Culture

Game over for the NBA in China? Some fans just want to watch basketball

Oct 18, 2019

If there was ever any uncertainty to the question of whether sports could be separated from politics, there was no clearer answer than the NBA’s debacle last week in China.

Hours before the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers were set to go head to head in an exhibition game in Shanghai on Oct. 10, it was still unclear whether the match would happen at all—and it was because of a single tweet.

An advertisement for an exhibition game between the Brooklyn Nets and LA Lakers at a subway station in Shanghai.
An advertisement for an exhibition game between the Brooklyn Nets and LA Lakers at a subway station in Shanghai. / Photo: Shirley Xu

Chinese fans, who have long been basketball crazy, were looking forward to the so-called China Games, which were heavily promoted in Shanghai. The exhibition games were a reminder of the clout that the Chinese market now wielded 30 years after the NBA first entered the market.

But things came to a head after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted on Twitter in support of Hong Kong protesters on Oct. 4.

The tweet in question.
The tweet in question.

The tweet was quickly deleted but not before generating a maelstrom in China, where the Hong Kong protests are viewed as an issue of sovereignty.

The protests began in June as a demonstration against an unpopular extradition bill, which the Hong Kong government tried to pass after a Hong Kong resident murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan and returned to the city.

Protesters, fearing the proposed law would allow Hong Kong to send fugitives to mainland China, rallied against the bill, but the demonstrations evolved into a larger rebuke of the Chinese government.

The NBA quickly rushed out a statement distancing itself from Morey, but it was roundly criticized as equivocating.

Until now, the NBA has largely avoided political topics in China to grow its fanbase there, while in the United States, the NBA has cultivated an image as the “most woke sports league” for allowing players to openly express their political views.

U.S. politicians accused the NBA of kowtowing to China and restricting free speech, while Chinese fans called it a non-apology. The NBA found itself stuck between Chinese and American interests.

Until now, the NBA has largely avoided political topics in China to grow its fanbase there, while in the United States, the NBA has cultivated an image as the “most woke sports league” for allowing players to openly express their political views.

In the end, the NBA chose free speech. Adam Silver, the commissioner, said the league would not sanction Morey for expressing his opinions.

The effect in China was immediate. The government canceled fan events in Shanghai and suspended NBA broadcasts. Mainland Chinese sponsors halted business with the league, and Rockets-related merch was pulled from e-commerce sites.

An advertisement for the exhibition game is torn down in Shanghai.
An advertisement for the exhibition game is torn down in Shanghai. / Photo: Shirley Xu

On the Chinese internet, a viral post seemed to sum up the surreal turn of events that led to the NBA’s debacle in China.

“What’s the definition of butterfly effect?” read the post on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter. “When a Hong Kong man murders his girlfriend in Taiwan, and it ends with mainland Chinese unable to watch NBA broadcasts.”

What the NBA stands to lose in China

China is the NBA’s largest overseas market. Last season, over 490 million viewers in China tuned into live broadcasts of the games on the streaming website Tencent.

Basketball is one of the country’s favorite sports. Three hundred million people play the sport, and the NBA’s business in China is worth an estimated $4 billion business. The market contributes to at least 10% of the league’s current revenue, and it’s expected to reach 20% by 2030, according to the USC Sports Business Institute.

The NBA Store in Beijing is the largest in Asia.
The NBA Store in Beijing is the largest in Asia. / Photo: Shirley Xu

Ironically, the team that has helped boost the NBA’s profile in China is none other than the Houston Rockets, the team that recruited Yao Ming as their first pick in the NBA draft back in 2002.

Yao played for the Rockets for eight seasons, and they became China’s favorite team.

Which is why Daryl Morey’s tweet stung even more.

A trashed NBA sign outside the arena in Shanghai.
A trashed NBA sign outside the arena in Shanghai. / Photo: Shirley Xu

Andy Mok, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, a think tank in Beijing, says the education that Chinese people receive is part of it.

“Every Chinese person from elementary school on learns Chinese history and learns the challenges that China has overcome from the 1800s to today and feels very strongly about this,” Mok says, “but of course the government feels strongly about this as well.”

Joe Tsai, the owner of the Brooklyn Nets, characterized the issue as a “third rail” that people can’t touch in China in a Facebook statement.

“A student of history will understand that the Chinese psyche has heavy baggage when it comes to any threat, foreign or domestic, to carve up Chinese territories,” he wrote in a Facebook statement.

Wang Qingshan, a Lakers fan, said he would stop watching Rockets games but would continue to follow other teams.
Wang Qingshan, a Lakers fan, said he would stop watching Rockets games but would continue to follow other teams. / Photo: Shirley Xu

Nationalist sentiment is running high. Many Chinese fans have threatened to boycott the NBA. Adam Silver, during an interview at the TIME 100 Health Summit, said the league was ready to face losses and that they were already “substantial.”

“I don’t know where we go from here,” Silver said during the TIME conference. “The financial consequences have been and may continue to be fairly dramatic.”

Many of the fans we spoke to at the exhibition game in Shanghai didn’t want to talk on camera out of fear of being doxxed.

But in private, they admitted that they didn’t want to have to choose between their love of the game and their country.

SportsNBA (National Basketball Association)Censorship

Credit

Producer and Videographer: Shirley Xu

Narrator: Victor Peña

Editor and Mastering: Joel Roche