NBA Controversy With China Deepens

The National Basketball Association, (NBA), has been in the news this past week due to a controversy with China. The rift began over a “tweet” on the Twitter social media platform from the General Manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, which was a message siding with the protestors in Hong Kong.

The Chinese government was obviously upset by the message and the publicity that it received, which spiraled into the NBA being in an international situation with China, their biggest international market. The Chinese took immediate action by severing major corporate sponsorships with the NBA.

The timing made matters worse, as the NBA was set to play exhibition games in China, and the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets were in the process of preparing to play those games where other media events were cancelled because of the controversy.

The games themselves were played, but the China showcase had a different feeling to it, the players described a tension to the media outlets from the U.S. which were covering the events. Then, Lakers star and the NBA’s most recognizable player, LeBron James, entered the fray by saying that the Rockets GM, Mr. Morey, was “misinformed” which furthered fueled the fire in the situation.

The relationship between China and the NBA, which has been so strong over the years, frayed in a matter of hours. The league and its franchise player found themselves in the middle of a geopolitical incident, and a debate framing up free speech contrasted to the tightly controlled, state-run Chinese society. American politicians got involved, and James Harden, the league MVP and member of the Rockets, joined the exchange by siding with Mr. Morey and his right to free speech.

LeBron James was squarely in the middle of the fray, with people and American politicians criticizing his comments because of the money he receives from his lucrative lifetime endorsement contract with Nike, and the huge sales that China has contributed over the years.

The Commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, commented to Time magazine that the fallout economically from the deepening rift with China is already significant. The sponsorships and other business relationships as far as merchandising and distribution of NBA content in China is extremely valuable to the league.

The President did not get involved, making a statement paraphrased by the belief that the NBA has to decide how to proceed with their relationship with China. The partnership with China is so significant to the NBA that teams are concerned that the revenues are going to shrink so much that the salary cap is going to decrease for next season. The Rockets alone, according to a credible source estimate, could lose $25 million this season alone.

The league has maintained a policy where they encourage their players, coaches, and other employees to be free to express themselves; yet this situation puts them squarely at odds with the two largest economies in the world. The protests in Hong Kong center around having better representation for that region of the country within the Chinese government, more freedoms of expression and access to media/social media, as well as the treatment of religious minorities.

The Chinese media outlet CCTV removed NBA games from their airwaves and they remain off the broadcast schedule, that TV outlet reaches hundreds of millions of people and has been airing NBA games for 30 years. The NBA is being hammered by American politicians and being cast as caring more about money than democracy and human rights. Whether or not they are doing that is now in the court of American public opinion.

The NBA has literally dribbled itself into a corner and finds itself trapped in a situation that will invariably result in damage to their brand. The situation also brings into focus the complicated relationship of doing business in China. The way forward is unclear, and the regular season tips off in one week. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but above and beyond basketball is the situation in Hong Kong and the need for a peaceful resolution to that situation that respects the individual rights of all people.

Follow Up: Chris Bosh Officially Retires From NBA

In a follow up from prior posts on this topic, Chris Bosh officially retired from professional basketball on Tuesday. It was an expected announcement as he has not suited up in an NBA game in three years and is 36 years old now.

However, the news is difficult because of the way he was forced into semi-retirement and then ultimately out of the sport he was so talented in playing. Bosh suffers from a blood clotting disorder that curtailed his sensational basketball career. The doctors had cleared him to play at some point in the last few years, but by that time, no team was going to take on the liability of him playing for their team and potentially dying on the basketball court.

Chris Bosh was one of the first in the modern game to play a “stretch forward” position. He was able to rebound, score from greater range from the basket including from the three-point area, and he could play the post as well. His versatility and dominance paved the way for his selection to the All Star team in 11 of the 13 seasons he played in the NBA.

Bosh began his career with the Toronto Raptors, where he was the star of a team that played largely in obscurity because of the market and the irrelevance it had with the average American fan. The team was also not very good outside of Bosh for many of the years that the Texas native spent north of the border.

He earned his free agency and used that to take less money than he would have earned in the open market going to the highest bidder on a different team in order to join up with LeBron James and Dwayne Wade with the Miami Heat. It was a startling move at the time, and it began a new trend now known as “super teams”, where star players decide together in a pact to join a team and take less money.
The move placed winning ahead of earnings, which was a rare situation especially in the NBA where the salary cap rules allow for “max level contracts” and “Bird rights” as well as being able to circumvent the cap to pay a star currently on your roster more money than any other team could offer.

