7 Business English Expressions that Come From Sports

Did you know that many business English expressions come from sports?

As an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary explains in the New York Times

Sports are written about and discussed a lot, and so have generated a great deal of colorful, specialized vocabulary. And competition exists in many other spheres of life, so sports terms are well suited to be borrowed into other domains, such as business or politics.

Sports expressions also lighten up business conversations, making them more relaxed and less formal.

So what are some sports terms that made their way into the world of business? Below, we’ll introduce seven that you’ll definitely encounter when doing business in English.

Ballpark (adj.)

“Ballparks” usually refer to baseball fields. They are always large enclosed spaces. 

A ballpark in the US
A ballpark in the US

In business, the word “ballpark” is often used to talk about a range of numbers. For example, if you’re making a “ballpark estimate,” that means your estimate doesn’t need to be precise. It just needs to be reasonable or within an expected range (i.e. inside the ballpark).

  • I don’t need exact numbers. Ballpark figures will do.
  • The amount of water the factory uses varies, but ballpark estimates are usually around 200,000 tons each day.

A useful phrase to know is “in the ballpark.”

  • We estimate that the deal is in the ballpark of $75 – 100 million.
  • Guess again. Your first guess was not even in the ballpark.

Pitch (n., v.)

When you pitch a ball in baseball, you throw it at your opponent and hope they don’t hit it.

A pitcher pitching a ball
A pitcher pitching a ball

In business, if you “pitch” an idea, you propose it to someone and hope they like it.

  • The director pitched his idea for a new movie to many producers, but didn’t get any positive responses.
  • In Silicon Valley, there’s a Venezuelan cafe where many start-up founders pitch their ideas to investors.

Pitch is also used as a noun.

  • They gave a good pitch, but their prices were just too high.
  • The company was not impressed by our sales pitch and will be buying from one of our competitors instead.

Fun fact: An “elevator pitch” is a short, memorable description of an idea that you’d want to be able to say to someone important if you happen to get into the same elevator. There’s even a show based on this concept.

Touch Base (idiom)

Like the previous two expressions, “touch base” also comes from baseball. During a game, players must run around a diamond-shaped field to score. 

A base in a baseball field
A base in a baseball field

At each corner, there’s a base that players must touch to get a point. They usually run as fast as possible between them, which means that the time they “touch” each base is very short. So if you tell someone, “Let’s touch base soon,” you’re basically saying “Let’s talk briefly soon.” 

  • I’m connecting you to Dara by copy. I hope you two have a chance to touch base soon to discuss your new role.
  • Hi Steve, I just wanted to touch base with you, because I’ve received complaints about your behavior from HR, and wanted to learn more about what may have happened.

Drop the Ball (idiom)

In most ball games, dropping the ball means losing a chance to score.

Outside of sports, “dropping the ball” means to completely forget about or fail to do something that you promised to do. In fact, the phrase usually comes with an apology.

For example, if you invite someone to meet up and then forget to reply to them, you can say, “Sorry, I dropped the ball. Are you free to chat next Wednesday?”

  • I’m so sorry I dropped the ball on this project. I’ll have more time for it now that I’ve finished work on other tasks.
  • The social media company dropped the ball on its users by accidentally leaking their passwords.

Get the Ball Rolling (idiom)

As our lesson on soccer expressions explains, “At the beginning of a soccer game, one player rolls the ball to another. So the expression ‘get the ball rolling’ means to start an activity.”

A player gets ready to kick a ball to “get it rolling”
A player gets ready to kick a ball to “get it rolling”
  • Let’s meet next week so we can get the ball rolling on this project.
  • Please talk to the designers tomorrow to get the ball rolling on our new website.

Call the Shots (idiom)

The origins of this phrase are unclear, but it’s said that it comes from billiards or target practice. Both of these are sports in which people might announce what they’re going to hit before shooting.

A player preparing to “call a shot” or say which ball they will aim for
A player preparing to “call a shot” or say which ball they will aim for

In business, the person who “calls the shots” makes the important decisions.

  • You’ll have to talk to my boss about this proposal. He’s the one who calls the shots here, not me.
  • As managing partner of the law firm, Jessica called the shots.

Pass Along/On (phrasal v.)

Many sports require people to “pass” or transfer a ball to a teammate.

A player passing the ball to their teammate
A player passing the ball to their teammate

In business contexts, people often use “pass” as a casual way to talk about sending information to other people. For example, if you ask someone to “pass” some information to their mailing list, it’s like you’re asking them to casually toss the information to someone else – the way they might toss a ball.

  • Thanks for sending your CV. I’ll pass it on to our hiring manager, who will reach out if your application moves to the next round.
  • Dear managers, If you haven’t already, please complete this survey and pass it on to your team members.

Your Turn!

Try to use some of these expressions the next time you speak to a client or write an email in English. 

And if you want practice using these expressions in a real conversation or feedback that’ll help you improve your business English, book a free lesson with one of our tutors! To get you started, check out our lessons on business.