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WaterCoolerTalk

I didn’t start following any sports teams until I entered the working world. I had no reason to—my athletic abilities don’t go much past 7.0 on the treadmill, my hometown hosts no major athletic teams, and my alma mater’s football record has been inconsistent at best (humiliating at worst) for the past decade.

Then, I married a man who can recite the names, stats, eye color, and astrological sign of every professional athlete since the 1970s. I slowly started absorbing some of this knowledge and—to my surprise—I enjoyed it. Cut to a few years later, and I watch ESPN, listen to local sports radio, and instead of counting sheep to cure insomnia, I name players from my local teams in reverse alphabetical order.

Better yet, I found that my new hobby helped me out quite a bit in the office. Even if you’re not a sports fanatic, being able to hold your own in a conversation about last weekend’s game is a professional skill you shouldn’t underestimate. Local sports create common ground for friendly office small talk (unless you’re a Cowboys fan outside of Texas), not to mention that “field trips”to local games are still a favorite reward option and a popular client gift.

The good news is, becoming a sports buff—or at least a well-spoken novice—is easier than you think. Here are a few tips to help you kick things off.

Get Social

It goes without saying that actually watching games (on TV or in person) is an essential first step. To get the most bang for your buck, though, follow the game on Twitter as you watch it live. You’ll be amazed at how much you learn from reading what other people are saying about the action as it occurs in real-time.

Even beyond game day, following a few sports writers and influencers is the easiest way to stay up-to-date on everything in the sports world. Here’s a short list to get you started:

  • @deadspin: These are the folks that broke the Manti Te’O ridiculousness
  • @Rachel__Nichols: Formerly on ESPN, now a CNN Sports reporter
  • @rapsheet: Ian Rapoport, reporter for NFL network and NFL.com
  • @MichelleDBeadle: Reporter for Access Hollywood and NBC Sports Network (so you’ll kill two birds with one stone)
  • @ken_rosenthal: Major League Baseball reporter for Fox
  • @wojyahoonba: Adrian Wojnarowski, NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports and NBA insider for NBC Sports

Also follow your local sports teams, writers, and beat reporters—since chatting about local sports is a great way to break the ice with colleagues and clients.

Take a Deep Dive

Keeping up with local and national sports news will help you maintain a decent high-level knowledge of all major events, but it’s worthwhile to develop a thorough understanding (that will, hopefully, turn into a passion) of a specific team or field. For example, you can commit to following all sports from your alma mater or a local team, or a particular element of the sports industry, like its financial implications (follow Forbes Sports Money @sportsmoneyblog). Having a solid grip on a particular topic will show that you’re not just a fair-weather fan. (Also, avoid a rookie mistake and learn the names of several players on your choice team—and not just the stars.)

Be Genuine

Once you’ve fanned your fan flames, you’re ready to strike up a water cooler conversation. But you’ll want to avoid a jarring “How ’bout those Bears?” introduction—asking if anyone watched last night’s game, saw that article on SI.com, or read that crazy, non-sensical tweet from the latest recruit is a better (and more natural) place to begin. 

Or, bring the conversation to you. The best way to broadcast your love for a team is to proudly display its logo—change your desktop background, add a sticker to your laptop case, or bring your coffee in a team mug. When people see that you’re a fan, too, they’ll jump on the chance to fill those awkward silences with some sports talk.

In any case, as you venture into these conversations, remember that your goal is to relate, not impress. There’s no reason to feign fanaticism (or, on the other hand, downplay an obsession). It’s fine to be honest about your level of knowledge. In fact, if you’re just getting into hockey but you’re speaking to a couple of diehard fans, they’ll probably be thrilled to share their expertise.

Be Prepared to Talk About “Women’s Sports”

Now, inevitably, if you’re a woman who becomes well-versed in professional sports, someone (probably a good-ol’-boy from the 5th floor) will confront you about women’s role in sports and sports media. They’ll ask you about the “level of play” in the WNBA or comment on the circumference of Serena Williams’ thighs—and however it’s phrased, it will be offensive, passive aggressive, and held out as bait.

I’ve learned that the best defense against this kind of remark is to have a well-articulated answer that includes an overload of details but that ends on a humorous note. Feel free to recycle mine:

It’s true that most male athletes can jump higher, run faster, and lift more than most female athletes (Shaun White, for example, can launch his snowboard several feet higher out of the pipe than any of his female peers). But that doesn’t mean that there’s no value in women’s sports. Female athletes have come a long way in the past few decades, and, if we encourage young girls to be athletic, the skill level will continue to equalize. Obviously there’s an audience that appreciates the WNBA, women’s tennis, female MMA fighters, and a number of other women’s teams; otherwise they wouldn’t sell tickets, earn corporate sponsorships, and generate a crap-ton of money. Meanwhile, Monday Night Raw, a ‘sporting event’ that is based on pretend-violence with costumes based on cultural stereotypes, continues to exist. So there’s that.”

Works every time.

Participating in sports-talk in the office will not only help you make conversation with co-workers and prospects, but it will also improve your professional reputation and show your lighter side—an important side to show when you’re in or aiming for a management position. Plus, once you’re interested in the sports world, you can fully participate in fantasy leagues, March Madness brackets, Super Bowl betting, and other after-hours activities—which usually involve beer and snacks!


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