A Review of Contemporary US Sports Diplomacy: How American Foreign Interests are Cushioned by its Professional Leagues


North America and the Caribbean Desk

Written by: Blake Bridge, Davenport College ’23

In our current age of challenged liberalism and shifting world power, the new Americana that has solidified a position as a fundamental American cultural export are the nation’s professional sports leagues, namely the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB), and the National Hockey League (NHL).

Ever since the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics, the United States (US) has seen sports as an extension of American ideological and cultural diplomacy, thrusting its athletes to the highest echelons of international stardom to act as star-spangled advertisements of the American way of life. These American athletics are designed to elucidate the splendor, multiculturalism, and cooperation promised by the US as the de facto leader of the liberal world order.

While sports are not a novel foreign policy tool, the foreign policy implications of its privatization is. In the past, sports diplomacy has been carried out through recognized, multilateral channels like the Olympics or the World Cup. However, since the 1990s, the American professional leagues have manufactured and sold American athletes to foreign audiences like never before. Now, private sports diplomacy is officially recognized by the US federal government, being a devoted division within the US Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs.

American Olympic heroes like Michael Phelps, Jesse Owens, and Nathan Chen have been replaced by professional league equivalents like Stephen Curry and Tiger Woods. In particular, the expansion of the MLB, NBA, and NFL in certain foreign markets has both solidified and disrupted American influence in many of these crucial economic and geopolitical US partner states. These professional leagues and their athletes have adapted sports diplomacy to contemporary times, acting like “non-state actors” fostering US influence beyond America’s borders and governmental mandates. The days of great power sports diplomacy, memorialized by the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the US victory over the USSR during the “Miracle on Ice,” has given way to privatized American professional leagues which now carry the brunt of exporting athletic Americanism abroad.

To exemplify the rise of professional leagues as the mainstay of modern US sports diplomacy, Brexit turmoil in the United Kingdom (UK) has been followed by a surging expansion of the NFL. To date, twenty eight NFL games have now been played in London representing thirty one of a total of thirty two NFL teams. This increase in the prevalence of the NFL in the United Kingdom comes at a crucial time for UK-European and UK-US negotiations about post-Brexit trade deals. The normalization of American sports in the UK attenuates British domestic resistance to an increased American foreign policy presence, weakening the audience cost of a possible UK-US trade deal and challenging the prominence of UK-European cultural fraternity.

The professional leagues also generally serve as a nonpartisan means of bolstering US influence in countries that do not necessarily hold a favorable view of the current administration or foreign policy initiatives of the US. Professional league influence also exists in Mexico, with MLB, NBA, and NFL games all being played in the country concurrent to the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade agreement (NAFTA). Furthermore, Canada currently has multiple NHL teams, one NBA team, and one MLB team slowing engulfing Canada culturally in the US’s sphere of influence. Even the NBA was recently embroiled in controversy about the freedom of speech rights of its owners and players in 2019 China-NBA disputes pertaining to Hong Kong pro-democracy protest, further complicating already strained US-China relations.

I would like to qualify that not all of these professional sports leagues, for example the NHL, represent purely American interest or origins. However, I do argue that these professional leagues represent a unique American foreign influence realm that exists independent from the direct control of Washington. The leagues have created an entangling and amorphous sphere of influence in which US interests are simultaneously championed, undermined, and disseminated. This diffusion of modern sporting diplomacy, distinct from its nationalist Olympic predecessor, provides the US government with a platform to moderate its soft power in the contemporary globalized world dominated by fluctuating interests, norms, and partnerships.

Works Cited:

Goldstein, Steve. “The NFL Is No Longer a Mere Curiosity in London.” MarketWatch, October 14, 2019. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-nfl-is-no-longer-a-mere-curiosity-in-london-2019-10-14.

Jason Miklian, John E. Katsos. “Analysis | China’s Conflict with the NBA Shows Why Companies Can’t Force Social Change by Themselves.” The Washington Post. WP Company, October 13, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/10/13/chinas-conflict-with-nba-shows-why-companies-cant-force-social-change-by-themselves/.

NFL. “2020 NFL London Games Ticket News.” NFL.com. National Football League, February 27, 2020. http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000001031544/article/2020-nfl-london-games-ticket-news.

“Sports Diplomacy | Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State. Accessed February 29, 2020. https://eca.state.gov/programs-initiatives/initiatives/sports-diplomacy.