Written by: Stanislaw Borawski
In 2018 alone the National Basketball Association managed to generate $8 billion dollars in revenue, which puts it at the pedestal of sports industry next to the NFL, MLB and the NHL. Each one of the 30 teams is worth at least $1 billion, with the New York Knicks topping the scale with $4 billion of value. Few people realise that central to the company’s business plan is its relationship with China, which might seem quite surprising considering the ongoing trade war with the US. In the last decade, NBA has signed billion-dollars contracts with Chinese television networks and broadcasts. In fact, 490 million viewers come from China alone. The large fanbase is the one bringing the most profit for the company and its market was recently valued at $5 billion dollars by Sports Business Journal in September 2019. Huge sums were at stake, because of one tweet by Houston Rockets General Manager – Daryl Morey – which expressed its support for the Hong Kong protest. It spurred major dispute, forcing Chinese broadcast companies to break off their relationship with the Association by suspending the transmission of two pre-season games at the beginning of October 2019. NBA’s reaction exposed the polarization of views on values like freedom of speech between American and Chinese companies, putting such issue at the core of the broader US-China conflict. What factors led to this unforeseen, politically fuelled discord between a sports company and the Chinese state?
Daryl Morey, who was the general manager of Houston Rockets – most popular team in China – expressed via Twitter his support for the Hong Kong protest during the pre-season games held in various Chinese cities. The tweet induced a scandal on an international scale and angered CCTV, NBA’s main broadcaster in China. It decided to cancel the viewings after Adam Silver, NBA’s most important figure, refused to issue an apology for his support to Morey’s tweet. Silver released an official statement in which he underlined the importance of the values NBA represents: ‘Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA and will continue to do so. It is inevitable that people have different viewpoints, however, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employee and team owners say or will not say on these issues.’ Silver did not have to wait long for a response as CCTV launched the first series of criticism challenging the ‘American value’: ‘We believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech’. Suddenly, a sports company found itself in the middle of an ideological war.
In a matter of days, the string of rebuke gained more impact and so did the business section. The retail giant Alibaba removed all merchandise related to the Houston Rockets team. TV companies called off major deals. Some of them were worth even $1,5 billion. In order to carry on the promotion, teams such as Los Angeles Lakers or the Brooklyn Nets were meant to visit local schools in Shanghai, but the visits were cancelled. Joe Tsai, the partial owner of the latter team and one of Alibaba founders wrote a lengthy Facebook post in which he represented the Chinese perspective. Drawing on the history of 19th century China, Tsai lashed out on the American value of freedom. It was a history largely defined by foreign incursion – Opium Wars, the formation of the 8 Nations Alliance responsible for the brutal quell of the Boxer Rebellion, heartless economic exploitation – through which Tsai designated freedom of speech as an inherent western value that encroached the sovereignty and integrity of Chinese territory.
The league, however, is entrenched in the business and sports culture of the country and therefore has the power to spread the values it carries. 300 million Chinese play basketball. Despite the turmoil that has undoubtedly shaken the company’s relationship with the Republic, games were still streamed and even though people expressed resentment, they still wanted to watch their favourite players play. Had the government decided to ban the NBA, it would have been a political suicide. People would have gone to streets to protest. This prompts a fundamental question: How does American entertainment curtail Chinese people’s loyalty to its state? Regardless of the outcome of this controversy, the situation had left a mark on the US-China relations.
Joe Tsai’s historical argument does make a valid point about the indirect influence foreign powers used to exert on the Chinese empire. Protest is a very sensitive, third-rail topic in Chinese past and it is true that throughout history the US has tried to introduce, if not impose, its core values in other states. This explains the anxiety Chinese representatives expressed. Can the NBA be seen as a potential threat to Chinese sovereignty? Highly unlikely as it is above all a private business-oriented company that has no direct ties to the government. On the contrary, its players and representatives are usually the first ones to criticise it, one can look at their quite explicit opinions on the incumbent President Donald Trump. Many NBA fans openly expressed their support for the Hong Kong protest and human rights values, thus taking the dispute to new forums and expanding its scope. We live in an era of information and intensified dialogue. People are going to express their views. The main question regarding the isolated Chinese government is for how long it can hedge its citizens from foreign influence such as the NBA’s – a private company that provoked huge public discourse.
Please Note: This article should have been part of The Protest Issue – NO.21 from May 2020. If you want, you can check out the whole Issue in our Dialogue Section!