After the GameMay 03, 2019

After the Game: Chris Ritter

A career as a professional athlete is, by nature, unpredictable. At any point, unexpected change can force a player to re-evaluate their position and path. Often this happens as careers wind down, injuries compile and the natural waning of ability with age starts to take effect. But, for many players, the reckoning can come early in one’s career, forcing hard, life-altering decisions on an individual only just adjusting to the life of a professional athlete.

Almost everyone can sympathize with the way life can abruptly deviate from an envisioned path, but there is something about the singularity of purpose it requires to reach the upper echelon of sport that makes sudden change for an athlete that much more jarring. The intense focus on the goal of playing professionally and the day-to-day effort to earn and keep a place once there can blind one to other options and possibilities. So, when the world shifts and the road splits, it can be deeply unsettling.

Chris Ritter understands this first hand. And, through a thoughtful approach to life, a work ethic forged in soccer and a little bit of luck, he provides an example on how to successfully navigate such change.

Ritter was born in Chicago and grew up in the youth club system there. At the tail end of high school, he was beginning to navigate the area’s burgeoning academy scene and joined the Chicago Fire’s academy. At that time he had also agreed to play for Northwestern University and was well on his way to forging a path to the pros.

After a successful career at Northwestern, including honors for First Team All-Big Ten and Big Ten Defender of the Year, Ritter began to consider playing professionally. Even then, he had a broader view than some in his same position and was getting a taste for the types of choices the game and life would offer him. “Towards the tail end of college I was looking into playing professionally,” Ritter said, “to be honest I was kind of going back and forth on if I wanted to do the MLS route or tie a bow on soccer after college and start doing something else.”

In the end, Ritter’s opportunity to play professionally came, and he took it, joining the Chicago Fire on a homegrown contract in December of 2013. In his first year things went well. He was given opportunities on the field and felt like his career was off to a strong start. However, the team was struggling and change was on the horizon.

Toward the end of his second year the team made significant changes in coaching and management. Those changes had consequences for Ritter, and in the end, he realized that he was going to have to leave Chicago if he was going to continue chasing this dream. “At that point I started to re-evaluate,” Ritter said, “Do I want to continue playing? Do I want to have to go to the USL and then work my way back up? I also had to evaluate if I wanted to go to another league outside of the U.S. or if I would be able to find another team in the MLS. Or, were there opportunities outside of soccer that seemed appealing? That was really my decision, and it was a hard one.”

Ritter, like any professional athlete, had ambition and self-confidence to spare. Having chosen to pursue a career as a soccer player, he was betting heavily on himself. He believed his hard work would take him to championships, runs with the national team and all the other heights that should come to someone with ability, drive and opportunity. This is the mentality of a professional and he embodied it. But he also understood, even at a young age, that one always needs to position oneself for change.

“There’s so much on the line because soccer is what you’ve been doing and working for your entire life. "

“I always knew there was a world where things wouldn’t work out.” Ritter said, “I saw soccer as a phase of my life and wanted to get as much out of it as I could. I realized that there were unique opportunities, you’re surrounded by unique people, you’re in this weird world of professional sports that not everyone gets access to. The playing was most important, but I knew I was in a unique position from a professional learning standpoint where I wanted to get as much out of it as I could. That was the baseline in my interest in things away from soccer. I was fascinated by all of the overlap between professional sports and other lines of work.”

This desire to learn and interest in the business of sports is probably best exemplified with how early Ritter got himself involved with the Players Association. He became a player representative for the Chicago Fire in his very first season and was a part of the lead-in to the 2015 CBA. He cites two primary reasons for diving headlong into the MLSPA’s work. “One, the Union is the most important party when it comes to shaping the direction of the league and that’s something I am still very passionate about,” Ritter said.  “Second, the Union helps take care of day-to-day matters and makes sure the treatment of players is as good as possible and that’s something that as a player you are naturally very interested in.”

Ritter also admits to thinking of his time after soccer when getting involved with the PA. To Ritter, the PA was a chance to gain business experience while still devoting himself to the game. “I think there is a lot of overlap,” he said of working with the PA, “especially when you think of league strategy and CBA negotiations and the format of being a part of that type of organization. I think there is clear overlap to the professional world.”

Eventually, after only two years in the league, Ritter really started to come to terms with his options. The opportunity in Chicago had dried up and a move to another team didn’t seem immediately possible. He was going to have to make some hard choices.

“You’re in this tough spot as a young person trying to figure it out and it’s really hard and stressful,” said Ritter. “There’s so much on the line because soccer is what you’ve been doing and working for your entire life in many instances and you’re seeing your days become numbered. You realize ‘I can keep doing this, but is it the right thing to keep doing?’ It was a crossroads in my career and it’s like ‘How the heck do I navigate this?’ I got to the point where I decided I’m gonna move away from soccer. Then the question is what do you do.”