Bosh was also very humble in his role with the Heat and was willing to play “third chair” behind Wade and James. He figured out how to play with his two fellow superstars and the trio spent four years together in Miami going to the NBA Finals in each of those four years. The trio would lead the Heat to back-to-back NBA championships in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Bosh started having health issues in 2016 (see earlier posts on this site) and eventually failed a physical and was released by the Miami Heat. The two sides came to an agreement on a buyout of his remaining contract term. He was determined to resume his basketball career, but no call ever came for an opportunity for him to do so.

The NBA also had a role in that by stating that they deemed his clotting disorder to be a “career-ending injury”. The fall from the heights of stardom to being out of the league by age 33, is certainly something Bosh could utilize in his off-court interests in helping youth organizations as a mentor.

He has many interests outside of basketball including a foundation, the CB4 Foundation, that helps youth to understand the importance of both sports and education. Bosh frequently promotes the importance of reading at a variety of events throughout the country.

Chris Bosh will be remembered for the way that he played both offensively and defensively as well as the selfless nature in which he put his team ahead of his own statistics to win games. He will be remembered in Miami always for his role in those two championship teams, where his reluctance to be the main star helped the team to efficiently play together cohesively. It is hard for any competitor to give up what they love doing, and give up something that they have committed their life to doing on the highest level.

Therefore, while this decision was inevitable, it was the way in which Chris Bosh had to retire, not able to go out on his own terms, and not being able to play his last game; it is that way he left the game that is regrettable to basketball fans such as myself.

Bosh will now embark on the next chapter of his life, having fully shut the door on his basketball career. I am excited to see what he will do with this part of his life in the years ahead.

NBA Renaming of D-League & Corporate Cronyism

The NBA announced earlier today that their Development League for young prospect players to work their way to the best basketball league in the world, is being renamed and rebranded.

The NBA Development League, long known also by the nickname the D-League, is being renamed the NBA Gatorade League in a deal with one of the NBA’s largest corporate sponsors. The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed and the NBA insisted in their media relations efforts today that the agreement is not to simply attach a corporate name to the D-League or to extract more money from a sponsorship relationship.

The league executives, including NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, spoke about the agreement being a vehicle toward further integration of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, which is currently used by star athletes in the NBA and NFL among other leagues. The Institute or (GSSI) as it is also known evaluates the impact that the performance level for athletes at the elite levels of competition endure, and what elements may be needed to provide better nutrition or conditions within the body to enhance that performance level.

The issue at hand, in my view, is that no matter how the NBA wants to spin this deal today, it is for all intents and purposes, a money grab. It is the league using the stature of their brand recognition to extract more revenue from a corporate sponsorship partner. It just looks bad, and it has the media now drumming up names like the “G-League” and “insert sponsor name here” league.

It even caused one reporter at a press event today to ask if the NBA itself was going to follow suit, and sell some type of corporate sponsorship to their name. This question was flatly denied by Commissioner Silver, but I cannot fault the reporter who asked it because the sponsorships have become so out of control in sports. I could envision it: “the NBA brought to you by State Farm Insurance” would be the new name of the league, and every five years they would change the name of the NBA to the next corporation willing to pony up the dough.

It sounds like an exaggeration, but where is the line drawn? This type of transaction today where the NBA essentially names their minor league system after a major corporate sponsor leads reasonable people to take the path of asking what the next deal is going to be centered upon.

The corporations will be pushing different concepts as well because they believe that anything that gets their brand or their name out there is a good situation. I can envision it: “the Kraft Foods NBA Eastern Conference Standings” or the “Coca-Cola Western Conference Standings” where the trophies would be a giant box of cookies or a huge metal Coke bottle.

The decision by the NBA with regard to the D-League, my apologies, now the Gatorade League, is corporate cronyism at its finest. Any entity that gets that type of sponsorship shelled out some large amount of dollars, and with that large expenditure that entity will demand access and influence. The company in this scenario is Gatorade which is a division of Pepsico, and they will want access to players in exchange for this elite level of sponsorship.

The involvement of corporations to this degree should create some type of caution within the offices of that particular major sports league and their franchise owners. However, in the case of the NBA, which has also approved corporate sponsorships on the jerseys of each individual team starting next season that caution seems to be nonexistent.

It is scary to think what type of influence the corporations will be able to wield within the structure of the NBA. The increased revenue is going to have a direct effect on player salary increases, and the salary increases will have an effect on operating costs. The owners, when faced with operating cost increases then start to look at raising ticket prices on the fans and on the businesses who purchase season ticket plans or suites to entertain clients.

The NBA made a bold move today which could have repercussions on the way they handle future corporate sponsorships. They opened the door to a potentially dangerous pathway, where corporate involvement could become detrimental to the integrity of the sport that they were meant to preserve. The cumulative effect on the fans, the customers in this situation, could be a source of a serious miscalculation by the NBA if these types of deals are made in the future.