Chris McLaurin founded the American Football League of China (now known as the China National Football League) and Elevate Sports Consulting in Hong Kong. A former Michigan Wolverines tight end, McLaurin doesn’t make any of the usual “Top Ten GM Candidates” lists, but he’s young and energetic, and even better, has executive experience.
We checked in with him this month to get to know him a little better and, perhaps, allow decision-makers at any of the five teams with GM vacancies to become little more familiar with him, as well.
How did you come to start an overseas football venture? What were your biggest challenges along the way?
At 25, I moved to Chongqing, China, to work at a Chinese investment firm. Soon after finishing an internship at the White House, I decided to move overseas to work in the private sector to advance my business career. It was my first time in Asia and there was a lot I wanted to accomplish both at the company and in the community. However, there were few tools to do so without first gaining a firm grasp of the Chinese language and culture.
Football became the language and common interest I used to connect with people in a city of over 30 million. A co-worker introduced me to a group of Chongqing athletes who were forming a local team (later known as the Chongqing Dockers). Realizing there were a few other grassroots teams in China at the time, I was invited to help train and coach many of them. My volunteer work with Chongqing, combined with my professional work as an analyst, led me to understand the market size and economic potential of football in China. After a year of training and developing the team, I began organizing the first national league called the American Football League of China (AFLC). Due to my football experience, leadership and Chinese language skills, I was asked to serve as the league’s first commissioner. There were plenty of roadblocks in the skill development of players, language translation of common football terms, and gaining buy-in for football as a viable sports product in China. Challenges in government relations, intellectual property rights, and commercial laws unique to China also had to be overcome.
Football is still new to the Asian market. Do you see the NFL becoming truly integrated there? If so, how do you see it happening, and how long would that take?
The future is bright for football globally, but it will require further investment in order for it to truly develop its own global brand identity and make it more culturally relevant. Football, in most parts of the world, is still known as “American” football, and it’s important that the NFL help foster youth and cultural buy-in to the sport.
Already, you can see examples of the NFL trying to do this in its NFL Academy in London and the NFL pathway program the league began developing in recent years. I think further collaboration between the NFL, grassroots sports communities and local institutions (academic, government, NGOs) is critical to global success. It’s going to take time, but we could see huge inroads in the next 10 years.
What football person – coach, administrator, teammate — has had the biggest impact on your life?
I’ve had the great fortune of being mentored and coached by truly remarkable human beings at all levels, but especially at the University of Michigan. Coaches such as Lloyd Carr, Jim Hermann and Mike Debord, as well as teammates like Jason Avant, Jake Long and Mike Hart to name a few, have molded me on the field, but they’ve also inspired me to be the person I am and hope to be in the business world. Nevertheless, more than any one person, it’s been the community of teammates, coaches and administrators of football that made an incredible impact on my life.
You played at Michigan. How has your career with the Wolverines impacted what you do today?
The University of Michigan (Go Blue!) fueled both my intellectual and athletic pursuits in ways that few universities could. Unfortunately, I sustained career-ending shoulder injuries relatively early on in my athletic career at Michigan, but fortunately I still had supportive coaches and a community of professors and mentors who encouraged me to purse an honors degree, research consortiums and participate in fellowship opportunities that propelled me to work internationally in a number of different roles in the public and private sectors. In China, my experience and passion for football became a bridge for distinct cultures and created value that impacted diverse communities.
You’ve walked a non-traditional path. What do you think you’d bring to an NFL team?
I bring a core competency of football operations experience, team development skills, and agile leadership capacity to any NFL team. As a former athlete, I can quickly build trust with players and football personnel while adapting quickly to an organization’s vision for success. My understanding of recruiting, scouting talent, and building successful teams are beneficial in the NFL, but also on every level of the game.
My experience founding a start-up football league and navigating unique challenges in a developing country give me a competitive edge in making an immediate impact on an established NFL team.