China’s state broadcaster CCTV, the main television distributor of the NBA in the country, has halted plans to air the basketball league’s games, in a sharp escalation of a row sparked by a team official who tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protests.
Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, posted “stand with Hong Kong” on his Twitter account last Friday. The phrase echoed a slogan from demonstrations that has plunged the Asian financial hub into political crisis.
Amid angry calls for an apology from Chinese fans and state media, the Rockets’ commercial partners have suspended business dealings with the team, broadcasters said they would not air Rockets’ games and Alibaba’s Taobao, China’s largest ecommerce platform, halted sales of the team’s merchandise.
Now the fallout has extended to the league. A number of Chinese celebrities said they would boycott NBA events in the country, including a fan evening in Shanghai on Wednesday and an exhibition game the next day between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brookyn Nets. Both events would normally draw large crowds.
Among those vowing not to attend this week’s events were actors Yu Jinyan and Zheng Yunlong and singer Fan Chengcheng. In a statement on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform, boy band Unine apologised to their fans for dropping out of the event, but explained that they could not attend because all members “oppose any kind of action or remark that attempts to split the motherland”.
The NBA had attempted to distance itself from the incident, releasing a statement calling Mr Morey’s tweet “regrettable”. Fuelling accusations that the league was trying to have it both ways, however, a Chinese-language version of the statement used a harsher phrasing that was closer in tone to that used by Chinese officialdom. The league said that there should have been “no discrepancy” in the two statements.
The NBA’s response drew bipartisan criticism from US politicians who alleged the league had abandoned its values to maintain Chinese business deals.
However, in an interview with Japan’s Kyodo news on Monday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver voiced his support for Mr Morey’s “freedom of political expression”. But he also backed a long response given by Joe Tsai, Nets owner and co-founder of Chinese tech group Alibaba, which said the tweet had been supporting a “separatist movement”.
The league’s decision to apologise to fans in China “is not inconsistent with supporting someone’s right to have a point of view”, Mr Silver added.
CCTV said in a statement that it strongly opposed Mr Silver’s support for Mr Morey’s. “Any remarks that touch upon a nation’s sovereignty and social stability are outside the scope of free speech,” the broadcaster wrote.
The visit to China by Mr Silver, which included pre-season games in Shanghai and Shenzhen, are part of the NBA’s efforts to maintain its dominant position in China, according to John Wolohan, a professor of sports management at Syracuse University.
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“The one thing that cannot be understated is how much people under 40 in China love the NBA,” Mr Wolohan wrote in an email. “The NBA and the Houston Rockets are not going to take down [or change] the Chinese government. So, they can either stay in China and increase their brand, or they can take a stand [over free speech].”
The loyalty of China’s basketball fans, however, could help the league ride out the controversy, given the NBA remains “streets ahead” of the country’s domestic basketball competition, according to Beijing-based sports analyst Mark Dreyer. “If you boycott the NBA, what are you left with?” he asked.