Back in 2017, the NBA had grown to become the most-followed league online in China. Thanks to an early move onto the giant Asian social media site, Weibo, in 2010, the NBA’s official account had amassed over 33 million followers seven years later. Now, two years after that initial report in the South China Morning Post, the NBA page has over 41 million fans signed up.
What could present itself as a spanner in the works for a sporting organisation with such an enormous fanbase in China? What immovable object could meet with this unstoppable force, causing all kinds of havoc for the NBA brand? Well, it’s a tweet, of course.
Just weeks ago, on October 4th, the general manager of the Houston Rockets NBA team, Daryl Morey, tweeted his support of the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. Now deleted, Morey’s tweet angered many NBA fans in China in the short time it was live on his Twitter account.
The NBA was quick to act – releasing a statement branding Morey’s tweet as “inappropriate”. Morey, undoubtedly under considerable pressure from the NBA and his own franchise, commented that the Houston Rockets is “not a political organisation” after removing the tweet from his account. However, Morey and the NBA then found themselves caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. There was a huge backlash in the US, as reported by PBS. Both the Democrats and Republicans, in a very rare show of unity, pounced on the NBA, accusing it of kowtowing to the Chinese public.
By now, of course, the whole thing was snowballing into a PR nightmare for the NBA. On October 8th, they released another statement, this time reiterating its intention to stand by its values of diversity and support for free speech.
“The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way,” reads part of the statement.
Some fans claimed the NBA’s reaction just wasn’t enough. All eyes are now on the NBA and just how strong its stance will be regarding the Hong Kong protests and the civil liberties the protestors are fighting for. As the great Peter Parker – Spiderman for those of you not ‘in the know’ – once said, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Well, folks, there’s no greater power in the modern world than being labelled the “world’s wokest professional sports league”. Its well-earned title is now preceding the NBA as they learn that the real work isn’t in getting to the top, but staying there.
When you become a global superpower, as the NBA has, ducking your head in the sand should no longer be an option. Yet, it appears it is. Money will decide how this plays out. Money will determine the approach to be taken in the coming days and weeks regarding this matter. If ducking its head in the sand is viewed to be the least damaging option for the NBA in the long run – don’t underestimate the power of that Chinese market – then ducking will be done.
The decision-makers at the NBA may want to take note of this quote from Mary-Hunter O’Donnell’s PBS piece on the matter – “once people begin to think that a company’s social engagement is driven by profit-seeking rather than moral motives, all of the benefits of social engagement go away. My own research demonstrates that people are especially averse to hypocrisy, which can lead to increased turnover, punitive reactions and attacks from activists.”
It’s believed that the NBA’s Chinese operations are currently worth more than $4 billion to the organisation. How much do those values really mean to you now?
TIME summed up exactly why this whole thing has presented such a huge issue for the Chinese – “the incident is seen as the latest example of a Western organization challenging the nation’s sovereignty over its territory.”
The piece went on to state that “the situation puts the league at risk of either offending fans in its biggest international market, or exposing itself to charges of kowtowing to China at the expense of American values.”
Which route will the NBA take?
Some of the nation’s celebrity figures have voiced their objections to Morey’s tweet.
“Chinese Rockets fans are first Chinese. We love Chinese red more than Rockets red,” Kang Hui, an anchor for CCTV News Channel, said in a video on an official CCTV Weibo account. “Morey, this time you really fouled. If you foul, you have to pay the price.”
One thing’s for sure, this isn’t going to be some quick-fix for the NBA. They currently hold a $500 million deal with Tencent, who have watched as NBA online viewership figures in China nearly tripled in the last four years. Yet, Tencent and CCTV have both said they will no longer broadcast any Houston Rockets games.
All eyes will be on the NBA’s next move. Any ‘solution’ now will surely just be a damage-limitation tactic.