The NBA in China: Who calls the shots?

The price of doing business

Simon Chadwick

Economics and finance, Trade and industry, International relations | Asia, East Asia, The World

9 October 2019

For all sport, the Chinese market represents huge opportunity, but recent experience reveals the political cost of this collaboration, Simon Chadwick writes.

Although it might seem like a long way from the streets of Hong Kong to the hoops of Texas, in the globalised world of 21st-century sports Houston is just a jump away from the frontline of Hong Kong politics and the proclivities of the Chinese government.

This was aptly demonstrated by a recent Tweet by Daryl Morey, general manager of the prominent National Basketball Association (NBA) team the Houston Rockets, in which he proclaimed: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” What Morey presumably viewed initially as his democratic right to freely express a political opinion rapidly spiralled out of control.

Corporate China immediately moved to condemn the Rockets’ manager, entirely predictable given the politically embedded nature of doing business there. One of the NBA’s media partners, Tencent, as well as the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, quickly issued statements that they will not be broadcasting Rockets games. The likes of Chinese sports apparel brand Li Ning also distanced themselves from the comments.

CCTV then weighed in during a live news broadcast by asserting that “[Morey’s] support for Hong Kong’s thugs offends all Chinese people, who take a zero-toleration [sic] stance on any challenge against national sovereignty. Double-faced Daryl Morey must apologise”.

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Having cultivated its presence in China for almost two decades, the NBA’s response to the debacle was necessarily swift and scrambled. Houston owner Tilman Fertitta was at pains to emphasise that Morey had not spoken on behalf of the franchise.

In turn, the NBA released a press release in which it acknowledged that Morey’s words had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China”.

It went on to say “we have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together”.

Behind the lame ‘sport for good’ manifesto which the NBA clearly felt was the right positioning for a clarifying statement, there nevertheless rests a harsh reality. The NBA has spent millions of dollars and countless hours in its quest to become the West’s pre-eminent sports franchise in China, and while such careless words may not cost lives, but they do cost money.

A contrite Morey himself eventually took to Twitter, posting the following message: “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”

Fine words indeed, which echo those of some business leaders who have previously found themselves temporarily detained by the state for corrective education.

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Some observers have dismissed this latest episode as simply yet another in a long line of western organisations failing to understand how China works and how the Chinese communicate.

For instance, late last year Dolce and Gabbana twisted itself in knots with a set of adverts targeting Chinese customers, which instead provoked a public outcry because of its apparently arrogant portrayal of nationality and gender.

But the Rockets case is different because it is overtly political. Rather than being a consumer-focused matter of public sensibility, it is centred on the hugely contentious issue of Hong Kong.

Such an incident is the inevitable outcome of what has been brewing in other forms for some time. Earlier this year, the City Football Group, the Abu Dhabi owners of Manchester City, announced that it was acquiring a Chinese club – Sichuan Jiuniu, of Chengdu.

Such projects do not come easy. Indeed, it is likely that City spent several years building trusted relationships with key stakeholders in China to secure this deal. It is also likely to have facilitated other business deals; for example, Abu Dhabi’s state airline Etihad, a City sponsor, also announced new flights and aircraft into Chengdu at the same time.

Yet by the time Manchester City toured China in the summer, Chinese state mouthpiece the Global Times was berating City officials for showing a lack of respect to China and its people. Most observers concluded that an errant local journalist had rather overstepped the mark in reporting such criticisms, but others felt the reporter had simply been misunderstood.

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Regardless, the newspaper story’s timing was telling; City was just concluding its visit to Shanghai ahead of the team’s next destination, a match in Hong Kong. Tensions had already flared in the territory, following Carrie Lam’s introduction of her controversial extradition bill. It is likely that the call for respect was a shot across City’s bows, notably the team’s manager Pep Guardiola.

Guardiola, a former FC Barcelona player and coach, is a Catalan who has never shied away from expressing his support for Catalan separatism.

In early 2018, he was fined £20,000 by the English Football Association (EFA) for wearing a yellow ribbon during a match – the EFA charged the Catalan for “wearing a political message” on his clothing. Later in 2018, Guardiola visited imprisoned Catalan independence leaders in jail.

This surely was the premise of edgy reporting coming out of Beijing. An opinionated, overtly political, high profile figure advocating separatism was probably the last thing Beijing wanted in Hong Kong – now step forward Daryl Morey and his libertarian views on the future of the issue.

Morey’s tweets and Guardiola’s ribbons cease to be the public embodiment of personal values, principles and morals. Instead, in China, they have perceived as being ideological batons that will provoke a response from the government. Basketball courts and football fields may not be the streets of Hong Kong, but the reactions they can provoke are just as controversial.

The unfortunate reality both for Western ideologues and for sports franchises is that a decision to do business in China effectively means conceding to state control. Implicitly, the Chinese will continue to challenge companies like the Houston Rockets to either be with them or against them.

This piece is published in partnership with the China Soccer Observatory at the University of Nottingham.

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