"You certainly don't have to be an avid fan of sport but in Australia we have a culture that's pervaded by it" ... Paula Ward.
It sounds like a sports nut's dream: turning water cooler conversations about sport into your profession.
Yet that's just what it's become for Paula Ward, a self-appointed “sports interpreter” who's swapped a career in human resources to launch Know The Game, a business dedicated to educating people about Australian sports.
After growing up in a sports-mad family, Ward developed a reputation in her corporate and social life for holding her own when it came to banter about AFL, rugby, cricket, tennis, netball, golf and horse racing (she admits soccer and basketball are her weak points).
Often the only woman in the corporate box at sporting events, she recognised the value in finding common ground with colleagues and clients through sport.
“Sport is part of my life. I'm passionate about it: competing, learning new skills, being part of a team, talking about it and watching it,” she says.
“Initially I wasn't sure if turning my passion into a business would have commercial interest but I took the plunge and wound up my full-time work to focus on it.
“I did my research and couldn't find anyone else doing anything like this globally.”
After launching Know The Game in April 2010, Ward quit full-time corporate life four months later.
“I'm a registered psychologist who'd worked in human resources, change management and sustainability within the investment banking and professional services sectors for 17 years," the 37-year-old says.
"I'd gone from loving my work it to liking it a lot. I wondered what would sustain me for the longer term, what would get me out of bed each day.”
Drawing on her career skills helped Ward coach herself into her new business.
“I came to the conclusion that I'm just really interested in others knowing about sport, whether that's in the board room, at a client function, over the back fence or at the pub,” she says.
As a sports educator, Ward gets to talk about sport all day long. Running public and private workshops, she educates anyone from CEOs to the general public, wives and girlfriends of sportsmen to corporate clients looking to leverage their sports sponsorship investment.
Business fluctuates depending on the sporting season, she says.
“I'd like to be regularly running three sessions a week and while I have runs of month where that happens, it can also drop off,” she says.
One of Ward's recent clients was the American Society of Sydney, which hired her to run a session on Australia's three major football codes: rugby union, rugby league and AFL.
The spring racing carnival is another favourite, a two-month flurry of champagne brunches and introductions to the basics of track conditions, fashions on the field, betting and pointers on how to read the oft-elusive form guide, column by column.
Business owner and strategic marketing consultant Michael Field attended Ward's workshop on cricket fundamentals in a bid to improve his knowledge beyond small talk at corporate events.
"I realised I didn't know enough about the intricacies of many sporting events to engage in anything greater than a superficial conversation,” he says.
“I was the guy who nodded 'Yeah' when asked about anything relating to sport. In two hours, Paula taught me more about cricket than I had learned in a lifetime.”
For public workshops, Ward says women tend to come in pairs (at least) whereas men tend to come alone, often indicating relief that they can ask “stupid questions”, the ones they would never ask their mates.
While Sydney-based, Ward regularly travels interstate to teach. Her main focus has been hosting “sports 101”-style public workshops and two-hour sessions for banks, legal, engineering and consulting firms (charging more than $1500 per group).
She hopes to broaden her offering to more advanced workshops, covering more of the nitty gritty and sports headlines for people who already have the basics.
“The kind of work I do is particularly helpful for companies with a lot of business development or sales who have to host clients at sporting or networking events,” she says.
Ward doesn't advocate people having to know about sport to get ahead in their careers, rather that a general understanding of business and its associations helps.
In her previous career she recalls working for a bank that had strong ties with Opera Australia.
“I always felt like I should know about the performers, especially if a client asked, so I went and educated myself about that,” she says.
“You certainly don't have to be an avid fan of sport but in Australia we have a culture that's pervaded by it. 'Kicking goals', 'going around the grounds', 'being a team player' and 'letting it go through to the keeper' are all sporting analogies that pervade corporate boardrooms. Being at least a little bit in the know is one way to build rapport with customers and clients.
“What I'm doing doesn't feel like work. Most of the time it feels like I'm down at the pub with mates having a chat.”