One tweet, quickly retracted, is costing the National Basketball Association (NBA) billions of dollars.
The NBA has for many years, been the bastion of free speech. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told CNN last year that “part of being an NBA player” is social activism and a “sense of an obligation, social responsibility, a desire to speak up directly about issues that are important.”
On 4 October (US time), the Houston Rockets general manger Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. The tweet read: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” He deleted the tweet, and apologised, but it was too late.
The Chinese consulate in Houston released a statement expressing its “strong dissatisfaction” with Morey’s tweet, stating that “anybody with conscience would support the efforts made by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to safeguard Hong Kong’s social stability.”
Sponsors immediately began to cut ties with the Rockets and the NBA:
- Sportswear brand Li-Ning, which sponsors a handful of NBA players, announced that it would suspend business ties with the NBA.
- Tencent, the NBA’s exclusive digital partner in China, announced it will suspend business relations with the Rockets. The company is offering fans who bought a team-pass to watch the Rockets this season a chance to choose a different team.
- The Chinese Basketball Association has cancelled planned exhibition games with the NBA G League affiliates of both the Rockets and Mavericks later this month in China.
- Media sessions for the Los Angeles Lakers versus Brooklyn Nets exhibition game in Shanghai were cancelled.
- An NBA Cares event with Brooklyn Nets players in Shanghai was also cancelled on Tuesday by the Chinese board of education.
- Chinese state television CCTV said it would no longer air the Rockets’ preseason games in China.
The Houston Rockets were China’s team due in large part to the signing of Chinese basketballer Yao Ming in 2002. Yao spent his entire career in Houston and became an unofficial global ambassador for the league and is in the sport’s Hall of Fame. His popularity in China helped the NBA grow its league on a global scale like never before.
The NBA released a statement about Morey on Sunday (US time) that was translated into Chinese for the NBA’s verified account on Chinese social media platform Weibo. Translations of the post found differences between the English and Chinese version, the latter of which sparked criticism in the US for its decidedly more apologetic tone.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver apologised on Tuesday (US time) for offending the NBA’s Chinese fans. However, he stood by Morey’s right to express his opinions, clarifying his initial statement.
“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. 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,” he said.
“I understand that there are consequences from that exercise of, in essence, [Morey’s] freedom of speech, and we will have to live with those consequences.”
The consequences are a massive financial cost for the NBA that will exist for a long time to come. Chinese tech giant Tencent, Luckin Coffee and Vivo suspended their financial relationships with the NBA.
From the 25 official partners listed on the NBA China website, 13 are Chinese businesses. Eleven of those companies have distanced themselves from the league amid escalating tensions between China and the NBA.
Ctrip.com, Anta Sports, Changhong, Meiling, Dicos, EHi Car Rental, Master Kong, China Mengniu Dairy, Migu Video, WuZun and Xiaoyin Technology are the Chinese companies that have ended or suspended their cooperation with the NBA, according to Chinese public statements translated by CNBC.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets played an exhibition match in Shanghai. The crowd cheered LeBron James’ every move but once the game ended with the score 114-111 to the Nets that was it.
“There will be no media availabilities for tonight’s game between the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers,” the NBA said in a statement on Thursday (US time), released a few hours before the game. All pre-match publicity was also cancelled. Virtually all corporate signage was removed from the playing surface and other spots in Mercedes-Benz Arena, AP News reported.
Chinese state broadcaster CCTV did not show the Lakers-Nets game and does not plan to show their next matchup at Shenzhen on Saturday (US time). NBA broadcast partner Tencent has said it is changing its coverage plans for the league and has cancelled credential requests in some US arenas for preseason games this week.
Restoring relations with Yao, now the president of the Chinese Basketball Association, may be the answer to the crisis.
“I’m hoping together that Yao Ming and I can find accommodation,” Silver said, adding he expects to meet Yao in Shanghaih. “But he is extremely hot at the moment, and I understand it. There’s no question that Daryl’s tweet has hit what I would describe as a third-rail issue in China. I think Yao is extremely unsettled. I’m not quite sure he accepts how we are operating our business right now.”
Perhaps illustrating how the US’ National Basketball Association is out of step with the corporate world, Apple has agreed to a request from the Chinese government to remove an app that it claims is being used by Hong Kong protesters to track the movements of the police. This move from Apple came 24 hours after Chinese state media threatened them with “consequences” for its “reckless” decision to allow HKMap Live into its App Store. Google has also removed from its Google Play store a mobile game that allowed players to role-play as a Hong Kong protester.