How Talking About Sports Can Help Your Career

As soon as the invitation arrived, Joy Cline Phinney began to get nervous. Phinney is a classical pianist married to a Boston lawyer, and they recently received a coveted invite: to join one of her husband's clients in a luxury box to watch the New England Patriots play a late-season game. It sounded like a wonderful Sunday—but to Phinney, who knows little about football, it also sounded perilous. She envisioned sit-com-worthy scenes in which her ignorance about touchbacks and tight ends leads to disaster, the way a neophyte patron at a fancy restaurant winds up drinking from the finger bowl.

So one evening in October, Phinney is seated in a Boston restaurant, taking notes while a retired NFL player stands before a white board. The event, called Water Cooler Football, has been organized by Diane Darling, a consultant who ordinarily runs business-oriented workshops that teach people to expand and leverage their network of professional contacts. Darling says she routinely encounters people who turn down invitations to watch football games because they're afraid of appearing clueless about the sport. "They'd say 'I'm missing out on networking opportunities I think would be good for me," Darling says. Tonight, 14 attendees pay $35 to spend two hours being tutored by former Patriots tight end Paul Francisco. Francisco starts by drawing a football field and explaining what a "down" is. Then he asks a question: "What happens after a touchdown?" Phinney answers: "A field goal?" Francisco winces, then explains the difference between a field goal and an extra-point kick.

Career-minded executives have traditionally learned golf as a way to get ahead. Now, amid rising layoffs, it's only natural for people to seek new ways to make contacts. They're joining social networks like LinkedIn, which now has 31 million users. But this Football 101 workshop is a reminder that no matter how many online "friends" one has, the ability to carry on an interesting nonbusiness conversation will always be a vital skill. In the consulting business, they refer to this as the "airplane test"—the realization that if you hire a person, someday you're liable to sit next to him or her on a cross-country flight. (If that prospect sounds torturous, don't hire the candidate.) In a small way, being able to talk about sports can be a help in passing this test—and in making friendships that can lead to unexpected opportunities.

I've witnessed this phenomenon myself. Although no one who saw me play high school football would describe me as "athletic," today sports occupy a big portion of my off-work hours. When I reconnect with college friends, it's often over a game involving our alma mater. I've sparked friendships while coaching my children's teams and while playing Sunday-night pickup basketball. None of these activities are obvious avenues for career advancement; like most professionals, I figure my next job will likely come from a former colleague or someone with whom I've done business. But I've also seen how unlikely connections, like the kind you make while kibitzing about the Giants or Colts, may lead in unexpected directions. When a close friend was laid off last summer, a guy he knew from coaching Little League introduced him to the co-founder of a fast-growing local employer. When another friend got him an interview with his employer, the hiring managers turned out to be people he'd bonded with at a Patriots tailgate. In the end, my friend turned down that offer to take a different job—one he found through a golfing buddy.

Connections like this don't have to come from sports—they could just as easily involve other popular pastimes. But there's no question that sports talk can be a great social lubricant. Darling says several pro football teams now offer educational seminars aimed at women who hope to better converse with male fans. Darling is also considering moving beyond football, by launching seminars on understanding baseball and basketball. And while it's easy to caricature overeager networkers, the people attending Water Cooler Football don't appear to be these types. Rather, they realize that "networking" is mostly just a pejorative description for the benign process of making friends—and it helps to have something to talk about. One attendee, an airline pilot, has grown tired of sitting silently while co-workers watch the Sunday games. A men's image stylist says she wants to learn the lingo to better connect with clients. Michael Yip, a media producer who attended with his 13-year-old son, thinks they'll both benefit from being able to talk knowledgably about whether the Pats should go for it on 4th and short. "You're a bit of a social misfit if you can't talk about sports," Yip says. The event hasn't turned Joy Cline Phinney into John Madden. But up in the luxury box, she'll now know a tackle from a tight end—and a point-after from a field goal.