Get In the Game

In her book, “Game Time: Learn to Talk Sports In 5 Minutes a Day for Business,” Seattle sports broadcaster Jen Mueller states that a lack of sports knowledge can cost you money. You don’t need to be able to break down Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, but knowing enough to realize that a fast break isn’t referencing a quick trip to the locker room is a good start.

SMM: What led to you starting Talk Sporty to Me in 2009 and writing the book last year to teach non-sports fans how to use sports as an entrée to business opportunities.

MUELLER: I didn’t intend to start a business. I was doing a favor for a group of women from (accounting firm) KPMG out of Seattle. They saw their male counterparts entertaining potential clients at sporting events and initially didn’t think anything of it. “We don’t need to spend those extra hours out there. We’ll go home.” Then, they started to notice that those potential clients became clients and their counterparts – who had the same level of education and training as they did – were getting more attention, getting more bonuses and really affecting the bottom line. They came to me as a sports broadcaster and said, “Can you help us out? Some of us know sports but we don’t know how to insert ourselves into the conversation, and some of us just don’t understand sports.”

In the couple of months that I had been telling people what I was doing, I realized that it wasn’t just this group of women. In fact, it’s not just women and it’s not just non-sports fans. Sports is bigger than the game or the stat itself. As I developed the business, the content began to range from something for novice sports fans to what you can do if you’re already a passionate fan – how you can leverage that as part of business development.

SMM: So how can someone put a little sports knowledge to work for them?

MUELLER: When it comes to business and sales and trying to stay on somebody else’s radar, what sports gives you, better than any other conversational topic, is a follow-up opportunity. When I work in the locker room and on the sideline, it takes about five exchanges, on average, between me and a player or me and a coach to get to the point where the interview is comfortable. In business, it’s not that much different. Money doesn’t change hands after the first conversation. What sports does is allow you to map out an editorial calendar based on the team you’re watching, the city you live in, the city you’re doing business in, the sport that you follow and map out your business communications accordingly. If you have a Vikings fan that you’re doing business with, when training camp starts in a few weeks, send out an email, “Good luck to your Vikings. Hope they get through camp without injuries.” You’ve got these built-in conversation starters that you don’t have to talk business and they’re going to respond to you. It’s important to see how it keeps that relationship moving forward.

SMM: Why is sports so ubiquitous in business circles?

MUELLER: Because it’s such a large community. More than half of all Americans are sports fans. They might be fans of different things – NASCAR or baseball or horse racing or hockey. But the fact is you’re not a fan just on game day or race day, you’re a fan every day of the week. I think what happens when you get into some of those conversations is you can pull together the sense of community that comes with being a fan.

SMM: You say talking sports opens doors. What are some examples?

MUELLER: The first way that I tell people it opens doors in a corporate setting is it prevents you from playing this game of 20 questions. In a network situation with people you may know but not well, you might say, “Did you see the game last night?” or “Are you planning to watch the Super Bowl?” Frankly, I don’t care what the answer is. I’m just looking for an entry point into the conversation. If the answer is yes, I can ask the follow-up questions about what they think. If the answer is no, I can go with another line of questions about what they were doing and get them to tell me about that. You can do this across the country with anybody that you meet in business. Sports is great because of the follow-up opportunity that it gives you.

SMM: Have you received pushback from people who don’t want to feel compelled to jump into the sports world?

MUELLER: When we say that 50 percent of all American are sports fans, that’s not 50 percent of men. That is men and women, old and young, across the board. So if you think that you’re doing this just for men, you need to understand the audience. It is so ubiquitous and it is such a common connector that you are just missing out. You can choose to not talk sports if you want, but you are limiting the opportunities you will have down the line as a result. If you want to get to the top, you need to have all of these tools in place – all of the potential connections you can gather.

SMM: Is there a risk of sports being a “third rail” because of the passion some fans bring to it? What if you get a Duke fan in the same room with a Tar Heel?

MUELLER: There are four things you’re never supposed to talk about in a networking situation: money, religion, politics and sex. Depending on how far you go into some sports conversations, you could end up talking about any one of those things. Your ultimate goal in talking sports in business settings is to build relationships, not to make people mad. Sometimes passionate sports fans go way too far. Your sports conversations at work should be a couple of minutes long. Use that time wisely to build relationships. Keep it in the two-minute range and keep some levity around it.

SMM: Do non-sports fans tell you they’re afraid of being caught “faking it?”

MUELLER: People are afraid and I completely understand. Nobody wants to be caught off guard. But I think there needs to be a shift in thinking as to what it means to “fake it.” Truly, it’s the intent behind it. I’m not going to mislead someone in a conversation by pretending to know something that I don’t know. If you’re genuinely trying to participate in the conversation and you’re genuinely taking interest in somebody else’s interest, then you’re building your sports knowledge base…you’re not faking it.

SMM: The influx of money in sports has led to more corporate seats than ever in arenas and ballparks. When you go to a game these days, so many of the people in the seats are casual fans at best who often don’t pay attention to the game. Does this make it easier for the non-sports fan to jump into this world?

MUELLER: There are a lot of different things that you can pick out from a game. It’s not just about the scores and it’s not just about the stats. Some people will be drawn to that; other people are happy to take in a game because it’s a beautiful ballpark and it’s a gorgeous night and they just want a different setting to drink a beer. I would note that you could talk about any number of the things that you see at a game as a way to start a conversation. It doesn’t have to be about who is on the mound that night.

SMM: Right now the World Cup is going on and it’s leaving most Americans in this very situation of watching and talking about a sport they know very little about.

MUELLER: And we think that’s OK during World Cup – and it is. We just don’t cut everybody else the same slack when we’re watching our favorite sport.

SMM: Is there anything similar to sports as a business conversation starter?

MUELLER: The strategies and techniques that I teach work for any conversation topic, but none of them have the same reach as sports. Also, sports happen every day and it is the only DVR-proof material on TV. The shows that we used to all watch on the same night when they aired used to be the go-to conversation topic at the water cooler. That’s gone. But sports fans are not waiting six weeks to watch their team play.