The Little League World Series has evolved into an ideal sports diplomacy vehicle. Other sports should take notice.
The Little League World Series is an international baseball tournament created in 1947 for children between the ages of 11 and 13. In its current iteration, the Little League World Series is a 16-team tournament, divided into an international bracket and a U.S. bracket, with the final played in South Williamsport, PA, between the champions of the two brackets. The tournament represents 8 different regions of the U.S., and a regional winner from: Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, Europe and Africa, Japan, Latin America and Mexico. The games are open to the public, with only tickets to the championship game going up for random lottery because of the high demand for tickets.
The television networks and the U.S. State Department have started to realize the great opportunity this tournament has for crossing cultural divides, i.e. sports diplomacy. In 2006, 28 of the 36 games were broadcast on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2, and by 2014, all the games will be broadcast on TV. This is combined with the fact that since 2000, teams from 3 different countries and 4 different states have won the World Series. Taiwan remains the team to beat though with its 17 championships. 8 more than the second most-winning team, Japan.
The crucial point here is that every year the U.S. is hosting a baseball tournament, which is open to the public, with 8 teams from the U.S. and 8 teams from around the world. This gives spectators and players a chance to interact with people from other countries that some may have never even heard of, much less interacted with. In other words, the U.S. government gets to introduce other peoples and cultures to the U.S. through the medium of sports. Venezuela won the Little League World Series in 2000; the opportunity that situation presented was incredible. The Venezuelans could see the U.S. as not just some country with which their president feuds. The U.S. citizens are people with lives, jobs, and a love of their children playing sports, not an enemy faction. The same goes for the U.S. viewing Venezuelans. These are not people from a backward country, but a people that are patriotic and proud of their children’s sporting achievements. It certainly did not prove to be a cure-all, but it may have changed the attitudes of a select public, and that always has the potential to snowball.
The interactions are also not limited to just the U.S. and one of the countries participating. Every year 8 countries from 8 different regions of the world are also coming together to watch their children play sports. This also has implications for increasing relations between countries that may not usually communicate. In the format of the Little League World Series, there is a chance that Argentina and the United Kingdom could play a game against each other. This is a chance for citizens of two countries with a troubled history to interact outside the realm of politics.
Finally, the Little League World Series also presents the opportunity for future baseball players to make connections well after the championship game has been played. If a player from the 2013 championship winning Japanese team keeps in touch with a player from the runner-up Californian team, then sports diplomacy has worked and is transitioning into public diplomacy. These two kids are communicating across linguistic and cultural divides that help each other understand the other’s culture. The information can then be spread to family and friends helping to grow understanding. That is sports diplomacy, public diplomacy, and, perhaps most importantly, free diplomacy.
photo credit: Landon Nordeman