A groundbreaking game four decades ago in Beijing gave the NBA a toehold in basketball-crazy China. Over the intervening years, the league has tapped a gold mine in the country worth billions of dollars in TV rights and endorsements. The importance to the NBA of maintaining its Chinese operations became evident in the careful steps it's had to take to escape the political minefield that it found itself thrown into by an executive's tweet over Hong Kong.
This robust NBA relationship with China has been 40 years in the making. On Aug. 24, 1979, the NBA's Washington Bullets outscored Bayi, a team representing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, 96-85 in Beijing. The game marked the first time a professional U.S. team traveled to China and only the second time that an NBA team had played overseas (the Bullets had lost to Maccabi Tel Aviv the previous year in Israel). The New York Times covered the Bullets' matchup with Bayi, noting that the pros had been surprised by the shooting and agility of the Chinese squad. The Times mentioned that "no official scoring was kept, which followed a principle in Chinese sports of 'friendship first, competition second.' "
In the four intervening decades, much has changed. The Bullets were rebranded as the Washington Wizards in 1995, the same year the Chinese army team assumed the moniker of Bayi Rockets for the inaugural season of the professional Chinese Basketball Association. The Rockets, led by 7-footer Wang Zhizhi, ruled the nascent league's early years, winning seven of the first eight CBA championships. Wang himself made history in 1999 after signing with the Dallas Mavericks, becoming the first Chinese player to play in the NBA. After Wang's departure from China, the Shanghai Sharks — led by their own big man, Yao Ming — dethroned the Bayi Rockets as CBA champions. Yao later followed Wang to the NBA and was selected as the first overall pick in 2002 by the Houston Rockets. Yao became a fan favorite not just in the United States, but globally, embodying for many the epitome of the modern 21st century China.
Yao was also an embodiment of the shifting, globalizing landscape of professional sports in the 21st century. The path that began with the Bullets versus Bayi in 1979 and brought players like Wang and Yao to the United States came full circle in 2008 with the creation of NBA China, a wide-ranging effort to extend the brand into the world’s largest, most basketball-crazy market. From exhibition games and coaching clinics to corporate partnerships and massive media deals, NBA China’s first decade has been a massive success, with a value to the NBA conservatively estimated at around $4 billion. The globalization of basketball goes both ways: Last year, Chinese national Joseph Tsai completed his purchase of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. Tsai, the co-founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, also owns the WNBA’s New York Liberty and sits on the board of NBA China, of which Yao is the commissioner.
Upsetting the Golden Goose
For the past decade, with plenty of money and basketball action to go around, it seemed that friendship and competition could coexist when it came to China and the NBA. But earlier this month, a single tweet from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey rocked the foundations of that relationship. On Oct. 4, Morey posted an image that read "Fight For Freedom, Stand With Hong Kong." Predictably, China did not take this endorsement of the city's protest movement lightly. Morey promptly deleted the tweet, but not soon enough to head off the minor international incident that ensued. Several Chinese businesses swiftly cut ties with the Houston team, while state-backed TV and online broadcasters announced they would no longer show Rockets games, blacking out arguably the most popular NBA team in China. State-backed media called for the NBA to punish Morey, suggesting that further ties with the league rested in the balance.
Ultimately, the relationship is too mutually beneficial to jeopardize and — for now — the NBA’s damage control seems to have worked.
In response, the NBA tried to toe a fine line, distancing itself from Morey without throwing him under the bus. Both the league and Commissioner Adam Silver tried to balance messages of respect and reverence for China with ones supporting Morey's right to free speech. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and star players James Harden and Russell Westbrook attempted some damage control, effectively limiting their message to "We love China." Tsai took to social media with a lengthy post, characterizing the Hong Kong protests as a separatist movement, and suggested that Morey would be wise to stay out of matters he doesn't understand. Morey himself backpedaled, noting that he wasn't as informed on the Hong Kong situation as he could be. It was a weak intellectual moment for one of the best general managers in the NBA and the man credited for ushering in the cerebral, analytics-driven era of modern basketball.
The relative weakness of the NBA's response is a tacit admission of the financial stakes involved. Marc Stein, lead basketball writer for the The New York Times, notes that the incident is expected to cost the Rockets $25 million in sponsorship revenue this season, with leaguewide worst-case scenarios that could reduce the money available to teams to spend on player salaries by 15 percent next year, along with risks to a broad range of player endorsements. The financial taps flow the other way as well, Stein pointed out, reporting that NBA-related deals are estimated to generate at least $500 million for China and Chinese entities. Ultimately, the relationship is too mutually beneficial to jeopardize and — for now — the NBA's damage control seems to have worked.
