Choose a team
OK, so, first things first: it’s of course perfectly acceptable to be an allegiance-free sports fan, just appreciating your chosen game for its inherent entertainment value, but if you’re just looking to fake your way through a conversation, the easiest way is to embrace sport’s innate tribalism. We suggest picking either your local team, or a relatively obscure mid-table team with an interesting history and reasonably devoted fanbase. Check the team’s results on the web, then sympathize with fellow fans when your adopted team sucks, and slap them on the back when the team wins. Easy.
Learn who to hate
On a related point: learn which team everyone hates. It’s usually the league’s biggest/richest/most successful. Find out who this team is, and complain loudly about them at every opportunity. It’ll endear you to your fellow fans, and the fact that you are not a fan of the team in question will provide you with instant non-bandwagon credibility.
Beyond a simple “How’s about those Knicks?” however, the single most important way to sound authoritative about sports is this: citing statistics. Lots of them. Throw them around with reckless abandon. Blind your audience with science. Bonus points if you master the “advanced statistics” that have started to permeate sports in recent years, esoteric measurements that move away from the traditional approach of tallying a player’s tangible, quantifiable contributions to a game and toward providing numerical representations of more nebulous concepts like overall efficiency, contribution to a team’s winning percentage, etc. Learn the name of these statistics. Smatter your conversation with them. Drop the name John Hollinger (above) a lot. Watch your audience stroke their chins in awe.
Learn the jargon
On a related point: every sport comes with its own vocabulary, one that’s often rich and poetic in its own way. (Did you know, for instance, that a left-arm wrist-spin bowler in cricket is called a “Chinaman,” or that the special kick water polo players perform to stay afloat is called the “eggbeater”?) This sort of jargon can be a source of etymological fascination, and using it instantly also makes you sound like you know what you’re talking about.
Learn the truisms
Sport also comes with its own philosophy, one that can basically be boiled down as follows: it’s the unglamorous, unflashy aspects of the game that win championships. This exact nature of this idea varies from sport to sport depending on the nature of the game, but is often expressed as a convenient catchphrase. (Golf, for instance: “Drive for show, putt for dough.”) Deploy this piece of homespun wisdom judiciously every so often during the course of the game you’re watching. Nod sagely while doing so.
Seriously. It’s a great read even if you’re not remotely interested in baseball (which your correspondent isn’t, in the slightest. It’ll also give you one ready-made topic of conversation with pretty much every sports fan you’ll ever meet — either enthusing about how good it is with people who’ve read it, or extolling its virtues to people who haven’t.
Complain about the referee
The one thing that every sport in the entire universe has in common: no-one likes the poor old ref. Complain about his/her performance vociferously. Everyone will agree with you.
Learn the rules
Still, if you’re going to complain about the referee, you’re going to have to know the rules. Just the basic ones, at least — every sport comes with its own weird quirks and loopholes and exceptions etc, and no-one’s going to expect you to know all these… But at least know enough that you don’t have to keep asking the difference between a charge and a block, or for someone to explain the offside rule to you again.
Don’t mention the Kardashians
Seriously. No-one who actually likes sport gives the remotest semblance of a shit about who Lamar Odom/Kris Humphries/etc is sleeping with.
Lastly, and most importantly, stop faking it. Embrace sport. There’s a pervasive view in society that sports are somehow lowbrow culture. This isn’t true in the slightest — a bunch of men trying to throw a ball through a hoop is no more or less inherently ridiculous than a bunch of people pretending to be other people or shouting into a microphone. Any corner of culture can be argued to be ridiculous if you take an entirely reductive view of it, but ultimately in taking such a view all you do is rob yourself of the opportunity to appreciate that culture. There is beauty in sports, and grace, and savagery, and compelling narratives and a million other things to hold your interest. Some of our greatest artists have been sports fans — David Foster Wallace wrote beautifully about tennis, for instance, and Jack Nicholson’s obsessive love of the LA Lakers has been well-documented. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for you.