Thirty years ago, in Syracuse, New York, Andres Astralaga’s mother arrived home one night to find Astralaga awake, past his bedtime, watching a Monday Night Football game between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins (fútbol americano to be precise). Astralaga had only been in the United States for a couple years, having emigrated with his family at the age of nine. But enough time had passed for him to master the English language, appreciate American culture, and become deeply intrigued by the sport that rules the American zeitgeist—and airways. “¿Qué estás haciendo? (What are you doing?),” Astralaga’s mother reproached. “You’re never going to get anywhere in your life by watching that game.”
Today, Astralaga can’t help but chuckle at the memory. As vice president of human resources for NFL Media, he seems to have pulled off an epic “told-you-so”—building a career out of childhood pastime. Based in Culver City, California, the 400-employee operation covers the cable network and all NFL digital media assets, such as NFL.com, NFL Mobile, and the NFL Club sites. “The NFL brand itself is very strong,” Astralaga says. “People are really passionate about their teams, and we have to keep it that way to ensure we do everything possible to stay ahead of the game, think outside the box, and deliver great content to our fans from an NFL Media standpoint.”
Astralaga’s team leads hiring, staffing, onboarding, employee engagement, and the like—critical processes NFL Media is developing new systems to push out content on its multiple platforms. Since joining in August 2012, Astralaga has helped his division steer the organization through these currents of change. “You have to look at where we are now, where we want to go, and where we need to be in the future.”
Having worked for media giants in the past—NBC, Telemundo, and, most recently, ESPN, moving virtually every two years to a new city—Astralaga has witnessed major internal and external changes. He has seen great companies face new technical frontiers. “The key is to leverage technology in a way where it can become a game changer—a difference maker in the market … Using technology to your advantage is how the future is going to be pulled.”
Even amid fast-paced progress, Astralaga says, HR professionals can’t lose sight of integrity. “You have to do the right thing no matter what. As an HR business partner, you have to walk that line between an employee advocate and a business advocate; and [also] be able to know your role in a meeting with senior leaders where you are holding that employee advocate mantra … ”
Astralaga’s upbringing, coexisting between two cultures, gave him an uncanny ability to form a near instant rapport with people, paving the way for a career in HR. “I was sort of ‘dropped off’ in upstate New York, in a very blue-collar community—which was very middle America—a place [that] Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp sing about. But, at the same time, I was raised among a very passionate Latin family,” he says.
Recalling road trips to visit his aunt in New York City, Astralaga says his whole family would delight upon hearing the crackling radio signal of salsa music, slowly becoming clearer as the car drew closer to the city. “There was not, at that time in the early ’80s, television or radio in Spanish where we lived. So the closest we came to our roots was New York City and this salsa music.”
The youngest of three brothers and a sister, Astralaga looked to his siblings to navigate the US social scene. One of his brothers suggested that he take up a popular sport—lacrosse. “I didn’t know how to speak English yet, but I would be outside with my brother playing lacrosse,” Astralaga says. Not only did it help him integrate with his peers, but he became so adept that he was able to earn scholarship money to attend Michigan State University.
“I always advocate for people to play organized sports, because it teaches you so much about yourself, leadership, and organizations,” Astralaga says. “There is structure and commitment—and you have to put in the time.”
After earning a master’s in labor studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Astralaga went on to work at General Electric. “The HR leadership program in GE is one of the best training programs for human resources out there,” he says, attributing much of his success to the program.
Lifelong learning remains Astralaga’s passion and priority—at NFL Media and beyond. “I tell kids graduating from college: Don’t think this is over; you still have to read books, be engaged in what’s out there in your industry, learn and understand what’s going on out there,” he says. “What you learn today may not be relevant six months or two years from now. It will change; that’s the constant.”