The Life of a Non-Millionaire Professional Athlete
Clint Irwin, a professional goalkeeper, talks about the less-glamorous aspects of trying to make a living by playing a sport.
I wrote this on February 20, 2011:
This is the first entry into my journal of the life of a “free-agent” professional soccer player. I find it difficult even calling myself a professional soccer player at this stage because a) I’m technically not a professional, I don’t get paid for what I’m doing right now, and b) my parents are still supporting my endeavors financially. I guess what I’ve settled on is “unemployed professional,” which is a title that would fit many in this downtrodden economy.
Everyone wants to be a pro, or at least most people do. We don’t necessarily talk about it that way, but the desire to have a job and hopefully a career that doesn’t need to be supported by other jobs seems a pretty basic one. Pro salesman, pro finance guy, pro writer, pro marketer, pro whatever. “Please someone pay me enough to pursue my dream of being a professional.” That’s, essentially, what every kid graduating college is saying to him or herself, if not explicitly. You want to be a pro: having the ability to pursue your [fill in the industry] goals in a way that’s supported by the inherent compensation of your vocation, without the compulsory tasks needed to achieve a living income.
I wrote this on April 6, 2011:
I’m writing from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. On April 1st my birthday I signed a deal with Capital City FC for $500 a month and they are paying for my living expenses. Bonuses include $40 per win and $250 per various league leading statistics. I can’t express how happy I am to finally be somewhere.
When Lionel Messi walks out onto the immaculately tailored pitch at Barcelona’s monumental Camp Nou stadium, he knows all the basic things are right in his world. He’s making enough to secure his future—and the future of at least three more generations of Messis. His every niggle and scrape is attended to by the best physiotherapists in the world. His very being is insured, both literally and figuratively, by the Messis of their particular trade. He plays soccer, and all this lets all the other things get taken care of.
We get paid to play a sport. That’s the only thing most professional soccer players in North America share with Messi—or anyone in the NFL or NBA. And at times, even that can seem like only the most-tenuous of connections.
I wrote this on Monday, May 30, 2011:
I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a road trip this much. For one, it’s probably not good when you stay at a hotel and it’s an improvement on your current living situations. Instead of six people with one shower, its one shower between two. The mattresses and pillows on the bed were heavenly compared to the IKEA bunk beds we sleep on at the house. Free meals don’t hurt either. On a sidenote: The preparation for the first game could not have been more unprofessional. The night before the game, we were served Chinese takeaway food. Not ideal. As we looked forward to a nice continental breakfast Saturday morning, we were greeted with assorted yet meager pastries, apples and oranges and juice. No sign of eggs, sausage, bacon or any sort of protein. No cereal or oats either. For lunch (keep in mind kickoff is at 6pm) at 3pm we were served the left over Chinese takeaway in the staff breakroom in the basement of the hotel. Welcome to professional soccer in Canada.
It’s impossible to expect professional performance under such conditions. How professional athletes differ from other professionals is that you’re judged, valued, and promoted based on how well you use your body. The proper nutrition, sleep, and training make all the difference. Yet for those in the lower leagues in North America, this is how it is if you want to make it to Major League Soccer or—if you like dreaming wildly—Europe.
ACTUAL LIFE IN THE minor leagues means moving back in with your parents or living in a house with more than a few teammates, working another job, taking on some coaching responsibilities, and not spending your money. Most pro athletes engage in a high-intensity, two- to three-hour workout and have the rest of the day to recover. Then they wake up and do it again. I did the three-hour workout—and then went to my desk job at noon, attempted to switch gears to normal work, then headed out at 6 p.m. to coach youth soccer. It’s asking a lot to reach optimal performance when you do this every day. For many players at that level, this is life. And if you get married and have to support a family, it’s basically time to retire.
For many players, there isn’t a fallback option. They don’t have a safety net like I did. Soccer is all they know.
Then there’s the off-season, when your contract doesn’t pay. Most guys coach. At the same time, if you want to move up to the next level, you need to put in the off-season work (hashtag “grind”). In the lower leagues, your season starts in April and is over in September or October. In MLS however, the season begins in January and continues until the end November. Players in the minor leagues are perpetually three months behind in development just based on this wrinkle. (Plus, everything else I’ve already mentioned.) If you aren’t doing something in that time, you’re falling behind. But, the options are limited. Playing with teenagers isn’t really helping you. You likely don’t live in a city with a healthy population of other pro soccer players (remember, you’ve moved back in with your parents). Instead, I played on my college roommate’s co-ed adult league team as a field player (I’m a goalkeeper) and played 6 a.m. pre-work pick up with my CEO's middle-aged buddies. You can’t find MLS-level quality, so you do what you can. That was development for me.
It’s really not a sustainable balance; you’re basically just doing your best not to fall too far behind where you want to be. For me, it came to a point where I didn’t believe it possible to pursue a top-flight professional career in soccer while holding down three full-time jobs. So I quit my desk job. I kept coaching but cut back my hours. I used the extra funds I earned coaching and working to buy some time at a local sports performance center. This isn’t typically an option for most guys. That money, instead, fills the gas tank for those trips around the area on the private coaching circuit, or it squeezes out that extra bit of rent in between seasons.
Pursuing soccer was a choice I made—and things could obviously be much worse—but that doesn’t make the structure and the demands of it all any easier. And for others, soccer’s the only option, if still a near-impossible one. For many players, there isn’t a fallback option. They don’t have a safety net like I did. Soccer is all they know.
I took a big leap. I gave up a job offer that would have paid me more than a rookie contract in MLS in order to pursue a dream that had a slim chance of success. Most would’ve taken that job, the money, and the sure thing. I almost did.
Now, I’m a starting goalie for the Colorado Rapids. I’m on the standard rookie contract, and I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot. It’s by no means grand. Hell, it probably looks crazy to a lot of people. (Fine. I’m making $35,125. Every player’s salary is available here.) But it’s the first time I’ve been truly in control of my performance, and I couldn’t be happier with what I’m doing.