China’s national central television CCTV announced on Oct. 9 that the TV program planned to televise Game 5 of the NBA Finals live to viewers in China. This was the first NBA game broadcast on the state-owned television in more than a year.
CCTV decided to cancel all NBA programs after the general manager of the Houston Rockets Daryl Morey supported pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Oct. 4, 2019. The state-owned television network started to broadcast NBA games in the early 1990s.
While basketball fans in China had no opportunities to watch NBA games on TV, they can still watch stream them online. Chinese Internet giant Tencent continues to stream NBA games, but its streaming services intentionally avoided the games played by the Houston Rockets for political reasons.
Tencent secured its exclusive online broadcasting rights of the NBA in China in July 2019, shortly before the league got involved in the geopolitical confrontations between the United States and China. Tencent reportedly paid a total of $1.5 billion for the next five NBA seasons until 2025.
According to reports from ESPN, the Chinese state-owned television program highlighted the NBA’s good behaviour in assisting the country fighting against COVID-19 and cited it as the reason for restoring the broadcasts: “During the recent Chinese National Day and Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations, the NBA sent their well wishes to fans in China,” CCTV said in a statement. “We also took note that the league has been continuously delivering goodwill [to China], particularly making positive contributions to Chinese people’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Furthermore, the NBA China program also faces criticism as local staff at the training academy were accused of physically abusing young basketball players. An American coach who participated in the China project calls the academy “a sweat camp for athletes.”
Like many other professional sports leagues around the world, the NBA has been significantly impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The NBA will finish its 2019-2020 season in the NBA bubble in Orlando‘s Walt Disney World, without any fans in the arena, and no revenue from game tickets.
In addition, the 2020 NBA Finals rating has not been positive. According to reports from NBC Sports, television ratings for the NBA finals are at historic lows. Game 3 between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat only attracted 5.9 million viewers. This is the worst performance recorded since 1984 when the NBA started tracking its viewing numbers.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was reported to be surprised at the numbers, and several reasons could explain the low ratings: Competitions from other sports, impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, and perhaps the 2020 US presidential election. Yet the low viewers combined with the economic impacts are putting the NBA, along with other professional sports leagues, into worse positions to bounce back.
China’s issues with the NBA also led to more than $300 million losses for the league, as several Chinese companies pulled their support from the NBA. The NBA hired Michael Ma, the son of the founder of CCTV Sports, Ma Guoli, as the head of its Chinese operations in May 2020 to help reduce the escalating tension with the Chinese government. However, CCTV did not resume broadcasting the games at that time.