I struggled to connect with my first boss, a grouchy ex-banker, until I discovered he loved tennis. Wimbledon was coming up, and I asked if he’d be watching. For the first time since I started the job, he smiled and began raving about Federer’s backhand.
I’d broken the ice.
I’m not saying our working relationship blossomed in some magical way as a result of that conversation, but it did become noticeably easier to communicate. Overall, he listened more closely and seemed to trust me more. I had developed some rapport, just by tapping into his personal love of grand slam tennis.
Sport fans are everywhere, and sports talk can be a great way to spark a pleasant conversation with an important person in your professional life. Because there are few pastimes as ubiquitous as sports spectatorship, knowing a little bit about what’s going on can help you connect with all sorts of people. According to research from Nielsen, sports viewers in the U.S. are found in significant numbers across all races, regions, and income brackets. While more men than women routinely watch sports—by roughly two to one, depending on the game—major events like the Super Bowl attract both genders almost equally. And a recent 60 Minutes / Vanity Fair poll found that only 10% of respondents said they don’t watch any sports—a striking number that implies nine out of 10 people care about some sports, some of the time.
So, sometimes literally knowing who’s on first can unlock doors and further your career. Here are some times when sports chatter will really help you out (and, to be fair, a couple of times when it won’t).
When Sports Savvy Can Help Your Career
In Sales and Client-Facing Roles
When you sell or manage client accounts, you need to be good at starting conversations and developing new relationships. If you’ve read your Dale Carnegie, you know that identifying mutual interests is one of the keys to this. Discussing your contact’s favorite teams can be one of the easiest ways to move an interaction from something purely transactional to a place of authentic connection.
According to noted social media expert Gary Vaynerchuk, “If you’re a CMO of a company and you happen to tweet about the Cincinnati Reds playoff game, I’m more likely to jump into that conversation... because I actually believe that I have a better chance of doing business with you outside of cold-calling you.”
Better relationships with your clients can result in higher sales, happier and greater value accounts, and thus success in your career. Even working internationally, I’ve learned that sharing your thoughts on your home country’s well-known sports (think: who you’ll be rooting for in the Super Bowl) can be an effective way to build bridges around different cultural pastimes.
In the C-suite (or When Your Boss Loves Sports)
Being able to put people at ease and command admiration at all levels of a company is something many executives struggle with. If you aspire to move up the ladder into roles with increased management responsibility, knowing about sports can help you rally support from the people you’re managing.
A former CEO of mine did this to great effect, chatting lightheartedly about various weekend games and upcoming events with people at all levels of the company. I once saw him lingering by the elevators chatting about the World Series with the office night cleaner, and my respect for him soared.
Sports savvy won’t simply help you lead your employees—it can also help you bond with your supervisor. Not surprisingly, getting a raise or promotion becomes easier when the people you’re working for like you. As you look to advance your career, knowing that the head of your team or company is a hockey fan or a fanatical golfer can help you strike up casual conversation more easily. While topics like family or politics can get too personal, banter about sports is almost always casual and fun.
Showing your boss that you’re not only competent at your job, but also someone he or she enjoys spending time with is only going to help you out.
When Sports Savvy Will Do Nothing for Your Career
If You’re the Only One Who Cares
So, you try to build a bridge with a new client by chatting about March Madness, and he replies that he “has never been a basketball fan.” Later, you throw out a hockey reference, and again—nothing. In this case, at best, knowing about sports won’t make much of a difference in how you’re perceived or how well you do.
Of course, there is a worst-case scenario too, which is that others view you as mindlessly inflicting sports chatter. First, mindlessly inflicting anything on people can hurt your career. Second, clients and co-workers want to feel like you share common ground. So, while it’s OK to mention that you love sports, if you make seem as though you could only really connect with a fellow sports fan, they might feel like you’re not well-matched to work together.
So, if your sports chatter falls flat, simply move on to a different topic.
If You’re Pretending
Maybe you’re the one who would rather get tackled by an NFL linebacker than have to sit through an entire football game. That’s nothing to feel bad about. Every sports fan knows people who have zero interest in talking last night’s game, so he or she won’t be offended.
What will make you look bad is if you pretend to care—when you really don’t. If you act like you know what you’re talking about and proceed to get it all wrong, your colleagues may wonder when else you’re just riffing.
So, be authentic, because it’s much better to develop true rapport. You may miss out on a conversation here or there, but in the long run, you’re better off.
It’s a no-brainer that people who work in a sports-related field could advance their career through sports knowledge. But the truth is, you can use sports savvy in the right situations to build relationships and get ahead in almost any field.
Now, time to start brushing up on that big game.