Chinese state TV blacks out NBA season opener after threat of 'retribution'

Tom Lutz
<span>Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP via Getty Images

China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, went against tradition and did not show any NBA games on the opening day of the new season.

CCTV customarily shows the first game of the NBA season, which started in North America on Tuesday night, the early hours of Wednesday in China. However, the season opener, between the reigning champion Toronto Raptors and the New Orleans Pelicans was blacked out. The Raptors-Pelicans game was also absent from the NBA’s streaming partner in China, Tencent, although the broadcaster showed a later game between LeBron James’s LA Lakers and their cross-city rivals, the Clippers. Tencent’s deal with the NBA is worth $1.5bn over five years.

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Related: How the NBA's rift with China laid bare the cost of free speech

The lucrative relationship between the NBA and China has been damaged since the Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted in support of anti-government protestors in Hong Kong earlier this month. The incident has threatened the league’s sponsorship and broadcasting deals in China, which are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Yahoo Sports estimates that the dispute with China could depress the league’s salary cap – and therefore NBA wages – by up to 15% next season. The appetite for the NBA in China is huge. Last year, 800 million viewers in China watched the league on TV or via streams, and NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum told Forbes that NBA China, which was founded in 2008, was worth $4bn.

Over the weekend the NBA’s commissioner, Adam Silver, said Chinese officials had demanded that the Rockets fire Morey. The Chinese government denied the claims and a commentary on CCTV said Silver would face “retribution sooner or later” for the comments.

<span class="element-image__caption">Pro-Hong Kong activists hand out t-shirts outside of the Toronto Raptors game on Tuesday.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Cole Burston/Getty Images</span>
Pro-Hong Kong activists hand out t-shirts outside of the Toronto Raptors game on Tuesday. Photograph: Cole Burston/Getty Images

Some of the NBA’s biggest names have been caught up in the dispute. After James said that freedom of speech can lead to “a lot of negative” protestors in Hong Kong burned his jersey. A small group of protestors gathered outside the Staples Center before the Clippers-Lakers game on Tuesday. They offered fans attending the game t-shirts with the slogan: “Fight For Freedom Stand For Hong Kong”. Protestors also handed out shirts with pro-Hong Kong messages before the Raptors’ game in Toronto.

“Our first amendment rights to free speech – so if you have a government that’s not the United States telling us we can’t talk, what’s the point of having a government,” one man, calling himself MWG, told ESPN outside the Staples Center on Tuesday night. “What’s the point of having a first amendment, right? We’re not saying that we’re trying to do anything other than show solidarity. We’re not trying to protest. We just want to show the NBA and show foreign governments that they can’t censor us.”

James has said he will not talk about the NBA’s dispute with Hong Kong again. Many believed he is guilty of hypocrisy after winning plaudits for his willingness to speak out on social issues, such as police brutality, in the United States. Law enforcement have used live ammunition on civilians after months of protests in Hong Kong.

MWG and others outside the Staples Center obscured their faces. MWG said he was doing so for his own safety, and out of fear for family in China. He also said James’s refusal to speak out against China was down to the player’s lucrative sponsorship deals in the country. “To be LeBron James, so articulate and so meticulous about your words and how you say them and how you present yourself and all of the sudden when it comes to money, it takes a precedent over any sort of human rights – basic human rights?” MWG told ESPN. “That’s what our country was founded on. His home base is here. So you’re going to turn your back on your home base for money over there?”

One young fan managed to sneak a message of support into Staples Center itself. The arena’s in-house cameras showed him holding up a Clippers t-shirt during the game. But before the cameras cut away he swapped it for a shirt with the slogan “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong”. Those words were the same as the tweet from Morey that set off the NBA’s dispute with China in the first place.

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