Three years ago, I found myself attending at a charity business development dinner with several partners and the chairman of my law firm. The event had been sponsored by one of the firm’s big sports clients and I was invited to attend, because a few months earlier, I was assigned to a big case representing Major League Baseball. The next thing I knew, I was seated across from Billie Jean King at dinner. To my right, Kareem Abdul Jabaar and Bill Walton were chatting at the next table.
I should have been utterly star-struck, but there was one big problem. I knew virtually nothing about sports. These were some of the most impressive athletes of our time, and yet the experience was somewhat lost on me. Like so many other occasions, I found myself making small talk throughout dinner, but falling uncomfortably silent whenever the conversation turned to sports.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in sports or consciously didn’t want to participate. Sports were just something that I had never grown up watching. By the time I got to law school at Michigan and football was such a huge part of the culture, I felt out of the loop and far behind many of my other classmates, who had grown up watching the game. I resigned myself to a lifetime of knowing nothing about sports.
But by a twist of fate, I was put on this baseball case at the law firm and I decided that I wanted to be proactive and do something about my sports obliviousness. I began following a couple teams and really getting to know a few players. Suddenly, with my additional knowledge, I felt empowered and it made watching the games fun and enjoyable. Sports were moving from something that had always left me feeling alienated to something that I genuinely enjoyed as a new pass-time.
Even though my case was a bit extreme, because sports-knowledge was nearly a requirement of my job, I found from speaking with friends and colleagues that this feeling of alienation is a common experience for many people who don’t follow sports, especially young professional women.
A 2015 Gallup Poll shows that there is a tangible gender gap in sports fandom with 76% of men earning over $75,000 describing themselves as sports fans, whereas only 56% of similarly high-income women would describe themselves as such. This difference, combined with the fact that only 14% of top executives are women, means that more often than not, ambitious young women are interfacing with men at the top of their companies. And not only that, they are competing with young male colleagues, who may be able to more easily form relationships with their bosses. While I do not think there is anything insidious going on, male associates may be able to more quickly able to form bonds with male bosses because of common interests, in part–sports. This scenario plays out in interactions with interviewers, clients, and colleagues as well.
I can speak from personal experience. Beyond working for MLB, I was frequently surrounded by colleagues chatting about sports. In my class of 20 litigation associates, only 3 were women. The gender breakdown amongst the partnership was similarly stark. At department lunches and firm events, it was often inevitable that the conversation would move beyond idle chitchat about the weather to the latest sports news.
This is not to suggest that women should have to feign interest in sports if they have none. But I think that there are many people, who like me, wanted to learn more but felt intimidated and didn’t know where to know where to start.
When I decided to try and learn more about sports, I found the experience frustrating because there were few resources for sports novices. There were plenty of media outlets for avid sports fans, but nothing that helped break things down and provide context for someone who was just getting started. I thought there was a gap in the marketplace for a product that could help someone develop more sports knowledge in a fun and accessible way.
This idea stuck with me, and just this year I decided to start Goalposte, a daily newsletter that summarizes the major stories in sports, while providing context and primers. In particular, Goalposte’s mission is to help level the playing field for young professional women, who are more likely to feel alienated in sports conversations with coworkers, bosses, interviewers, and clients. I hope that this simple daily newsletter will make it easier to cultivate a genuine interest in sports and that there will fewer women in the workplace who have to sit on the outside looking in when the conversation turns to sports.
About the Author:
Jane Wu Brower is the Founder and CEO of Goalposte, a daily newsletter that summarizes the major stories in sports in a fun and accessible way for casual sports fans and novices (www.goalposte.com). She was formerly a management consultant for the Boston Consulting Group and a litigation associate at Proskauer Rose LLP.