Also known as America’s favorite sport, football is especially coveted in the southeastern United States. The city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama is home to one of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s finest teams, University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide. Unbeknownst to many in the U.S., football is also a highly popular sport in Japan. The city of Narashino, Tuscaloosa’s sister city, is home to one of Japan’s top amateur football clubs, the eight-time X League Champions and seven-time National Champions, Obic Seagulls.
Back in 2008, a volunteer from Narashino informed Tuscaloosa Sister Cities International (TSCI) about Narashino’s football team. After the football connection was realized, Japanese football coaches began visiting Tuscaloosa to attend practices at the University of Alabama during yearly sister city exchanges. Finally in February 2014, Tuscaloosa received an email from Seagull team member Kevin Jackson suggesting they organize a scrimmage in Tuscaloosa.
TSCI thought this would be a great way to bring an exciting new twist to their long-standing diplomacy efforts and began planning logistics. After six months of planning, the TSCI team paired up with the Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports Commission (TTSC) to jointly host the inaugural Sister Cities International Bowl between the Obic Seagulls and the all-star team, the Amateur to Professional Developmental Football League (APDFL) Blazers on August 14, 2014.
The first visit to the U.S. for many, a 100+ person delegation including the Obic Seagulls team arrived in Tuscaloosa on August 11. In between practices, the Seagulls and the Blazers toured local attractions in the city of Tuscaloosa, including a visit to the University of Alabama and a Crimson Tide practice. Both teams loved having the opportunity to attend the Crimson Tide practice and bond with their opponents before the big game.
On the big day, over 250 football enthusiasts joined in to watch the teams go head to head at Central High School Football Stadium. After a well-matched, exciting game, the Blazers were victorious with a 16-12 lead!
The outcomes of the SCI Bowl, however, were much bigger than the final score. TSCI Executive Director Lisa Keyes poignantly stated, “The Bowl opened a new door to all we can do with sister cities in the Tuscaloosa community. The experience organizing a sports event empowers the organization to do and reach for more; it’s a win-win.” After the success of this game, TSCI is hoping to host another SCI Bowl. They are discussing the possibility of holding the next one in Japan.
What were some of the key takeaways for TSCI in putting together this sporting event? Ms. Keyes said some best practices and lessons learned included reaching out to local sports commissions for collaboration and advice, starting the planning process at least a year before game day, contacting local parks and recreation committees, venue managers, and sports teams for assistance, developing a committee for monetary sponsorships and promoting the game and getting the word out about expectations and team players in a well-organized, collaborative manner. Since TSCI was on a limited budget, the in-kind contribution of all partners was key. In short, it was a community effort!
Incorporating sports diplomacy into sister city programs has helped numerous organizations, including TSCI, engage their international networks on a broader level. Because sports are structured and universal, when there is a linguistic or cultural barrier, playing sports can help people connect regardless of their differences. In addition to providing an exciting platform, sports programs provide an all-encompassing positive experience and a unique way for individuals and their sister cities to learn about different cultures.
During a panel on sports diplomacy at Sister Cities International’s 58th Annual Conference, panelists discussed how sports act as a vehicle for growth and development. In the context of international exchange, panelist and world-renowned Professional Soccer Player Brandi Chastain said, “Lessons learned transcend sport and give a kick start for the future.” What players learn on the field helps build teamwork and creates a sense of belonging no matter what the players’ backgrounds are.