Mark Cuban once ripped NFL’s 'hoggish' business. That same mentality has bitten NBA in China and NFL is watching.

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

Five years ago, in the midst of predicting a collapse of the NFL for its gluttonous business dealings, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban delivered a warning about greed that has savagely boomeranged on the NBA’s massive investment in China.

“I think the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion,” Cuban predicted in 2014, as the NFL continued to encroach into the NBA’s television landscape with Thursday night football games. “I’m just telling you: Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they’re getting hoggy. … When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. I’m just telling you — when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That’s rule No. 1 of business.”

Cuban is learning rule No. 2 this week: Never talk about how another league runs its business when you have your own hoggish television interests to protect.

To steal a line from Cuban: It always, always, always, always, always turns on you.

A tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has turned the NBA's business and relationship with China upside down. (Reuters)
A tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has turned the NBA's business and relationship with China upside down. (Reuters)
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Make no mistake, that little barb and prediction of doom thrown at the NFL has turned on Cuban, with the NBA’s massively leveraged business interests in China suddenly asphyxiating some of the league’s most prominent voices. Until last week, coaches like the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr and San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich had untethered latitude to promote freedom, democracy and human rights, whether it was inside the United States or anywhere else in the world. Now the NBA would like anyone and everyone to just shut the hell up about China’s mushrooming political upheaval in Hong Kong. Most certainly because of a television platform that is larger and more far-reaching in China than anything the NBA has in the United States.

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As it turns out, when you get down to the DNA of the NFL and the NBA, they’re both a couple of pigs protecting the same financial trough. When you get to the brass tacks of why each league exists, you eventually get to the same conclusion: These are businesses first and platforms for change second.

The NFL chugged along with a business model aimed at vacuuming up every dollar it could in the United States, until it ran into (and mishandled) the public relations nightmare of Colin Kaepernick, social justice protests and the politics of Donald Trump.

The NBA chugged along with a business model aimed at vacuuming up every dollar it could in China, until it ran into (and mishandled) the public relations nightmare of Hong Kong’s democracy, human rights and the politics of Donald Trump.

Amazingly, the spark for both infernos was created by a single act promoting the protection and preservation of human rights — from Kaepernick kneeling to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey speaking out. Each thrusting their respective bosses into a crossroads conversation about financial balance sheets vs. political justice platforms.

In the end, the acts of Kaepernick and Morey delivered crystal clarity about the leagues that will bind them together: Whether it’s the NFL or the NBA, the evolution of revolution is dictated by money — not morality.

We can never forget that, regardless of how many social justice initiatives gain NFL promotion or how many hip-hop icons the league assimilates into its public relations agenda. And we can’t ignore it in the NBA, no matter how many times commissioner Adam Silver tries to gloss over the league’s gag order by saying the league has values “deeply rooted in the DNA of the NBA, and that includes freedom of expression for our employees.”

Words and actions like these cost the leagues little. Interfering with television money? That’s a whole other animal. This is why the NFL took the national anthem off its broadcasts. And it’s why the NBA won’t allow any more vocal support of Hong Kong from within its ranks because that’s the snaking path to protect the television deals.

Lest anyone forget, when Cuban criticized the NFL for being piggish, that was related to television, too. He was echoing a sentiment that ran to the top of the NBA: That the NFL was getting greedy by expanding games to Thursday and Saturday nights in various points of the season. A move that would almost certainly have a negative impact on the NBA’s TV ratings from October to January. For Cuban, the math was simple — the lower TV ratings, the weaker the leverage in negotiating massive rights deals with the networks.

It was one pig being mad at another pig.

The NFL has long eyed the Chinese market. Pictured in 2015 is an NFL promotion of a league event in Beijing. (AP)
The NFL has long eyed the Chinese market. Pictured in 2015 is an NFL promotion of a league event in Beijing. (AP)


Of course, what Cuban wasn’t saying at the time was what we all know now: Back in 2014, the NFL was ramping up plans to kickstart a decades-long invasion of China. The same Chinese market that had already become sacred territory for the NBA, which has been every bit as hoggish about its money-making ventures in that country as the NFL is in the United States.

Now the NFL is learning from the NBA’s public relations mistakes in that market, much like the NBA learned from the NFL’s public relations mistakes in the United States. That’s why the NFL is so silent now despite having significant interests in China. Better to say nothing, stay out of the barrel and keep plans on track for entry into Asia over the next 50 years.

If you don’t think that’s the case, listen to Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan on Thursday as he expressed a distinct “we’re keeping our mouths shut” approach in a chat with Yahoo! Finance.

“Some of these sovereign issues, as an American investor-owner, I went through something similar — Catalan in Spain,” Khan said, referring to the efforts of Catalonia to declare its independence from Spain. “We have factories in Catalan. I didn’t think as an American, I should really be having an opinion on it, even though a lot of people wanted us to. Because I want to have an opinion in America. There’s a civic duty to really engage and do the right thing [in America]. But it’s really having an opinion on those sovereign matters in other countries are for those people to decide.”

That’s the kind of thing you say when you see a league like the NBA poke its nose into something that might cost it billions in television revenue. It’s also the kind of thing you say when you’d like some of that TV revenue in NFL pockets. Khan and other NFL team owners have watched Cuban and the NBA devour profits in China for years. Now that hoggish business model has delivered some consequences.

The NFL is taking note. Because it’s next to this trough. Whether Cuban likes it or not.

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