After the initial strong rebuke, China's official furor faded within a few days. Preseason matchups between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Nets went on as scheduled in Shanghai and Shenzhen, although they were not broadcast in China. Additionally, there was a notable lack of visible sponsorship in the arenas, and some fans covered the NBA logos on their replica jerseys with Chinese flags. Even though the NBA stood behind Morey, it also limited media availability in China for the traveling players and even confiscated anti-China signs from fans at a preseason game in the United States. Having seen some concessions, it seems that China was content to deliver some strong jabs and pull back. That these events unfolded amid renewed trade talks with the United States likely influenced the Chinese approach. An additional consideration for muting its response was likely due to the approaching 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
The Ripples Cross the Pacific
Even though apparent Chinese anger has evaporated, Morey's tweet and the NBA's response to Beijing's pressure have taken on a life of their own in the U.S. political sphere. It became a rare unifying event for politicians across ideological lines, with both sides piling on the NBA for bowing to Chinese pressure and valuing profit over democratic ideals. If we were wondering what sort of thing would draw the same reaction from both Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — decidedly on opposite ends of the American political spectrum — this was it. But it is ultimately the Republicans who have had a field day, relishing the moment to bash the NBA, considered the most politically progressive (and vocal) of American professional sports organizations.
Pundits and politicians gleefully pointed out the apparent hypocrisy of players and coaches who speak out on domestic issues but wouldn't comment on China. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, a frequent critic of U.S. President Donald Trump, has been a favorite punching bag for remaining essentially silent on the China issue. There is some irony here, as many of these same voices have boomed loudest when bemoaning unwelcome infusions of politics into sports in recent years. Conservative pundit Laura Ingraham, who a couple of years ago infamously told Lebron James to "shut up and dribble," is now needling NBA athletes with this rhetorical sideswipe: "Chinese dragon got your tongue, kids?" Irony notwithstanding, this has been a small rhetorical victory for the American right. Much like the language games surrounding the Colin Kaepernick "anthem protests," Republicans have effectively framed the NBA as unprincipled, greedy elites. That said, I'm not sure this message does anything politically beyond stirring-up the existing Republican voter base for a few days of insular celebrity bashing on Facebook. The noise may have exposed a few more Americans to the ongoing situation in Hong Kong, but it has not served to crystallize any meaningful interest or urgency in a U.S. response. Whatever moral high ground the Republicans found, it was in service of a superficial "gotcha" of their opponents, not in a principled defense of global democracy. Toward that end, it's notable that this is the first time the nature of the NBA-China relationship appears to have been publicly questioned.
One lesson is a clear reminder that China’s increasing openness to outside business and commercial interests will always be conditional, that access to the Chinese market comes with the price of ideological silence or alignment.
Navigating a Complex Global Environment
As the dust settles and our rapid-fire news cycle moves on, it will be interesting to see what — if anything — comes of "Moreygate." As the story unfolded, some commentators invoked the international sporting world's response to South African apartheid, in which sports boycotts played a meaningful part in raising international awareness and pressure for systemic change. This a nonstarter in the current case. To put it bluntly, nothing the NBA does going forward will affect Chinese politics and policy. If either side will be changed by this, it is the NBA, which continues its push for globalization. In the week leading up to Morey's tweet, most of the league's focus was actually on India, where NBA teams had just played an initial exhibition game. Silver announced that the league was working to develop a full professional league in India, a logical market to pursue following the success in China. Those plans will move forward, but they will now be informed by this recent drama; I expect the NBA will establish guidance on how to comment (or refrain from commenting) on sensitive political topics particular to India.
Finally, this story has provided a useful lens for understanding some of the tensions in our global moment, where massive business entities are gaining influence over geopolitical issues that rival, in some cases, the power of states. One lesson is a clear reminder that China's increasing openness to outside business and commercial interests will always be conditional, that access to the Chinese market comes with the price of ideological silence or alignment. The NBA isn't the only entity to run afoul of China in recent times: Several companies with business interests in China have bowed to Beijing's pressure to "correct" their messaging. The situation has also been a reminder — especially to those in the West — that globalization is not a one-way street, nor that soft power successes necessarily precede ideological influence. We in the sports world love to think that the games we play can open the door to dialogue, cooperation and social change, but that process is far from automatic. For the time being, at least as far as pro basketball is concerned, it's evident that China can have its cake and eat it too.