wambach), it’s good enough for everyone,” Washington Spirit General Manager Chris Hummer said. “It’s somewhat in the culture of professional women’s soccer.”
Wambach, the national women’s soccer superstar, who is four goals away from breaking Mia Hamm’s scoring record, lived with a host family while playing with the Washington Freedom, according to Hummer.
About 50 families offered to host Washington Spirit players during the 2013 season. Hummer said all the Washington Spirit players have been open to exploring the option to live with a host family, preferring fully private or semi-private homes with a separate bathroom and entrance.
“It has its ups and downs. But, in my case, I have my own space and my own living area, so I like living with a host family better,” said Ochs, who was selected first overall in the league’s inaugural supplemental draft. “I really like my family. They’re super fun.”
“We mesh perfectly, so it’s a really good situation.”
The draw for players is a “home atmosphere,” versus a hotel living situation with roommates, Hummer said. Players “prefer to live in a quieter, family environment, (but) socialize if they want to.”
For Ochs, living with a host family offers a connection and an escape that living in an apartment did not.
“I was just sitting around all the time, but (now with) the host family, it’s like you kind of become part of the family and do stuff together. And it’s just a good way to, like, get your mind away from everything and have something else,” she said. “It’s kind of, like, a way to get away from soccer.”
Still, the culture of living with host families is in part a byproduct of salaries that provide players with a “living wage” on a month-to-month basis for less than half of the year.
“They’re not paid enough to be able to afford to live in wealthy areas,” said Hummer, who noted that many of the younger players prefer to live in neighborhoods closer to the Beltway like Adams Morgan and Georgetown. Hummer declined to release player salaries.
It’s not just in Washington. Two other NWSL teams, the FC Kansas City and Sky Blue FC of New Jersey, also invite fans to apply as host families on team websites.
Ochs said she didn’t know it was common for professional teams to arrange host families until the arrangement was offered to her, but since then she has recognized how it helps the sport grow.
“Both of the little girls I live with, they always bring all their friends over, and then, so all those friends want to come to the game,” she said. The girls not-so-coincidentally play soccer, too. “It’s also cool to kind of mingle with everyone (and) get involved with all their friends.”
The practice of arranging host families is unheard of on the men’s side.
“I don’t think that (arranging host families) is anything that happens in the league,” Ryan Tronovitch, the D.C. United media relations manager, said of Major League Soccer. “Most professional athletes are able to either find roommates or teammates to stay with if they are low on money.”
Because the two previous women’s soccer leagues folded, the NWSL has partnered with the U.S. Soccer Federation, the Federation of Mexican Football and the Canadian Soccer Association to stay within its economic structure.
The United States, Mexican and Canadian national teams will be footing the bill for national team players to cut cost overhead. But many Washington Spirit players who aren’t on the national team will not have guaranteed contracts.
“We started off too big where our salaries were too high,” Wambach said during a conference call for her new team, the Western New York Flash. She said women soccer players “deserve” to be compensated in similar ways, but ultimately have to compromise. “We have to take what we can get.”
In 2007, superstar midfielder David Beckham, at age 31, signed a five-year contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy that made him the highest-paid MLS player with $6.5 million each year.
Washington Spirit players will make less than $500,000 combined, including national team players, according to Hummer’s estimates. It means that each player will be paid less than $28,000 on average.
Most players will have a flexible second job coaching youth teams or clinics, he said. “The average pay for a female player doesn’t compare” to men’s professional sports.
“Dare to Dream,” the HBO film about U.S. women’s soccer — that features player commentary from Wambach, Hamm, Julie Foudy, Carla Overbeck, Michelle Akers, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly and Briana Scurry — chronicles the history of women soccer players’ financial woes.
“On the shoestring budget U.S. soccer relegated to its new operation (in 1991, the) team played for no money, the players got by on third-class travel, cheap motels, bad food and $10 a day meal money,” says film narrator Liev Schreiber.
The film shows players interacting with young fans, signing autographs and promoting the sport to play in front of a sold-out crowd of 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in California, winning the 1999 FIFA World Cup.
Taking a page out of the national team playbook, the Washington Spirit will not be far from the people who watch them play.
“I know a lot of people in Maryland. I feel like it’s going to be a really good experience for me,” said Spirit striker Tiffany McCarty, the No. 2 overall pick in the league’s college draft.
Ochs, goalkeeper Chantel Jones and midfielders Tori Huster and Olivia Wagner stood behind signing autographs for a group of young fans — local soccer players — at Ludwig Field after a preseason match with the University of Maryland Terrapins.
“Sometimes it takes a little bit of sacrifice in order to get something good,” Wambach said of the league. “This is about making sure that the next generation has an opportunity to play.”