Sport Diplomacy + Digital Diplomacy: Part I

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I was honored to be included in the recent “Sports Diplomacy: A Vision for the Future” confab on what happens when the sports diplomacy world collides with the digital diplomacy one amid the stunningly beautiful gothic charm of Oxford, England. It was an ambitious agenda that brought together key stakeholders in these two worlds—scholars, practitioners, policy makers, diplomats, as well as representatives from the private sector, NGOs, and more—to contemplate how digital diplomacy is embracing sports in their ever-more-potent briefs.

It’s no secret that sports diplomacy is a rapidly evolving growth field, and sports diplomacy initiatives are among the most regularly requested worldwide. There are the more traditional models conducted through the circuit of sports exchanges, as per the U.S. Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy office and one of its flagship programs, the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP), run yearly in conjunction with ESPN and the University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace and Society. There are models whose investment in sports diplomacy goes well beyond sports exchanges, such as the Government of Australia and Government of France. International competitions involving national teams or athletes are also types of sports diplomacy as those players represent, communicate, and negotiate on and off the field, such as in the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, and other tournaments, like the annual #SheBelieves Cup. And, as this day’s discussions reinforced, there are many other non-traditional initiatives occurring daily thanks to the Internet.

The starting point, as articulated by Dr. Nicholas Cull, is that despite the ever-evolving nature of public diplomacy in a digital world, its key elements haven’t changed over time: listening, advocacy, cultural diplomacy, international exchanges, and international broadcasting.

“I see facilitation as the way forward rather than a historical foundation,” Cull said. “Public diplomacy is no longer about ‘what can I say,’ but ‘who can I empower to communicate around the issue I’d like to talk about?’”

For me, that’s a key question. One answer is: the athletes, though they’re often times overlooked. I’d argue that athletes are in fact hugely influential in the sports diplomacy + digital diplomacy nexus in new ways, giving extra weight to why they must be integral parts of these conversations. Look at how many are actively vocal on social media, engaging domestic and foreign publics, or how platforms like the Players Tribune are enabling athletes to broadcast their stories.

Oftentimes, athletes are de facto diplomats who represent, communicate, and negotiate around the sports terrain, regardless of whether they recognize it. Take LeBron James, who represents the United States when he plays for Team USA as well as in the more mundane rhythm of daily life in and around the NBA and Twitter.

I wrote about the different types of hoops diplomacy last month for The Athletic, including the unsung athlete ambassadors, which brings me to my last point: there’s much more to sports diplomacy than football diplomacy.

While the FIFA World Cup or the Olympic Games are often viewed as the main events for sports diplomacy, those are just two examples. Basketball, with its FIBA World Cup—in China next September—and continental competitions like EuroBasket is one venue for hoops diplomacy. So, too, are the world’s elite leagues, the NBA and EuroLeague, where team rosters are ever-more filled with international players and thus fan bases are increasingly global, not just local, ones.

Basketball is the world’s second sport, with some 450 million fans. It’s growing in popularity, the number of people who play continues to increase year-over-year, and it should be an integral angle for sports diplomacy alongside football.

Which brings me to two last interesting items from the confab. One, per Facebook’s Ronan Joyce, is that sports content providers are increasingly wading into the intersection of sports and digital diplomacies, especially global teams like Liverpool FC, and media like BBC Sports.

The second is that digital football diplomacy can be a good model. Burson Cohn & Wolfe’s Matthias Lufkens rammed home this point in his presentation of digital diplomats embracing the fun of World Cup Twitter to engage their foreign publics. Here’s a small sampling:

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Many thanks to the organizers and event partners: the University of Oxford, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy Qatar 2022, and the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS (where I’m a Research Associate).