The NBA has cancelled all media access for the remainder of its visit to China as it puts players in a “complicated” and “unfair” situation, it said.
The league is embroiled in a standoff with China after the Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
In the video above: CNN journo shut down over China question
The announcement comes a day after CNN’s Christina Macfarlane was shut down by a Houston Rockets’ media officer as she tried to ask James Harden and Russell Westbrook a question about the NBA’s position with China during a news conference in Tokyo.
“They [the teams] have been placed into a complicated and unprecedented situation while abroad and we believe it would be unfair to ask them to address these matters in real time,” said a NBA statement Friday.
Macfarlane has since received an apology, with NBA spokesperson Mike Bass saying the incident was “inconsistent with how the NBA conducts media events.”
All of the league’s official Chinese partners have suspended ties with the NBA as it comes to terms with the fallout of Morey’s tweet, which has since been deleted.
For context, NBA China is worth AU$5.8 billion according to NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum, highlighting just how big a problem this is for the league.
The LA Lakers and Brooklyn Nets are set for a rematch in Shenzhen Saturday, the last game of the NBA’s pre-season tour of Asia. The Nets won the first game in Shanghai 114-111.
With the league’s presence in China worth an estimated AU$5.8 billion, there is plenty at stake for both NBA teams and their players — a number of whom have lucrative sponsorship deals in China — should the spat escalate.
The Houston Rockets, whose games have been banned indefinitely by state-run CCTV, were the most popular team in China before Moray’s tweet.
Hall of Famer Yao Ming — who now runs the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), and who Silver described as “extremely hot” about the situation — played his entire career in Houston.
On the NBA’s side is its longstanding presence in China, giving it a nuanced understanding of the country that other sports entities like the English Premier League arguably lack, according to Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at the UK’s Salford University.
“The NBA has a first-mover competitive advantage in China,” he said. “When China was going through its economic reform in the 1990s, the NBA was the first league to market there. They’ve spent nearly three decades and millions of dollars on establishing a market presence in China; to have that undermined by a tweet is a big issue for them.”
Today, over three hundred million people play basketball in China, according to the CBA. More than 600,000 courts have been built, while the NBA said in 2015 it would spend AU$2.3 million to help refurbish and build more courts throughout the country.
“The NBA has always been very careful with how it has approached engagement,” Chadwick explained. “It has not been framed that the NBA and the United States are making money from China, but that this is about the NBA and China working for the mutual benefit of Chinese basketball.
“The narrative is quite different from the smash and grab cash raids that European football clubs are typically making,” he added.
Pride at stake for both China and NBA over $5.8 billion fallout
Five days after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey deleted his now famous tweet with the words “stand with Hong Kong,” the most popular sports league in the most populous country in the world is getting an earful from all directions.
Although Morey backtracked from supporting the Hong Kong protesters and Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta distanced the team from his post, the league has become toxic in China — at least for now.
After an initial league statement was criticised for being too beholden to the Chinese authorities, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver defended Morey’s right to send the tweet in a statement Tuesday in Tokyo. He said that the league would not pursue profits over principles.
But the timing of this conflict could not be worse for the NBA, with two highly anticipated preseason games between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets scheduled for Thursday and Saturday in China.
Two NBA developmental games have already been cancelled, as well as a fan appreciation night, with mounting speculation that the showcase games may also be called off.
At the heart of this dispute lies an issue of pride from both sides, said Gregory Stoller, a senior lecturer of strategy and innovation at Boston University’s business school, who has been consulting in China for 15 years.
“The Chinese are the most patriotic nation on the earth, and the second most patriotic by a nose has to be the United States,” Stoller told CNN Sport.
“The Chinese are really proud of their culture and proud of everything that they stand for. If you want to interact with that country, then you have to respect that,” he added. “Most countries, including China, would want an apology; they want people to respect their relationship.
“The Chinese are the most patriotic nation on the earth”
“It’s sort of like being in a long-term marriage and realizing that you’re going to have some bumps in the road,” he added, “but I’m 100% certain that the ship will be righted.”
Not helping matters for the NBA is the current trade friction between Washington and China. “It’s a very fragile time for US-China relations across the board,” Stoller said.
On Monday, the US placed 28 Chinese companies on a blacklist for allegedly facilitating human rights violations. Chinese smartphone giant Huawei was blacklisted earlier this year, while Washington has placed billions of dollars of tariffs on Chinese goods since 2018.
‘Very bad gesture’
Left mostly unsaid thus far is how NBA fans in Hong Kong are reacting to the fallout.
Daphne To, a Hong Kong-native and legal executive who grew up watching the NBA, said seeing a Knicks game was a “must-do” event when she visited New York in 2016.
But she thinks the NBA’s stance could also impact its popularity in her homeland.
“I don’t understand why the NBA has to come out and apologize,” she said.
More on 7NEWS.com.au:
“The NBA is not only big in China, but in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well,” she noted, adding that the NBA “overreacted” to the incident.
“It’s just a very bad gesture that they’ve made. The fact that they are apologising, at least for a short period of time in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, there will be some effect.
“For me as a casual fan, my passion will cool down a bit on the NBA. Whenever you think about them as a brand in the future you will remember they were willing to kowtow to China.”
CNN journalist gets ‘shut down’ for asking NBA players about China
CNN anchor Christina Macfarlane was quickly shut down by the Houston Rockets’ media officer as she tried to ask a question about the NBA’s ongoing standoff with China.
Macfarlane was attending a post-match media conference in Tokyo on Thursday with NBA stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook but neither men were allowed to answer her question on whether they would feel comfortable speaking out on political and social issues in the future.
Harden, in particular, seemed happy to answer the question but was prevented from doing so by the media officer off-screen, despite Macfarlane’s follow-up question.
Later a Houston Rockets’ media relations employee told CNN that the reason the players did not answer was because they had answered the question several times already.
Earlier, Macfarlane was able to ask Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni if he had a message for Chinese fans who might have felt let down by the NBA over the spat.
“It’s a tough situation, very difficult. Adam Silver speaks for the NBA, I work for the NBA, I go with Adam. Commissioner Silver will do the right thing.”
Tim Frank, an NBA senior vice-president, later called Macfarlane to personally apologise for what happened when she attempted to ask her question to Harden and Westbrook.