Firstpost Explains: The NBA-China confrontation and why the Asian country matters to the league

  • A tweet from Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, with an image saying 'Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong' sparked the standoff.

  • While Rockets owners have tried to distance themselves from the tweet, star James Harden apologised at a news conference.

  • 800 million watched NBA programming on TV, digital media or smartphones last year in China, which is almost 2.5 times the population of USA.

Seven words, one image, one tweet. That’s all it took to spark the wildfire that threatens to engulf NBA and China’s long-standing relationship.

It was a tweet from Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey ― with an image saying, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” ― that lit the match which started the fire, but the potential fallout from it could have repercussions for the league, which sees China as one of its most important markets outside of USA.

 Firstpost Explains: The NBA-China confrontation and why the Asian country matters to the league

A worker takes down a billboard advertising an NBA preseason game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets in Shanghai. AP Photo

While Morey has taken down the tweet, China is still livid. But why? What has the fallout been? Why has a star like James Harden apologised? Why does China matter so much to the NBA? Why can’t NBA just apologise to China or force Houston Rockets to fire Morey? Firstpost Explains:

What made China angry?

Morey’s tweet supporting pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong was the trigger for the backlash from China. Hong Kong, which is an autonomous region of China, has been simmering for a while now with protesters angry about an extradition policy that would send Hong Kong residents to China to face trial.

China has a long history of arm-twisting brands that it believes are making political statements. More on that below.

What has been the fallout so far?

NBA's two games in China between LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets, featuring Kyrie Irving, on Thursday in Shanghai and Shenzhen on Saturday will go ahead as planned. Videos had earlier surfaced on social media of workers taking down gigantic posters promoting the games.

The league has already had to cancel or indefinitely delay three events in Shanghai: An NBA Cares event with the Nets at a Chinese school, another NBA Cares event with the Lakers meant to benefit the Special Olympics and a press conference.

According to a report on, all of NBA’s 11 wholly-owned Chinese companies that are its partners have halted business with the league.

Tencent and CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, have already announced that they will not broadcast the pre-season games in China.

Chinese state media has even accused the NBA of endorsing violence with Global Times comparing the protests to 9/11.

Why China matters to the NBA?

With the world's largest population, China is a lucrative market for any sport. But since Yao Ming broke into the NBA in 2002, the craze for basketabll in the Asian country has grown exponentially. Wanting to capitalise on this, the league has been taking two teams to China as part of its Global Games initiative since 2004.

Money-wise, the Chinese market brings 10 percent of the league's current revenue, according to David Carter, an executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute.

Many of the league’s biggest players visit China each year to promote footwear and apparel brands.

According to a report from The Associated Press, 300 million Chinese play basketball and 500 million watch the NBA. If Tencent and CCTV do not broadcast the regular season, the league will take a massive hit. Meanwhile, the league has said that 800 million people in China watched NBA programming on TV, digital media or smartphones last year — almost 2.5 times the entire population of USA.

Why can't the NBA just apologise?

File photo of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. AP Photo

File photo of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. AP Photo

When the NBA first responded to the controversy with a tweet in English, it only called the tweet “regrettable” but were steadfast in their belief that the league stands for free speech. Their statement in Mandarin, however, stated that the league was “extremely disappointed” and said that the offending tweet was an “inappropriate comment”.

This sparked widespread condemnation for the league at home in the USA, particularly Texas where the Rockets are based, with both Democrat and Republican leaders like Julian Castro, Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke slamming the league for putting commercial interests above democratic values.

Amid mounting pressure back home, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver backed Morey’s right to air his views.

"(We) support freedom of expression and certainly freedom of expression of the NBA community. Morey enjoys that right," he said at a press conference in Japan where the Rockets were playing two exhibition games.

He followed that up with a statement where he said, “It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences. The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”

He then told reporters: “We are not apologising for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression,” before expressing “regret” that “so many people are upset, including millions and millions of our fans.”

Why have the Rockets distanced themselves from the tweet and James Harden apologised?

Having deleted the offending tweet, Morey also tweeted out that he “did not intend to cause any offence to Rockets fans and friends in China.” He added that he had had a lot of opportunity since the event to hear and consider other perspectives.

Meanwhile, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, seeking to distance herself from the tweet, said that Morey does not speak for the organisation.

Rockets’ biggest star James Harden apologised at a news conference adding, "We love China, we love playing there."

The Rockets are massive in China ever since they drafted Ming in 2002. He played with the same franchise until retiring in 2011, nine years in which the country’s love for the franchise was cemented. This makes the Chinese market a big draw for the franchise. On Thursday, the Rockets’ merchandise was taken off the shelves in stores in China.

What is NBA’s policy on players, executives airing their views?

The NBA is arguably the most liberal when it comes to players and officials airing their views. Star players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry have never backed down from criticising even US President Donald Trump. The Warriors have even declined to visit Trump at the White House after winning the title in previous years while James called Trump in a “bum” in a tweet. Silver has said that teams choosing to not visit the White House was their personal choice.

Similarly, the NBA has given its full-throated backing to Enes Kanter, who has been at loggerheads with the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Erdogan regime claims that Kanter funded a failed coup in 2017 to overthrow the government, led deposed opposition leader Fethullah Gulen. The Turkish government also tried to have a Red Corner notice issued for the arrest of Kanter from Interpol. With the feud raging for over a year, NBA fired a company which was handling their Twitter account in Turkey for omitting Kanter’s name from a tweet about a NBA Playoffs game last season.

Global brands that have buckled under China’s pressure

The NBA is not the first brand to come under pressure from the Chinese government. Brands like Cathay Pacific, Delta, American Airlines, Versace, Givenchy, Mercedes-Benz, Marriott and Dolce and Gabbana have all incurred China’s wrath in the past, and have had to agree to China’s demands.

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific airlines are another brand which were forced to kneel by China after their employees posted pro-democracy message on social media. Cathay Pacific chairman John Slosar initially said he “wouldn't dream” of telling his staff what to think.

This led China to threaten the airline carrier with being blacklisted, leading Slosar to step down while many employees were sacked.

Brands like Marriott, Delta and Mercedes-Benz have had to issue apologies after offending China.

NBA’s Silver, however, has resisted any pressure to issue apologies, leading the league and the country where it has carefully cultivated ties for over three decades into a standoff.

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Updated Date: Oct 10, 2019 18:41:28 IST