Language Training Center finds lucrative niche in sports

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Martin George didn’t pursue a job in big-time sports. Far from it.

But the former director of IUPUI’s English as a Second Language program has found himself in high demand among some of the world’s biggest athletes and sports properties, from basketball star Yao Ming and IndyCar Series drivers to the NCAA and LPGA.

George’s Castleton-based Language Training Center has offered language and culture training, interpretation and translation services locally, nationally and internationally since he left IUPUI to found the firm in 1993.

But only in the last five years has George, 49, found his business taking a decidedly athletic turn as sports properties have started to expand globally.

“The world of sports has really changed in recent years,” said Brazilian IndyCar Series driver Ana Beatriz, who was referred to George by another foreign-born driver. “It’s so much more important to be able to understand not only multiple languages, but different cultures.”

Beatriz said she quickly found out there were many nuances to the English language and American culture that she needed to learn to be able to deal effectively with sponsors, media and fans.

“Merely translating words from Portuguese to English didn’t always work, didn’t always make sense,” Beatriz said. “Martin taught me the importance of things like intonation, accent and different [catch] phrases.”

George, a Connersville native who has spent considerable time in China and other far-flung locales, said his company has grown revenue every year but 2002. Growth returned in 2003, when revenue jumped more than 20 percent—a pace he’s been able to maintain since.

“In the early years, our sales calls didn’t always get a real warm welcome,” George said. “Now, what field isn’t doing something internationally? And so the need for our services is much better understood.”

George speaks six languages, but his company deals in more than 100. He has a full-time staff of 15 and 85 contractors to handle the company’s growing demands.

The women’s professional golf circuit, the LPGA, has golfers from 29 countries. It hired George’s firm this year due to an influx of non-English speakers and recently extended the contract through 2012.

LPGA officials want golfers on the circuit to mix with sponsors and the media and to speak as much English as possible.

George and another instructor, Erica Tomasik, travel with the LPGA, tutoring players one-on-one in the clubhouses, at tournament host hotels or through video conferencing.

“This may feel like an LPGA [initiative], but it’s really a business [initiative],” said LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan. “I don’t really consider it a language program. I consider it a cross-culture program.”

The growing number of Asians on the LPGA tour were known for being extremely reserved, and it was left to George and his staff to break the ice.

George initially began working with three golfers earlier this year. But word quickly spread of the program’s effectiveness, said LPGA Chief Communications Officer David Higdon. Now, about 30 LPGA golfers are using LTC’s services, including American Vicky Hurst, who is studying Korean, her mother’s native language. Such training might create business opportunities for American golfers seeking broader appeal in growing golf markets in Asia and other parts of the world, George said.

About Language Training CenterHigdon said golfers’ ability to communicate effectively is most welcome at pro-am outings. Those events, which are typically played a day or two before a tour event, pair professionals with amateurs, who are often sponsors.

“Interaction between the golfers and sponsors during those events is extremely important for the golfer, the tour and the overall growth of the game,” Higdon said.

“It’s about respecting one another’s culture, yes, but knowing the culture also is definitely a recipe for business success,” said Diane Thomas, president of the International Center of Indianapolis. “Companies that educate themselves in other languages and cultures are in a better competitive position.”

Zak Brown, president of locally based motorsports marketing firm Just Marketing International, said some sports properties are adjusting rapidly to the globalizing marketplace. Others, he said, are still struggling to grasp the importance of language and cultural training.

“It’s quite easy to make an innocent mistake and even offend someone by not understanding cultures,” Brown said.

George said the importance of such training is now spreading beyond professional sports. His firm has already done some translation and training for the NCAA, but he thinks that relationship could grow considerably.•

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