China breaks relations with the NBA club and cancels broadcasts. All because of one tweet to support Hong Kong protests

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The manager who wrote the tweet, the club’s best player and the NBA itself, have already apologized to the country. No one wants to lose one of the largest markets due to a tweet.

James Harden in Houston uniform for Chinese New Year / Photo Getty

One of the main sports scandals of recent days is between the club of the National Basketball Association (NBA) Houston Rockets and all of China. The team’s top manager supported the Hong Kong protests in one tweet and this threatened the league’s presence in one of the largest sports markets in the world.

Now China is breaking all agreements with Houston, and local channels refuse to show NBA matches. And the author of the tweet, and the basketball players, and the league itself apologize for what happened, which caused criticism already in the United States.

What happened

In early October, the Houston Rockets began an “Asian tour” before the start of the new NBA season: first, the team played in the USA with the Chinese club Shanghai Sharks, and then went to Japan. Against this background, on October 5, Houston general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protests.

Actions against Chinese interference in the autonomy of the city have been going on for several months. And official Beijing, of course, takes this negatively. Morey posted a picture on his personal profile with the text “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong. ” The general manager at the NBA club is one of the main posts: he essentially manages most of the processes in the team.

Morey deleted the tweet pretty quickly. But by then, he had already caused a wave of discontent in China, which turned to real sanctions.

How important is Houston and the NBA to China

China is perhaps the main foreign market for the NBA. In the 2018-2019 season, 500 million Chinese watched at least one game of the North American League. The NBA and China have signed dozens of partnership agreements, including a deal to sell Tencent’s broadcast rights to $1.5 billion. In August, Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai bought the Brooklyn Nets club from Russian businessman Mikhail Prokhorov.

Even against this background, relations between China and the Houston Rockets stand out. Most of the Chinese players in the NBA history played for the Texas team, among them the current head of the Chinese Basketball Association, Yao Ming. Some experts suggested that basketball players from China were taken specifically for the Chinese market.

Yao Ming / Photo Getty

Houston Rockets is the second most popular club in China after the Los Angeles Lakers. Team stars like James Harden regularly go there as part of promotional tours, and many Rockets sponsors came from China. Since 2014, Houston has an alternative uniform with Chinese characters, in which the team plays in the Chinese New Year.

Tweet aftermath

Morey’s tweet with support for the Hong Kong protests launched a whole chain of reactions from Chinese partners NBA and Houston in particular. In fact, China has begun a complete breakdown in relations with the team — here are a few statements two days after the publication of the message.

  • The Chinese Basketball Federation broke off cooperation with Houston and canceled several exhibition matches between Chinese teams and NBA clubs;
  • Contracts with the club were suspended by some major Chinese sponsors such as Shanghai SPD Bank and Li-Ning;
  • Tencent Holding, which owns the rights to NBA matches in China, has announced that it will not show Houston games next season. Also, the broadcasts will not mention Morey;
  • The CCTV-5 TV channel refused to broadcast all the NBA pre-season matches, what will happen with the season show is still unknown;
  • According to media observations, the Chinese trading floors Taobao and Tmall and JD.com excluded Houston-branded products from the search;
  • The Chinese Embassy in Houston called on the team to “immediately correct the mistakes of their adverse effects.”

League and Club Reaction

The NBA gained a reputation as a liberal league, which allows its representatives to make political statements, while itself remains on the sidelines. Tournament champions calmly abandon the traditional trip to the White House to Donald Trump, and Turkish basketball player Enes Kanter without criticism criticizes Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime.

Daryl Morey answers questions from Chinese journalists, 2016. Photo by Getty

But in the case of Hong Kong, the league was between two fires – either a loss of reputation in the United States, or the loss of the largest sports market.

  • The owner of the Houston Rockets was the first to apologize to China, stressing that Morey supported the protests in Hong Kong personally, and not on behalf of the club;
  • Later, the general manager himself published an appeal to the Chinese on Twitter, where he apologized to them: “I just expressed one point of view based on one interpretation about a complex event. After the tweet, I had many opportunities to learn and consider other points of view”;
  • Houston star James Harden also spoke on behalf of the players: “We apologize. We love China. Westbrook and I like playing in China. We go there once or twice a year. They give us great support, and we appreciate it”;
  • The NBA posted an official appeal to the fan in all its profiles on Chinese social networks (the total audience is almost 200 million people). In it, the league apologized for Morey’s tweet “offending friends and fans in China.” NBA representatives hoped that the parties would settle the situation;
  • In the US, NBA commissioner Adam Silver emphasized that the league supports Morey in his right to free speech. But at the same time, he admitted that the NBA is already seeing the “economic impact” of records of protests in Hong Kong.

This position of the club and the league has caused criticism already in the United States, where they mainly support Hong Kong stocks. Politicians and some media outlets opposed Houston and the NBA, accusing them of “choosing money instead of democratic principles.” Publications ask themselves: what else is the American market ready to go to preserve relations with China? And, as noted in Bloomberg, this is a situation from which the NBA will not come out the winner anyway.


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