The NBA’s got a $4 billion decision to make, and it’s not your traditional draft pick: Instead, they’ve got to decide whether they want to pick up China or stand with Hong Kong, because they can’t have them both. And it’s a $4-billion decision that was prompted by nothing more than a single tweet from Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, in support of protesters in Hong Kong.
On the sidelines, the NBA is likely bemoaning Morey’s costly show of support.
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Morey’s tweet, which contained nothing more than a pasted protest logo with the “Fight for Freedom Stand With Hong Kong” tagline, prompted an urgent reaction from Chinese officials.
Beijing is now refusing to broadcast or stream NBA preseason games, and the NBA’s partners are dropping like flies: CCTV sports and Tencent (the NBA’s exclusive digital partner in China) have both moved to suspend live streaming for NBA preseason games in China.
Why is China so reactionary on this? Does it really fear the NBA?
Yes, it does.
As it turns out, the NBA is highly influential and associated with respect and privilege in China. And as general manager of the Houston Rockets, Morey’s tweet was particularly provocative: China’s best-ever basketball player, Yao Ming, was a Houston Rocket for eight long years. Now, Yao Ming is president of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). The CBA has now severed relations with the NBA and his alma mater, but Ming is hoping to smooth things over … somehow.
That’s how fast a multibillion-dollar marriage can fall apart. And it’s not just about streaming. It’s about merchandise sales, media rights and much more.
The five-year extension deal through the 2024-25 seas between the NBA and Tencent was worth $1.5 billion alone.
According to Forbes, NBA China, which conducts the league’s business in the country (launched in 2008) is now worth more than $4 billion.
From its players to its manager, the NBA is generally used to a policy of freedom of speech, so perhaps Morely didn’t have much of a long-term agenda in mind when the tweeted the Hong Kong protest logo.
But these are different times, and tensions between the US and China are boiling over.
In their first statement after Morey’s tweet, the NBA said it recognized that Morey's views "have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable."
But the NBA can’t win this battle. If they apologize to China they risk major blowback in the U.S. for bowing to Beijing bullying.
The NBA has also been criticized for appearing to be less than supportive for Morey.
"I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have," Silver told Kyodo News.
So now, a simple tweet could end up being the biggest challenge the NBA has faced since 1002, when it started cooperating with China. It’s definitely a market the NBA doesn’t want to lose, the trick it not losing it without throwing Morey under the bus for supporting a cause they probably all believe in.
The NBA’s fans aren’t having it. If the NBA chooses China, it may lose more than it bargained for back at home.
Local media reports claim that two fans were ejected from a game in Philadelphia on Tuesday for displaying pro-Hong Kong signs and chanting support for the protesters.
By Damir Kaletovic for SafeHaven.com