Case Studies | Sports diplomacy in Africa: the NBA and the Basketball Africa League

Katherine Wells

Basketball Africa League Inaugural Season — Final | Kigali, 30 May 2021 (Image: Paul Kagame on Flickr)

Diplomacy is usually viewed as a game only played in the political arena; however, the art of diplomacy often plays out on many fields. One of the least talked about yet increasingly significant forms of diplomacy is that conducted in the world of sports. The dynamic and universal nature of competitive sports make them a good platform for diplomatic representation and relations. Sports associations have been responsible for bringing states together and promoting healthy competition. They are also involved with initiatives within countries that help use sports as a driver to alleviate socio-political and economic pressures. This concept of sports diplomacy has caught on at the highest levels of government, as the French Foreign Ministry has an entire webpage dedicated to their efforts in this arena. In a recent ISD case study, Sports Diplomacy in Africa: The NBA and the Basketball Africa League, Dr. Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff explores the ways in which basketball opened up African states to international engagement and domestic amelioration by encouraging ‘communication, representation and negotiation.’

[Access the Case 360 — Sports Diplomacy in Africa — The NBA and the Basketball Africa League here]

Basketball has a growing influence throughout Africa. While basketball had close ties with the colonial eras, particularly in the former French and Portuguese colonies, the sport also supported the growth of Pan-Africanism and facilitated decolonization and independence. It continues to pursue the independent development of African states today.

Many schools and universities in African states incorporated basketball into their curriculums and intramural leagues, but there were no professional leagues that could compete with the sorts of money or exposure as those found in Europe or North America in the latter half of the twentieth-century. Most players who wished to play professionally migrated to Europe or the United States. It was not until the NBA decided to invest in basketball in Africa and collaborate with the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) that intra-African basketball leagues were established.

The NBA’s endeavors have gone beyond strictly professional sports, as its initiatives in schools and the establishment of basketball academies foster deeper ties to education. The NBA continues to promote cultural exchanges between the U.S. and these African states, most notably through its initiative Basketball Without Borders (BWB) partnered with FIBA. Since 2002, BWB has supported many young boys and girls across several African states through basketball camps and has leveled the playing field for players regardless of nationality and gender.

The initiation of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) in 2019 and its implementation in 2021 is helping to expand Basketball on the continent and establish continental agency for the African states that participate. While promoting basketball in Africa it has provided the opportunity for players to double as ambassadors, representing the “intersection of many different cultures and organizations” to create “a basketball ecosystem,” according to Dr. Krasnoff. Not only will the BAL help promote players and diplomacy on the international stage, it hopes to become a platform for ‘intra-African diplomacy’ by encouraging other states to get involved. The BAL also plans to usher in an era of sustainable investment in infrastructure, transportation, coach and player development, as well as countries’ sports media industry — engaging the labor force in these states. The diaspora for these African countries has promoted and increased media coverage of the NBA and vice versa with the BAL.

This case study is useful for those interested in understanding the effectiveness of alternative forms of diplomacy, specifically the ways in which competitive sports influence international politics — forming local ambassadors out of sport professionals and providing an arena for collaboration amongst states. It challenges readers to question who and what is driving the NBA’s push in its development and diplomacy efforts in Africa and whether these two pursuits are directly correlated or are antagonistic of each other? The case study encourages further evaluation of how each state/government approaches sports diplomacy; acknowledging its initial limited presence in African states, it prompts the question of how one can measure basketball’s success as a diplomatic tool and subsequently how sustainable and effective the BAL and basketball diplomacy will be in the near future.

Katherine Wells is a research assistant at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a graduate student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. She is a former Middle East and North Africa security analyst at CitiGroup London, UK, and holds an Integrated MA in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the University of Exeter.

Interested in reading more about Basketball Diplomacy? Check out ISD’s in-depth case studies library and join the faculty lounge to access free instructor copies.

To hear more about diplomacy in sport, check out Dr Kelly McFarland’s Q&A session with Dr Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff on the Qatar World Cup 2022:



The Diplomatic Pouch features insights and commentary on global challenges and the evolving demands of diplomatic statecraft. Views are those of the authors and not necessarily the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy or Georgetown University. Visit for more.

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