How to use sports and hobbies for client development
The adage that golf is good for business is built on a large kernel of truth. The fact is that being out on a golf course, playing a game you enjoy with people you want to spend time with, is a tried-and-true means for networking, strengthening relationships, and advancing deals.
Another fact is that it’s not just golf. Any sport-related interest or hobby you have can serve as the basis for new client development—from racing cars to painting to pickleball.
According to George Amidon, managing partner at JAM Consulting Group, using your favorite pastime or joining with your clients to play your favorite recreational sports to build relationships and trust may be one of the most effective ways to grow your practice.
The fastest growing sport in America
Business networking is one of the reasons pickleball has seen such a surge of interest in the past few years. The Topline Participation Report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association found that pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in America. Participation nearly doubled last year, increasing by 86% over 2021. USA Pickleball estimates that nearly 5 million people now play the sport.
"Whether you’re an avid pickleball player—or a cyclist or golfer—you have everything you need to make meaningful connections with potential clients."
While that may be just a fraction of the 25 million golfers in the U.S, the popularity of that sport is on the decline. Between 2003 and 2018, an estimated 6.8 million people stopped playing golf, and more than 1,200 courses closed, according to the National Recreation and Park Association. Given pickleball’s rapid rise in popularity—and the fact that the need to network for client development isn’t going away—its small graphite or fiberglass paddles and plastic balls may one day eclipse drivers and putters.
Pickleball clearly lends itself to business development. The very structure of the game—a combination of badminton, tennis, and ping-pong—leaves plenty of room—and time—for networking. While four players are on the court, many folks involved in a round robin or tournament can connect on the sidelines to talk business.
“You meet new players you’re paired with, and the time between games is great for socializing and networking,” says Brandon Mackie, a finance professional and a co-founder of Pickleheads, a community of pickleball players and enthusiasts. “I’ve met players from all walks of life, including many people who have helped me professionally.”
Pickleball’s structure and community have grown to a level where organizations and clubs are pursuing business connections through dedicated and special events. For example, a consulting firm that provides financial services to companies held a networking pickleball party in Colorado late last year. Events just like it have spread to other parts of the country, including Boston and Idaho.
How sports and hobbies enable better client connections
As an article in Psyche magazine noted, relationships are rooted in shared experiences. Experiences that excite, like a competitive but friendly match on the pickleball court, are an even more effective platform for connection. Whether you’re an avid pickleball player—or a cyclist or golfer—you have everything you need to make meaningful connections with potential clients.
“You meet new players you’re paired with, and the time between games is great for socializing and networking.”
Sports have the ability to bring people together as few other activities do, according to an article from Yellowbrick, an organization that empowers people to fuel personal advancement and pursue fulfilling careers. Because sports are underpinned by rules, respect, graciousness, and fair play, people intrinsically understand that they’re participating in a safe and equalizing way. That’s ultimately what brings everyone together.
“People are busy. Experiences are what resonate. It takes something special to get on calendars,” said Charlene Rabideau, senior vice president and general manager of BCD Sports, which designs and executes athletic experiences for business purposes. “Sports builds relationships and lasting bonds. No other event offers the same opportunity to create memories.”
The biggest obstacle to making connections
Sometimes, without realizing it, we get in our own way when all we really want to do is grow our practice by delivering great results. Therein lies the problem. “We often become so focused on wanting to make sure we deliver financial information that we know clients need that we rely on our technical expertise and overlook our relational expertise,” says JAM Consulting Group’s Amidon. JAM specializes in training and coaching programs focused on leadership, sales, communication, and executive presence. “Financial professionals are trained to be experts in the technical aspects of the business—industry trends, markets, and data,” Amidon adds. “Of course, these are important. But for clients to feel confident in a numbers-driven approach, they need to have a genuine connection with their financial professional.”
This is where sports and hobbies may come into play; however, many financial professionals aren’t comfortable making connections through what may seem like non-professional interests. Overcoming this discomfort starts with the knowledge that clients care more about what you can do for them when they know you care about them. One of the ways to show you care about clients is through making connections, which is why sports you play and hobbies you enjoy are excellent fulcrums for relationship building. They provide the foundation for shared experiences.
It's not whether you win or lose
It’s also important to remember that it’s not how good you are at your chosen activity. What matters most is how much you care about the sport or hobby, says Bill Sweeney, program director for Global Atlantic Consulting. Your passion for learning a skill or your interest in practicing a pastime may be the key to professional connections.
“When potential clients see your dedication and persistence to a hobby or a craft, they inherently understand that you bring that same vigor to your work,” says Sweeney.