In an interview with CNBC prior to the season, former NBA executive vice president and current Golden State Warriors chief operating officer Rick Welts acknowledged that tensions with the Chinese government would have a short-term impact on the league but suggested “this will pass.”
It does not appear as though the ice has thawed as the NBA prepares to enter its All-Star break.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Chinese fans continue to be “limited significantly in their opportunities to watch” the NBA four months after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong set off a global conflict.
Despite Morey’s public apology and softened rhetoric around the subject of authoritarianism in China from all levels of the NBA, government-run China Central Television (CCTV) has reportedly not broadcast a single game this season. Likewise, Chinese media conglomerate Tencent, which signed a reported $1.5 billion deal to carry games through 2024-25, no longer offers its equivalent of League Pass, which allowed customers to subscribe to the full NBA slate, per the L.A. Times.
Instead, Tencent reportedly only airs the free broadcasts it has in the past, covering one to three games per day. According to the L.A. Times, viewership for those games has held steady, although few advertisers continue to air commercials and fans have increasingly turned to illegal live streams. To put this all in perspective, more people in China watched the 2019 NBA Finals than in the U.S.
This could have serious ramifications for both the NBA and Tencent. The $1.5 billion signed in July “could be in jeopardy,” the L.A. Times reported, but the NBA was more optimistic in its response.
“We have had a great partnership with Tencent since 2009 and last July announced a five-year expansion,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass told the L.A. Times. “Through our expanded partnership, we look forward to continuing to work closely with Tencent to provide their hundreds of millions of daily users with NBA games and content, and deepen our long-standing connection with fans across the country.”
The NBA informed teams last month that salary cap projections for the 2020-21 season have decreased from $116 million to $115 million in the wake of the China controversy, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Morey’s tweet cost the NBA in excess of $150 million, Wojnarowski reported. Those figures would drastically change were Tencent to challenge the $1.5 billion deal.
The Rockets have bore the brunt of the impact since Morey tweeted, “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” on Oct. 4. Once a fan favorite in China due to their history with Yao Ming, Rockets games are no longer carried in China. Per the L.A. Times, Tencent has even removed mentions of Houston in its news stories, and James Harden is only referenced in passing as an MVP candidate.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in October that the Chinese government pressured the league to fire the Rockets general manager. Silver declined, and CCTV reportedly suggested he could face “retribution” for supporting Morey. China’s government denied it asked for Morey’s firing. According to the New York Daily News’ Stefan Bondy, “Morey is expected to be a free agent” at season’s end.
Harden and LeBron James were among NBA dignitaries who rebuked Morey for costing the league financially with his public support of Hong Kong. In an October apology to China, Harden said, “We love everything there about them,” and James added, “I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese Basketball Association has been postponed in the wake of the recent coronavirus outbreak, and the NBA issued a memo to teams last week strongly discouraging travel to China as a result, per The New York Times’ Marc Stein. The NBA reportedly pledged $1.4 million to support relief efforts in China’s Hubei province, where the virus originated. Chinese consul general Huang Ping thanked the NBA and others for their support during a press conference in New York last week. Whether that signals improved relations between the two sides remains to be seen.
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