As a 15-year-old rising soccer star, Amobi Okugo had all the tools necessary to impress any coach. The midfielder’s speed, quickness and tenacity made an immediate impression on John Hackworth, who at the time oversaw America’s pool of under-17 national players, all with dreams of representing the red, white and blue.
Something else about Okugo caught the young coach’s eye.
“He was a young man at that time — full of ambition,” Hackworth recalled with a laugh. “But I will tell you right off the bat that he was as frugal then as he is now, if not more so. He would get a pretty good teasing from his teammates for how he spent his money and how he didn’t. I’ve teased him for a long time for being flat-out cheap. But he had no problem with it, whether the teasing was from me, his best friends or his teammates. He would never apologize for it; that’s just who Amobi is.”
And still is.
Now 26 and having played eight professional seasons in Major League Soccer, Okugo has grown from teenager to a seasoned veteran whose sights and ambitions are about life beyond professional sports.
“I’ve always been pretty frugal growing up,” said Okugo, a product of Nigerian parents. “I’m not sure if it’s my Nigerian blood or what. I remember getting free Nike gear from youth national team camps and returning them to get cash or telling my mom to pack me extra chicken wings and selling them at lunch at school.”
fru•gal: sparing or economical with regard to money or food.
Synonyms: thrifty, economical, careful, cautious, prudent, unwasteful,
sparing, scrimping, meager, scanty, scant, paltry …
Frugal and creative.
While Okugo had penny-pinching ways from his youth, the midfielder-turned-defender had a complete mindset shift after watching the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Broke, which told tales of former millionaire athletes losing and squandering their earnings in spectacular fashion, oftentimes ending up broke.
“Broke was a big eye-opener for me because it really went into detail about how easy it is for athletes to go broke,” said Okugo of the 2012 film, which featured the likes of Curt Schilling, Bernie Kosar, Andre Rison and Cliff Floyd speaking openly about the challenges of managing their money. “It wasn’t until I saw the documentary and saw the accounts of players I personally watched on TV detailing their experiences when it hit me. What caught my eye the most was how avoidable it was for athletes to not go broke but because of perception and lack of preparation, some athletes felt it necessary to spend.”
The film prompted Okugo to take account of his own financial life, and in August 2016 he launched A Frugal Athlete, a website that publishes news and shares advice and viewpoints that he hopes will help athletes take control of their finances. Co-founded with his younger brother, Akachi, and his best friend Kyle Odister, both former college basketball players, the site combines financial tidbits, media analysis and useful consumer-friendly news.
“When I originally launched A Frugal Athlete, my goal was to highlight different athletes who are prudent financially — not superstars like the LeBron James and Tom Bradys of the world who will never have to worry about money in comparison,” said Okugo, who played soccer his freshman year at Jesuit High School in Sacramento, California, before joining the U-17 residency national team program as a sophomore. “I also wanted to increase financial literacy for athletes as a whole, because that is a major issue as well.”
Still a relatively new league, MLS has only 28 players with salaries at or over the $1 million mark. League contracts, according to the players’ union, are more typically in the five and six digits, starting just above $50,000 and topping out around $7 million. Okugo’s 2017 compensation with his last MLS team, Portland, was just over $190,000 in salary and incentives, according to Okugo.
When he was drafted by the Philadelphia Union in 2010 — coincidentally at the urging of Hackworth — who was then an assistant, he hardly thought about money, but thanks to good parents, he knew sports was a window to financial security but likely a small one.
“Amobi was 19 when he moved to Philly,” remembered Hackworth, who eventually became the Union’s head coach in 2012 and played a key early role in Okugo’s development through 2014. “He moved in with Danny Mwanga, who was our No. 1 draft pick, and they both talked about making decent money for being young kids, but they had to figure out a way to manage it. Mwanga had that mindset too. But right away, [Okugo] was like, ‘Coach — I’m getting my degree. I don’t care how I do it, I’m going to get it.’ ”
Okugo had completed only one year of college at UCLA before being drafted; his parents, he said, were adamant about him completing his degree, and he still had aspirations of a career in sports management. After years of offseason studies, Okugo scored his best goal to date — earning his undergraduate degree in organizational leadership from the University of Louisville last December.
Okugo’s frugal ways, and his platform, have caught on in the league, and among other pros. Bilal Duckett, a former MLS player who now plays for the Charlotte Independence of the United Soccer League, a prominent Division II league, understands all too well the importance of thinking beyond your playing days. At 29, Duckett is one of the Independence’s more senior players. And, even though he served as captain the past two seasons — and he just re-signed for one more campaign — Duckett knows his post-soccer life is likely just around the bend.
“I’ve seen players trying to live like basketball and football players — we don’t make that kind of money,” said Duckett, a 2011 Notre Dame grad who earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration. “My background is in IT, and my web consultation company, Duck Digital, is a really important part of my ‘next step’ process,” continued Duckett, who builds and maintains websites when he’s not man-marking speedy forwards and has also championed a project called Tackling Consent, an initiative developed by soccer players to end sexual violence before it starts. “I think Amobi’s platform is brilliant. In my experience, there are far more conversations in the locker room about flippant spending than financial responsibility and frugality.”
Having made the rounds in MLS — playing for Philadelphia, Orlando, Sporting Kansas City and most recently Portland — Okugo is actively staying in shape and shopping his services for a team, domestic or international. But if that call doesn’t come, it’ll hardly be the end of the world.
“I would probably apply to graduate school and continue to grow A Frugal Athlete where it could generate revenue,” he said. “Depending on best fit, I would like to go for a dual MBA-JD degree.”
Hackworth chuckled when he recalled Okugo’s frugal ways from their time together in Philadelphia, particularly on road trips. “When we would travel, the team would book group tickets and the athletes don’t usually get credit for their miles. It was a ritual: Every time Amobi went to the airport, he would insist on getting his miles. He would spend 20 minutes at the counter, and come hell or high water, he was gonna get his miles. Somehow he found a way to get them.”
That’s why they call him the frugal athlete.