NBA’s China Business Under Threat Following a Sensitive Tweet

Adam Silver (Source: Glyn Kirk/ AFP)

It has been a hectic few days for the NBA as the league has become embroiled in controversy with China. It all began when Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.”

Although the tweet was quickly deleted, it sparked a firestorm of outrage from China, heavily damaging the relationship the NBA shared with the country. The Houston Rockets, long China’s favorite team because Chinese legend Yao Ming played there, had all their merchandise pulled from Chinese sites, and their broadcasting banned. But this was just the beginning.

New Brooklyn Nets owner, Alibaba’s Joe Tsai weighed in on proceedings, writing an open letter to all NBA fans attempting to explain the pain inflicted onto Chinese people by Morey’s tweet. In the letter, following a historical recount of China’s past, he condemned Morey’s tweet as “damaging to the relationship with our fans in China” and saying that “the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”

Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, came out with an initial statement that supported Morey’s right to free expression, telling Japan’s Kyodo News ahead of an exhibition game between the Rockets and Toronto Raptors, “I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear … that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”

China’s CCTV did not agree with Silver’s initial statement, saying, “We strongly oppose Silver’s support of Morey on the basis of freedom of speech and we think any comments that challenge a country’s sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech.”

Following Silver’s support for Morey, CCTV and Tencent Sports have both chosen to ban broadcasts of the NBA’s preseason games, with future broadcasts pending further investigation. China represents a $500 million market for the NBA, so the league will be financially motivated to mend its relationship with the country.

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Chinese netizens have also expressed their outrage on micro-blogging platform Weibo, with some of the top comments stating, “We will resolutely safeguard the reunification of the motherland and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. First we are Chinese, then basketball fans!” Another comment read, “Then get out of the NBA. The sovereignty issue is not to be compromised.”

It is clear that Silver did not expect such a backlash from his initial comments, as he scrambled to release a clarifying statement that will likely do little to quell the anger stemming from China. In his latest statement, he said that, “Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA — and will continue to do so. As an American-based basketball league operating globally, among our greatest contributions are these values of the game.” This statement affirms, perhaps in more eloquent terms, his first statement.