12 sports idioms that are used in business English
Published on August 18, 2021 / Updated by Angéline Gras-Kresse on February 12, 2024
Business English is full of unusual sports idioms that when taken literally seem to have nothing to do with what you’re talking about. Some of your colleagues might love to drag sports metaphors into business conversations. It’s worth learning a few so you know what’s going on in your next English business meeting.
Not all sports terms work in every context. American football and baseball terms are more common in American business English, and cricket and rugby terms won’t work at all. It may seem like your colleagues are being vague, but using metaphors to describe a work situation is a form of politeness in English. To expand your business English vocabulary, try working one or two of these terms into your next business meeting or presentation.
This refers to fighting for the smallest of gains will make the difference in the end, and those who take the time to do this will win. It’s related to American football, where players can spend ages pushing back and forth over a relatively small area of the field.
This means to succeed spectacularly. It’s referring to hitting a baseball all the way out of the ballpark (this is what baseball stadiums are called in the U.S.). If you were using it in a work setting, you might say something like, “I gave the project to Sarah because I know she will knock it out of the park.”
This is used in situations where you’re a bit desperate, so you make a last-ditch effort and do something that has a low chance of success. A “Hail Mary” is a reference to American football. A player might throw a “Hail Mary” pass toward the end of the game if their team is losing. This is the name for a very long pass without much chance of someone catching it. In a business setting, someone might say, “Josh’s efforts to boost traffic at the end of the quarter seemed like a Hail Mary to me.”
This is also a baseball reference, and English speakers use this phrase when something completely unexpected happens. An idea or an event can “come out of left field”, and you would be very surprised. It can be a positive or negative surprise, but it’s more often used negatively.
This refers to something within your experience or skill set. In sports terms, a “wheelhouse” is the area where a baseball player can most easily hit the ball with their bat. In business, it means something you have the skills to do, for example: “I assigned this piece to you, as it’s in your wheelhouse.”
This means an estimated number. To say something is “in the ballpark” means you’re fairly close and it’s a reasonable guess. This is related to baseball and has to do with hitting the ball within the ballpark, which makes it fair play.
While most British people will understand American sports metaphors, they will prefer the ones about sports popular in their own country. Any vocabulary related to cricket, rugby, or British football will go over well when speaking with your British colleagues.
This describes a challenging problem without a simple solution. Countries that love cricket will say this one, including the United Kingdom, India, Australia, New Zealand, and many Caribbean nations. In sport, it refers to when the ground is wet and then dries out, making the wicket more challenging to knock over. For example, “It’s a great idea, but the implementation is the sticky wicket, isn’t it?”
This phrase refers to the end of the day. This comes from all sorts of sports, but it means the same thing as “end of day”. It’s worth noting the phrase “at the end of the day” can be used differently to mean “when we take everything into consideration”. “I need this document by the end of the day/close of play” means you have a task to complete before the end of the business day. “At the end of the day, we performed well this quarter”, however, does not refer to a singular day but to the overall financial performance over the quarter.
This means a person that you can rely on to get the work done properly. Rugby commentators use this phrase to mean a player who catches well and doesn’t drop the ball. You would refer to a specific person as a safe pair of hands, for example: “Let’s give that IT project to Anna, she’s a safe pair of hands.”
If you succeed at something three times in a short period, English speakers may use this phrase, as it’s related to both cricket and British football, where a player takes three wickets in succession or scores three goals in the same game.
A term to describe the beginning of something. In American football and British football, this is the beginning of the game. In business English, you might talk about having a ‘kick-off meeting’ to begin a big project.
You can use this phrase when someone changes the requirements or project goals while you’re still working on it. For example, you might say: “Asking for a whole new chapter is moving the goalpost on this project.”
Whether it’s a kick-off meeting or getting those finance reports in by close of play, sports vocabulary is everywhere in business English. Knock it out of the park with your next business presentation by using a few of these colorful phrases, and move beyond basic business English vocabulary. One of the benefits of Lingoda are their native-level teachers, who can help you improve your business English vocabulary in small classes with plenty of time for practice.