Sports Diplomacy Shines at the UA


Sports diplomacy can take many forms. It might involve athletes traveling overseas to host sports clinics for underserved youth. Women athletes might travel internationally to experience another culture through the lens of sports. Or thousands of athletes from around the world might build cultural bridges at the Olympic Games.

In the spring of 2018, the University of Arizona added universities to the equation by creating a forum for athletic departments, international offices, and academic units to advance the role of sports diplomacy at the collegiate level.

From April 19 through 21, the inaugural International Sports Diplomacy and Leadership Conference transformed the hub of Arizona Athletics into a platform to promote best practices, goals, and opportunities for using sports as a universal language to better the world.

PAC-12 leaders, international diplomats, and star athletes, including Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, descended on the UA in Tucson to engage with university leaders to discuss the role higher education can play in sports diplomacy.

“This event was an incredible opportunity for a niche community across higher education to engage with one another and to realize the potential that exists for universities to engage in sports diplomacy,” said Frank Camp, director of Marketing and Communications for the UA Office of Global Initiatives, which developed the conference in partnership with Arizona Athletics. “Throughout the conference there were opportunities for networking and brainstorming on how universities can do a better job in creating broad international impact.”

Where Academics and Sports Meet

One might consider Ricardo Valerdi, associate professor of Systems & Industrial Engineering, one of the strongest advocates for sports diplomacy at the UA. Valerdi is the UA’s faculty athletics representative and also teaches Sports Analytics. He couples his love of sports with his expertise in engineering to encourage interest of math and science among students, something he was excited to share with conference participants.

“To me, sports diplomacy is changing lives through sports. If someone has a positive experience with sports, and then you add science to it, they are more likely to pursue that as an interest,” said Valerdi. “Sports becomes a means to the end, where the end is appreciation for math and science. That can change lives.”

The Sports Analytics course Valerdi teaches is part of the Sports Management Program at the Eller College of Management. Through the program, students can earn a minor or certificate in Sports Management or an undergraduate concentration in Sports and Society, laying a strong foundation for a career in the business side of sports.

Study Abroad through the Lens of Sports

At the UA, students have the unique opportunity to earn credits in a global setting through the Eller Sports Management Abroad Program. Taking place each summer in international business hubs, the program allows students to earn nine credits toward a Sports Management minor or certificate.

In the summer of 2018, Lehman Benson III, associate professor of Management and Organizations and executive director of the Sports Management Program, will guide students through global sports contexts in Barcelona, Spain – a program model that was discussed at the conference alongside partners from CEA Study Abroad.

Conference participants also learned about the Arizona World Soccer Program run through the College of Humanities, which gives students the opportunity to study in global locations hosting some of the world’s biggest soccer tournaments. For 2018, the program is in Moscow, Russia, and overlaps with the first three weeks of the Men's World Cup.

Engaging International Guests through Athletics

Conference participants not only learned about sports in the study abroad context, but also explored how sports can be used at home to promote a welcoming environment for global guests of the UA.

The Global Wildcats Sports Series is an opportunity for international students, faculty, and scholars to explore U.S. culture through athletics. Each semester, International Student Services, International Faculty & Scholars, and UA Study Abroad unite to offer international guests special excursions to sporting events.

More than 50 international faculty and scholars recently attended a Phoenix Suns game through the series, and even more attended a UA Women’s Soccer match against Beijing Normal University last fall.

Preparing Athletes for Global Success

Leaders of Arizona Athletics shared with conference participants the ways they support international student athletes and alumni through the Wildcat Way, the foundation on which Arizona Athletics delivers its “people-first” services. Personal leadership at the local,national, and global level is the cornerstone of the framework.

Representatives from C.A.T.S. Life Skills also showcased a program model that helps student-athletes develop skills needed to lead positive and productive lives following graduation in an increasingly global marketplace. In this case, C.A.T.S. appropriately stands for “Commitment to an Athlete's Total Success.”

The innovative and effective programming efforts of Arizona Athletics helped earn the designation of a Division 1A Athletics Directors’ Program of Excellence, a lifetime award for athletic programs that put student-athlete welfare first.

A Better World through Sports Diplomacy

Whether supporting international students and student-athletes at home or providing global opportunities through study abroad, the UA is committed to advancing sports diplomacy in the collegiate context, an initiative Valerdi is eager to follow to the finish line.

“Despite the broad resources and expanding interest in sports diplomacy, there is still ample opportunity to help advance the field, and the conference is one step in that direction,” he said. “My hope is that sports diplomacy becomes synonymous with other well-known traditions on campus such as the fight song, our rivalry with ASU, and the newly-enshrined Lute Olson statue.”