Contact Sports

Amateur Leagues are Becoming Increasingly Important for Networking

Anka Milin gives a new spin to the old notion of networking. Three times a week, the 33-year-old human resources director for Lifetime Television plays volleyball--developing her game, and often, new contacts. She has recently sent business to two entrepreneurs who were teammates in the New York Urban Professionals Athletic League; one's a party planner, the other a technology recruiter. "If I'm playing with them, I'm going to help them," Milin says.

Meanwhile, down in Boca Raton, Fla., sports marketer Steven J. Tebon met a Perrier Group of America executive who became a major client after the two played basketball in an informal gym gathering known as the Sixth Man Club. "I didn't even know who he was when I first met him," says the 39-year-old, "but we just clicked on the basketball court."

Clicks like that are converting amateur sports into a whole new ballgame. Getting together with your buddies to shoot hoops is a venerable tradition, of course. But these days, the pickup players say they are increasingly likely to talk business instead of trash. More women have gotten into the game now, too, thanks to legal requirements that opened up team sports to legions of girls--and they're eagerly joining in.

TEAM PLAYERS. The boom in golf, long known as the game of business, has obscured the rapid growth of team-oriented sports. The number of basketball players, for instance, has surged 26% in the past 10 years to 45.1 million. (Golf is up just 18%, to 26.3 million, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn.)

Now, it turns out, business can be done on the court just as well as the course. Maybe better. Teams allow you to rub elbows with dozens of teammates and competitors, not just a preselected foursome. Players claim that bonds forged through this intense competition are a cut above those created by cocktail chit-chat and business-card exchange--or even slower-paced sports. "To win, you have to take on the characteristics of the group," says veterinarian Cheryl Harris, who belongs to both soccer and ice hockey teams in Cincinnati's flourishing public leagues.

Boosters further argue that the pressures of gritty competition can reveal personality traits that might otherwise take months to emerge. "You get a bead on how competitive and how fair-minded people are, and whether they're willing to share the ball," says attorney Jim Johnson. He partly credits his team play with attracting some 15 new clients from his weekly basketball games at the YMCA in Decatur, Ill. Sports provides a unique framework for making those judgments, says Glyn C. Roberts, a sports psychologist from the University of Illinois. "In sports, unlike business, the rules are always understood," he says. "It's easier for people to build up trust, or lose it, depending on how they live up to those rules."

Translating tough competition into business connections is a delicate operation. Even if you're consciously prowling for customers or a new job, don't be a suck-up, counsels Chris Ballard, who wrote Hoops Nation, a chronicle of his 48-state tour of pickup basketball courts. "People will respect you more if you act as an equal. They'll want to hire someone who gives 100% effort, not who says, `Nice shot, sir."' Still, you should also behave yourself; when it comes to role models, think Grant Hill rather than Dennis Rodman. "Be a hothead or give the umpires a real hard time, and who is going to want to do business with you?" asks Brock Witmyer, who runs public leagues for Lakeland, Fla., and has seen how others react to bad attitudes.

Above all, love the game. That, says Larry Schner, another player in the Sixth Man Club, is what keeps his basketball league going strong. "Though we all do work for each other, it all goes back to the basics," says the former college roundballer. "Getting together and sweating for an hour and 15 minutes."

Some athletic activities are less physically demanding, though. If you want to mingle while keeping your cool, you can always try America's longtime favorite participatory sport: Bowling, anyone?

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