HONG KONG — The NBA is widely seen as the most permissive of the major U.S. sports leagues when it comes to freewheeling speech, allowing its athletes and other representatives to speak out on thorny political matters without fear of retribution.
Unless, apparently, the autocratic leaders of a lucrative market raise a stink.
On Sunday, the NBA became the latest international organization to struggle in a tiptoe act with China, a country with a fan base worth billions of dollars but a hair-trigger tolerance for comments that offend its political sensibilities.
The league suddenly found itself in the middle of an intractable political conflict over the future of Hong Kong, caught between maintaining its image at home and saving crucial business interests abroad.
The episode began Friday night, when Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, posted an image on Twitter that included a slogan commonly chanted during Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” He quickly deleted the tweet, but the damage was done.
Chinese fans, who see the Hong Kong protesters portrayed as violent rioters in state-run news media and largely regard them as such, were furious. Sponsors paused their deals with the Rockets, and the country’s main broadcaster said it would remove the team’s games from its schedule. And two lower-level exhibitions scheduled for a team affiliated with the Rockets were also canceled.
The league issued an apology for Morey’s comments Sunday night. That inflamed fans back home, where the protesters are generally seen as pro-democracy fighters battling a repressive government. Democratic and Republican politicians found agreement in calling the league gutless, accusing it of prioritizing money over human rights.
Speaking before a scheduled preseason game between the Rockets and Toronto Raptors in Japan, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged the fallout but said the league supported Morey’s right to free expression.
“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” Silver told Kyodo News. “There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have.”
The NBA is far from the first company to find itself forced to choose sides on geopolitical issues it never intended to be involved in, and to ultimately bow to China’s economic might.
In recent years, several companies have apologized or made concessions after angering China, including Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline. Cathay fired employees who wrote posts on social media in support of the protests, in an effort to avoid losing access to Chinese airspace.
But the stakes are particularly high for the NBA, which has looked to China, a rapidly prospering country of 1.4 billion people, as a growth market.
Tencent Holdings, a Chinese tech conglomerate, reported that 490 million people watched NBA programming on its platforms last year, including 21 million fans who watched Game 6 of the 2019 NBA finals. By comparison, Nielsen measured 18.34 million viewers for the game on ABC.
The league recently announced a five-year extension of its partnership with Tencent to stream its games in China for a reported $1.5 billion.
“This is a massive indicator for the perceived value and enormous potential of the China market,” Mailman, a sports digital marketing agency, wrote in a recent report.
The NBA has been similarly successful on Chinese social media. The league has 41.79 million followers on Weibo, a popular Chinese social network, compared with 38.6 million followers on Facebook and 28.4 million on Twitter.
The involvement of the Rockets is particularly troublesome for the NBA, given the franchise’s longtime status as among the most popular in China. Yao Ming, considered the crown jewel of Chinese basketball, played for the Rockets from 2002 to 2011.
Yao is now the president of the Chinese Basketball Association, which suspended its relationship with the Rockets. It also canceled two NBA G League games scheduled for this month between affiliates of the Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks, said a person with knowledge of the decision who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Houston has maintained its Chinese fan base, making it the second-most-popular team in China behind the Golden State Warriors last year, according to Mailman. The team had 7.3 million followers on Weibo, compared with 2.9 million followers on Twitter.
James Harden, a Rockets guard and one of the NBA’s biggest stars, directly apologized to Chinese fans Monday.
“We apologize. We love China; we love playing there,” he told reporters in Tokyo, where the Rockets were preparing for a preseason game.
“We go there once or twice a year. They show us the most support and love. We appreciate them as a fan base, and we love everything they’re about, and we appreciate the support that they give us.”
Echoing China’s worldview, especially as it relates to its sovereignty over disputed territories, is considered a cost of doing business there, for both entertainers and companies.
Gap was forced to apologize in 2017 after selling a shirt that featured a map of China without including Taiwan, a self-governing island off its southern coast. The Marriott International hotel chain apologized in January 2018 for listing Tibet, a region of western China, and Taiwan as countries in a customer survey.
In February 2018, the German automaker Daimler apologized for using a quote from the Dalai Lama, who is widely viewed as a Tibetan separatist in China, in a social media post from its Mercedes-Benz brand.
In March 2018, China demanded that international airlines refer to Taiwan as part of China in their online booking systems, a request mocked by the White House as “Orwellian nonsense” but eventually obeyed by all major carriers.
The NBA has weathered outrage in China before. Last year, J.J. Redick, then of the Philadelphia 76ers, recorded a video for the Chinese New Year in which he appeared to use a racial slur for Chinese people, which he later said was an unintentional verbal slip. He apologized but was roundly booed when he touched the ball during preseason games in Shanghai and Shenzhen.
The discussion around Hong Kong, though, is a much more passionate topic for Chinese fans. Joseph Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and owner of the Brooklyn Nets, said in a statement late Sunday that Hong Kong was a “third-rail issue” in China, calling the protesters’ efforts a “separatist movement.” (Most protesters deny they are interested in independence, but Chinese state media has at times depicted them that way.)
“If we said we supported 9/11, what would American pigs think? Put yourself in others’ shoes,” one commenter on Weibo wrote.
In Hong Kong, many supporters of the movement criticized the NBA’s backtracking and thanked Morey for his original sentiment.