Player housing is an important part of a minor league team’s operation, but it doesn’t affect fans, it’s not a direct team revenue generator, and it doesn’t get much publicity. As such, it’s an under appreciated aspect of the minor league General Manager’s job to the public.
However, when assessing MiLB affiliate relationships, MLB clubs actually prioritize player living conditions right alongside the gym, clubhouse, field conditions, and in some cases proximity to the parent club.
Logically, an MLB team benefits on the field and financially with affordable, team-controlled players. Thus, it makes sense to ensure those potential players live in good conditions, are well rested, fed, and comfortable. Combine that with the current information surge on how nutrition and rest adds or detracts from athletic performance, and those aspects matter now more then ever.
Types of Housing
The Apartment Complex
The majority of long season teams have a deal with a local affordable apartment complex. Players rent out space for their entire season (six months) and live four players to a large unit. When a player gets promoted or demoted, his replacement moves right in and begins paying rent. In return for this cost control and simplicity, the complex gets tickets and some sponsorship to promote itself as ‘the place where the players live’. This is the easier of the two types of housing.
The Housing Family
A housing family is one that invites a player into their home to live with them during the season. Most often, these families love baseball, have kids in Little League, and have close friends who host players and have heard them raving about the experience for years.
The house needs to have a spare room, be close to the ballpark, have a ton of food at all times, and be a household conducive to a minor league player’s inconsistent schedule. The latter is key because home games end late and the team bus arrives home from road trips in the middle of the night. Also, the player might like going out at night.
That lifestyle isn’t for all families.
The family receives season tickets and a few hundred dollars per month to cover player food costs (turns out young athletes eat a lot). This isn’t something people do for the money, to meet a professional athlete, or to fill a spare bedroom in the summer. There has to be an emotional buy-in, commitment, and understanding of the players’ needs and schedule.
With that said, the family can set house rules that the player needs to abide by, like calling if they aren’t coming home, or being quiet when the family is sleeping. Sometimes these agreements go awry as families treat the minor leaguer like a traditional tenant who’s always around, and count on them to buy groceries, do laundry and other household chores.
This never works as the players are rarely home. Those who take in a player are signing up to young athletes who don’t have the time, money, or maturity to live on their own without some help.
The Support System
A few days before the season, when the roster is released, the team has to decide which players are to stay with which families. It’s crucial to gather as much information as possible about both parties; a bad match doesn’t help anybody. A few things to consider are whether or not the player likes to go out at night, whether they like kids or pets, and whether they’re ok being alone versus with a roommate.
From the side of the families, it’s crucial that they understand how the process will work and determine whether or not a player fits in with their family dynamic. Usually the best housing families come from friends of existing ones, so they are familiar with the program and have someone to turn to for questions. This aspect is important; the initial family housing experience is often nerve wracking. Remember, they’re letting a complete stranger live in their house!
When I used to interview a prospective housing family in the offseason, I’d connect with an experience housing family both to vet the new prospect and act as a mentor. This peer mentorship is vital to the program and gives the new families a lifeline to ease a lot of their anxiety.
The Emotional Connection
Being a housing family is thankless, yet rewarding. They feed young athletes who are always hungry, pick them up at odd hours, deal with their highs and lows, and say goodbye if they get promoted, cut or demoted.
They cheer them on at every game.
They are effectively adding a family member.
For many of the players living with a housing family represents the first time they’ve lived away from home. So, as they’re learning about what it’s like to survive out in the world, their new family is the go to source for support.
A very emotional moment during the season is when the player’s actual family visits. They are so grateful and indebted to the housing family looking after their child.
This creates a life long friendship and many families still keep in touch with their players years after they’ve lived together.
I know of one family whose son was named the godfather of a player’s child, six years after their season together.
The Potential Issues
Susan Sarandon from Bull Durham is in the back of a lot of housing families’ minds. It’s a sensitive topic, when a player gets into a ‘relationship’ with someone in the family.
It’s a difficult situation to monitor, but there’s generally no issues; neither the player nor the family wants a bad reputation or wants to cause problems. However, they do arise. I once encountered a situation where a housing family with young kids clearly laid out the house rules to the player, which included no girls in the house. When the player broke that rule, he was promptly kicked out.
We had to find a new house for the player, which was difficult because nobody wanted to take him afterwards and justifiably so. This ties into to the aforementioned pressure on the team to find the right match between family and player. It’s an inexact science that the general manager has to make the best of.
Good Housing is Important to Everyone
Player safety is paramount. Knowing your players are with great families makes a team’s GM sleep well at night.
With that said, I mentioned above that there are no direct sales benefits to running a housing program. There is, however, an indirect sales benefit as housing families serve as ambassadors for a team, and hosting a professional baseball player is an incredible and unique conversation starter.
Stories are shared at work, amongst friends, and at the little league field, subtly creating a secondary sales team depicting its fun memories and involvement. To honour the families, teams will often host them in a suite a few times a year and hold a pre-game on-field ceremony. This word of mouth marketing further shapes its community brand.
When a housing program is done properly with the right families and team support, it could have a tremendous impact on the players, organization and community. That’s why great housing families are worth their weight in gold for both the players and team.
Lead Photo: © Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports