NBA's vision of a lucrative expansion dims as China fumes and sponsors pull out over Hong Kong comments

A string of key Chinese sponsors have since distanced themselves from the NBA.
A string of key Chinese sponsors have since distanced themselves from the NBA.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG) - The NBA's decades-long push to develop China into its biggest overseas market appeared increasingly in jeopardy on Tuesday (Oct 8) as the league's commissioner stood firm in the face of criticism from Beijing and the Chinese threatened financial repercussions.

The threats began when China's state-run television announced it would not broadcast two NBA pre-season games this week in Shanghai and Shenzhen that would feature basketball's biggest star, LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Hours later, the league's commissioner, Mr Adam Silver, issued an emphatic defence of its employees' right to speak out on political issues.

A string of key Chinese sponsors have since distanced themselves from the US organisation, including the country's largest sportswear maker and its second-biggest dairy firm.

The advertisers' suspension of ties with the basketball league followed days of intense criticism accusing Mr Silver of trying to appease one of the world's most autocratic governments after a Houston Rockets executive tweeted support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

"We will protect our employees' freedom of speech," Mr Silver said.

The NBA has made global expansion - particularly into China - a core part of its mission. The pre-season games are part of a set of events designed to promote the league in the country - including basketball clinics, fan gatherings and various public appearances by players.

But the league's Chinese campaign has been overshadowed by the single pro-Hong Kong tweet on Friday night from Mr Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Rockets, who shared an image that contained the words "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong".

The phrase is a popular slogan at the protests in Hong Kong that have raged for months.

 
 
 

The tweet put the league in a situation familiar to many other global companies seeking to do business in the communist country with 1.4 billion people: any misstep could mean swiftly losing access to a powerful economy.

China Central Television, the state broadcaster, made clear the risks of challenging Beijing, chiding the league for an earlier expression of support for Mr Morey's free speech rights.

"We voice our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Adam Silver offering as an excuse the right to freedom of expression," CCTV said in its statement announcing the cancellation of the NBA broadcasts.

"We believe that no comments challenging national sovereignty and social stability fall within the scope of freedom of expression."

At a news conference in Japan - where the Rockets played the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday - Mr Silver said the broadcast cancellation was unexpected, and that a community outreach event scheduled to take place at a school in Shanghai had also been cancelled.

"I think it's unfortunate," he said. "But if that's the consequences of us adhering to our values, we still feel it's critically important we adhere to those values."

Mr Silver planned to travel to Shanghai on Wednesday and said he hoped to meet Chinese government officials to try to defuse the conflict.

"But I'm a realist as well, and I recognise that this issue may not die down so quickly," he said.

Both Democrats and Republicans have castigated the league for its initial reaction to the situation: A statement on Sunday that said it was "regrettable" that Mr Morey's tweet had offended people in China.

The NBA had also said that "the values of the league support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them".

Mr Silver responded again on Tuesday morning, with a statement saying: "It is inevitable that people around the world - including from America and China - will have different viewpoints over different issues.

 
 
 

"It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences (and) the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues," it added.

The backlash intensified in the wake of Mr Silver's statement, as multiple Chinese companies such as sportswear brand Anta and dairy company Mengniu responded by suspending partnerships with the league.

Anta, which counts NBA stars as brand ambassadors, said Mr Morey's tweet was "wrong", while Mengniu, a long-time NBA marketing partner, said it "resolutely opposes all words and deeds that challenge China's national sovereignty and endanger China's social stability".

Other Chinese brands that have cut ties with league include beverage chain Luckin Coffee, and online travel agent Ctrip, which said on its Weibo account that it was removing all tickets and products related to the NBA from its website.

On Tuesday, China's foreign ministry also chimed in.

"The NBA has been in cooperation with China for many years," said ministry spokesman Geng Shuang at a daily news briefing. "It knows clearly in its heart what to say and what to do."

Criticism of the NBA also has come from pro-Hong Kong activists and their supporters in the United States, who have accused Mr Silver of capitulating to an authoritarian government.

"What you do and say represents America to the world," wrote Senator Josh Hawley in a letter to Mr Silver. "And for an American organisation to help the most brutal of regimes silence dissent in pursuit of profit is appalling."