Chinese state-run television network CCTV said it was suspending the current broadcast arrangements for the NBA’s preseason games in China.
Tencent, which owns the digital streaming rights for NBA in China, said it would also “temporarily suspend” the preseason broadcast arrangements.
It follows a tweet made by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey in which he showed support for the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. The tweet, which was later deleted, drew strong criticism in the world’s second-largest economy.
The suspension underscores the difficulty American companies face when they want to do business within China’s massive economy, but can’t run the risk of saying anything that will upset the country’s autocratic government.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver defended Morey.
“I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear … that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression,” Silver said in an interview with Kyodo News in Tokyo Japan.
CCTV did not agree with Silver’s remarks.
“We are strongly dissatisfied and we oppose Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right of free expression. We believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech,” CCTV said in its statement in Chinese, which was translated by CNBC.
The state-run TV channel also said it will “immediately investigate all co-operation and exchanges involving the NBA.”
China appears to be spreading its backlash beyond just the rockets. CCTV and online broadcast partner Tencent previously said they would not show the games that the Rockets were playing in. Now CCTV and Tencent have cast their net wider to include all the preseason NBA games being played in China.
It’s unclear if this suspension will last into the regular season.
Tencent has been the digital media partner of the NBA in China since 2009. The two sides just announced an extension of their deal to the 2024-2025 season, that’s reportedly worth $1.5 billion.
A spokesperson for the NBA was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.
Early on Tuesday, Silver released a statement in which he recognized that China and the U.S. have different political systems and beliefs and the NBA has expanded into places where that is apparent. But he said the league’s motivation is “far more than growing our business.”
“Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA — and will continue to do so. As an American-based basketball league operating globally, among our greatest contributions are these values of the game,” Silver said.
“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,” he added. “However, 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. We simply could not operate that way.
Morey did follow up his deleted tweets with some more remarks in an attempt to diffuse the situation. But the fallout continued.
On Alibaba-owned e-commerce sites in China as well as rival JD.com, searches in Chinese for “Houston Rockets” and “Rockets” yielded no results as it appeared products related to the NBA franchise had been de-listed.