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.