It was announced on Sunday morning that Tencent, the owner of the NBA digital rights in China, would be suspending all streaming and reporting on the Houston Rockets. The suspension comes after general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted out a ‘fight for freedom’ image (which has since been deleted) in light of the recent protests in Hong Kong.
The NBA, and the Rockets, in particular, have a special relationship with China and this revelation does nothing to warm relations. After drafting Yao Ming in 2002, the Rockets became one of the Chinese people’s favorite teams, working in correlation with rising access to viewing at the time. More recently, a survey conducted says Houston is the second-most popular team in China, only following Golden State.
While newer NBA fans may not be privy to Houston’s long relationship with its Chinese audience, they can understand simple viewing numbers–a battle that China is winning unequivocally.
According to a piece from Forbes, 640 million people in China viewed some sort of NBA media during the 2017-18 season. In other words, twice the population of the US. It’s like going fishing at a river and then going fishing at an aquarium at Petco–the numbers are just so high that you’re bound to catch more fish at the end of the day.
NBA China CEO, Derek Chang, estimates that regular-season games received on average 3-4 million viewers per game, despite most games starting around 9 am in China. Last season, Game 6 of the Finals was viewed by 21 million people in China while the US had a mere 18 million.
This is bigger than a developing professional sports league–this is political tension affecting a form of escapism via sports and entertainment. These are the outlets that let us share commonalities with another culture around the globe, and these are the tensions that destroy any progress already made.
Morey has since apologized, no doubt in an effort to save his own skin as well as the reputation of the franchise and its relationship with China. But despite his best intentions, according to The Ringer’s John Gonzalez, the GM’s future in Houston may be on the line. Gonzalez contacted Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security advisor under President Obama, to put this in political perspective beyond money and numbers.
“It’s been common in the past for China to bully U.S. companies, tech, and media to refrain from criticizing human rights violations. While it may have put Morey in an awkward spot it’s much more of a warning shot at the NBA broadly. … I think it’d be terrible for the league to indicate that it would silence the free speech of players and executives in deference to an authoritarian government.”
Adam Silver’s most noteworthy additions to the NBA since becoming commissioner have been player-empowerment and growth beyond the current market. This situation brings these two qualities in direct conflict with each other and may say more about his direction as commissioner than anything else.
After recently discussing the possibilities of expanding the league to India within the next five years (even with the China viewership numbers), one could assume that Silver is aware of the political barricades that would be involved in starting a league in China and thus decided to begin with India.
While the official league communications erred on the side of China, it’s unclear what Silver will do going forward.
Basketball is the way I forget about the political nonsense going on at every hour of the day in 2019–and I live in a democratic nation. I can’t believe to fathom what kind of release something as silly as basketball could provide to someone in a country where personal expression is not a concern, to say the least. The lines between entertainment and politics have been blurred yet again, and an entire country’s participation in culture is at stake.