Ritter had made his decision. After a brief career in MLS, it was time to move on. But, he was young, unprepared and unsure of his next steps. The timing was as challenging as it could be. “So if you’ve been playing and earning a steady income for five years or more,” Ritter said, “then you have created more of a period where you can figure things out versus stopping soccer early and thinking ‘I can figure this out for a little while here, but I really have to get moving.’ That would be a difference between someone who is retiring at 33 versus someone who is doing it in their 20’s.”

At first Ritter considered graduate school. He felt like the extra schooling and extra time would put him in a better spot, outside a window he considered particularly difficult. “ I’ve talked a lot with people about this, 25 or 26-27, those are tough points for careers outside of soccer because it’s kind of a transition period,” he said. “If you’re 35 leaving MLS you’re coming into the working world at a different stage, probably a more senior stage. If you’re at the 25-26 mark you’re in between because your peers from college have been working for three or more years.” Understanding this challenge, he began to take the steps to attend a graduate program at Northwestern. The timing was tight and he had to scramble to get everything done, but it seemed like the right move.

Then, just when Ritter thought he had a clear path, he was faced with another life altering decision. At the same time he was applying to graduate school a group of close friends were starting a company, and they asked him to join. 

“It was really early, and to be honest, I thought the idea at the time was pretty average,” Ritter said with a laugh. “But the guys were really ambitious and people that I thought were very capable of starting and effectively running a business. At that point I started thinking that grad school was the safer option, but it will also always be there. There wouldn’t always be an opportunity to be the founder of a business with a really solid team. Again, that’s something risky, but it’s better to do at 25 than at 35. I thought I had a great opportunity to get in as a founder with a really solid team and that became the most appealing option to me. Ultimately I joined on with a company called Crafty and we got going.”

Knowing what it takes to be a good teammate and what good teams look like is something you definitely take from sports to the professional world.”

Crafty began as a relatively simple idea to supply beer to companies looking to provide a more fun office environment. The corporate world was shifting as Silicon Valley and progressive companies around the world began to use office perks and company culture as a means of recruiting top talent. Suddenly everyone was starting to do the same. “The observation,” said Ritter, “was that the employee experience in offices is changing and there’s an opportunity there.”

Over time, the offering of beer expanded into a much wider range of services around food and drink in corporate offices. The beer got Crafty in the door, where they saw more opportunity. “So we spun it from just alcohol distribution to full-service food and beverage management for offices,” said Ritter,  “with the underlying vision of delivering unbelievable client and employee experiences. People spend a ton of time at work so, it’s about how we can make it as fun as possible.”

Ritter is one of four founders and is largely involved in operations and expansion efforts. In just three years, Crafty is already employing over 90 people and operating in two large markets - Chicago and the Bay area. They intend to expand to a third market in early 2020 and pursue Series A funding. Ritter’s bet on leaving soccer and joining a good team seems to be paying off.

Ritter admits that leaving sports for the professional world isn’t easy. “There isn’t a ton of technical overlap. You don’t learn a lot about effective presentation or public speaking, or how to lead a meeting or analysis as a professional soccer player, so there is a learning curve for some.” But, while Ritter didn’t end up having the soccer career he imagined, he still credits the game with valuable and marketable experience.

High on his list of benefits is the mentality sports creates around self improvement. “I think that mentality is so important,” Ritter said, “and it’s the one that most professional athletes have which is knowing I need to always be getting better and I need to, on a day-to-day basis, be evaluating myself and my performance and figuring out how to get better every single day. I think that type of drive is applicable to the professional world, especially when you are starting a company.”

Teamwork is also at the top of his mind when Ritter talks about the qualities a professional athlete can bring to a company, particularly a young one. “Knowing what it takes to be a good teammate and what good teams look like is something you definitely take from sports to the professional world.” he said, “everyone has been on good teams and everyone has been on bad teams. Therefore, you know what the characteristics and attributes are of good teams and how they are different from the bad. So I think that’s very relevant. I think athletes know what good leaders look like in sports, because you’re exposed to good ones and bad ones in both coaches and players.”

Ritter knows he has landed himself on a good team and has come out of an incredibly challenging decision in a great position. As with most players he is the first to admit that soccer was a job he was deeply passionate about and that any replacement is going to have trouble matching up. However, he has managed to find something else he loves to do and a good team to do it with. He is quick to note his own good fortune. “I've been lucky to be able to have all the things that I call work be very enjoyable to me.”

Learn more about Crafty on their website