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Day Eleven- Fake it til you make it. How to know enough about sports to barely get by. 

So here is the thing…I hate professional sports. I just don’t get the appeal. I played every sport I could as a kid, but for me watching from the sidelines is at best boring and at worst frustrating. However, as a consultant I am always trying to find ways to connect with my clients and master the art of small talk. I want to make sure that my clients like me as a person because that helps me build trust me to help them make business decisions.

I have found two of the fastest ways to connect with almost anyone is through talking about their kids or talking about sports games. Talking about kids is easy, even if you don’t have them. Get a working knowledge of basic growth and development (which should be pretty helpful anyways) and run with it. “Oh little Suzie is 24 months old? How is potty training going?”  “Man Jimmy is in the 4th grade already…fractions are tough huh?” “Grace is 13?! You are just going to want to avoid eye contact with her for the next few years!” I’ve found that potty training, ineptitude at grade school math, and the sheer terror of raising teens/pre-teens are all good topics that can lead to interesting conversation that is all about the client and not you. If you are at a loss follow up with- “What kind of activities are they into?” There is a good chance that our current generation of over-achieving grade schoolers are  probably doing some extra-circular that their parents can brag about.

Enough about kids, for me kids are easy because the topic is interesting. Talking about people is so much more fun that talking about sports games. However, talking about kids can only get you so far. I used to be blissfully ignorant about sports, but I learned that my ignorance left me missing meaningful opportunities to connect with my clients. I quickly learned that I needed to have at least a basic working knowledge of how to talk about sports…I didn’t need to know things like the rules or the principles of scoring…I just had to know enough to sound like I knew what I was talking about.

Luckily, my wife is insane. She will watch any game with a ball, a puck, or a points system. Sundays, and well most evenings at our house are filled with yelling at the TV- either because a key team (not even her favorite team) is losing…or worse, not winning enough. If she isn’t watching sports, she is watching ESPN Sports Center (sports for people with ADD). If its play-offs or if multiple sports are running at the same time our house becomes mission control, with games on the TV, the laptops, and Sport Center running on the phone. If the lady could install a ticker that ran a constant feed of sport scores all around our house she would be the happiest person in the world.

So for me learning enough to be dangerous started with having a good Sensei. While I pride myself on the basic knowledge I have picked up over the years, I know I can be in any city at any time of year and can call Allison and she will give me the most appropriate updates complete with analysis. Having an Ace in your pocket is a really good trick. Find a dad, a brother, or a lesbian to help you out.

So here are the basics of sports for clients:

Know thy season

Sports run year round (except for a magical week in July when basketball finishes, there is an all-star break in baseball and football hasn’t started.) Know which sports are in which part of their season. As the season approaches play-offs, or the part of the year where the best teams compete, the sport gets incredibly more interesting because you need to not only focus on how your team is doing, but also focus on all of the teams around you and how their wins and losses affect your team’s chance of success.

I have found that Football is the most important to keep track of because the season is short and each team only plays 16 games before the play-offs. Most of those games are played on Sundays so football is a big Monday morning topic of conversation from September to Feburary.  

Most of the other sports play a lot more games over a longer time frame so focusing on overall standing and games against key rivals are more important.

Once you know where you are on the calendar, figure out where you are geographically

For the most part people have an affinity for their local team. This may not hold true with transplants, but even if they are not fans of their local team, your client will probably follow their local team so they can talk shit to their friends at work. Also, your client may momentarily follow your local team, just to be able to make conversation with you. Your job is two-fold:

Figure out who your client likes and follow them at a super high level and have your own “favorite” team for each sport. Going with your local team is a good bet if you don’t have ties to somewhere else. For me I hate most of the Boston teams and rally around my Chicago teams because they never win so they are not threatening. If you pick a super polarizing team you might have to do more work to keep up to date and authentically contribute to spirited conversation.

Keep in mind, some cities have 2 teams. These teams will not play in the same league so they are not really rivals, but your client will definitely have an affinity to one over the other.

Be selective

Your goal is to know enough to make conversation, not enough to win sports trivia or even play the game. If your clients are in the US you can probably focus on the 4 major sports- football, basketball, baseball, and hockey (in that order). I also had to learn a bit about Nascar as well because I had a client who owns a team. I found that my Nascar knowledge is occasionally handy in certain parts of the country or when talking to some research participants.  

If your clients are currently residing in or have ever resided outside of the US…try to gain a working knowledge of soccer.

Don’t worry about college sports (unless it is March). There are just too many teams and sports to keep track of, and I have found that college sports are just not as universal as Pro sports. That being said March Madness is a pretty big deal. March Madness is a giant college basketball tournament, learn a little bit about it and fill out a bracket even if it is based on picking teams by uniform color or mascot. However, if you want to learn anything about college sports, start with the mascots…I can not tell you how many times shouting “Go Bearcats” has gained me some client love.

Know what to know

for your teams and your clients teams learn the following things:

Basics- team name, mascot, colors, current record, which league/division they are in (more applicable for playoffs)

Key players- for football this is usually the quarterback, for other sports its usually high scorers. Knowing one or two names is usually enough…but make sure you can pronounce them.

Rivalries- knowing who your client hates can help you either make sassy jeering comments or rally about beating a team the hate. It’s a win/win for conversation. Rivalry games are a big deal, they get lots of press coverage so it helps to have basic knowledge about who won any big rivalry games.

Headlines- the day of a meeting check and see if any of the big 4 sports are on the front page of the paper or the front page of the sport section. I might also check google trends.  No need to go any deeper than that. I also have the Sports Center app on my phone so I can follow “my teams” scores as well as my clients. It pretty much only tells scores, but that is usually enough.

Be authentic

Don’t say you watched a game if you didn’t….it will be obvious. Keep the convo focused on scores and key players if you want. I have found for me that quickly perusing Allison’s ESPN and Sports Illustrated magazines helps me understand the back  story about teams and players and creates much more interesting conversation than “omg did you see what Tim Tebow did AGAIN last night?”  Also use your lack of sports knowledge to your advantage. While doing a global trip with a client who was obsessed with soccer (during the world cup), I asked him to teach me everything that I needed to know about the sport. We started with the rules.

I worried about posting this because I thought that maybe if a client read this they would think that I am inauthentic. But in all honesty, I feel like learning about something that I am not necessarily passionate about in order to connect with people is a really good thing. As researchers we go through this “ramping up” process all of the time, where we cram enough industry knowledge into our skulls to be able to ask meaningful and useful questions of our participants. Also remember, if you are in a social situation with a client you should be talking work first, personal life second. It should be your goal to learn everything about your client’s organization, how your project is currently being viewed, how it fits with the company’s strategic goals, and how you can make your client look good. But there are times like when you traveling together or in really long sessions where you just need a break from the business talk. Just say something about how awesome Tim Tebow is…even if he is a little awkward.

Are you a sports nut? Am I missing anything when it comes to the basics of talking about sports?


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    Day Eleven- Fake it til you make it. How to know enough about sports to barely get by. - 30 Days - Research Driven Innovation

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