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Keith Strudler: China And The NBA

If the President of the United States can take solace in one thing, perhaps it’s that he isn’t the only one stuck in an escalating economic war with China. Trump now finds company in none other than the NBA, one of America’s most visible trade commodities. Like the US, the NBA is stuck in something of an economic impasse with China, although to be clear, with a far different genesis. It all started last week when Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted the following from his own personal twitter account: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” That came in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, and to be clear, was not done on behalf of the Rockets or the NBA.

From China’s perspective, that didn’t really matter. And their reaction has been swift and direct. That government driven response includes state run Chinese television network CCTV pulling two pre-season broadcasts off the air of games being played in China between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets. They’ve also cancelled charity events in China hosted by each of the teams. And there’s discussion of whether the Lakers and Nets will be allowed to play at all, which, to be clear, means absolutely nothing to most American sports fans that barely acknowledge the NBA has a pre-season. So while perhaps lacking the titanic implications of Trump’s tariff war, China and the NBA are in the makings of a considerable trade skirmish.

The NBA’s commissioner/general Adam Silver is trying to lead a stand down, offering a diplomatic approach to something that’s escalating quickly. But doing so will require a fairly nimble tight rope act. In essence, Silver has to both show support for one of his team’s executives while also appeasing the Chinese government. Perhaps more importantly, he has to do so with the full acknowledgement of the ocean between Daryl Morey’s support of democracy and China’s less democratic form of governance.

Make no mistake, for the NBA, the stakes are sky high. The League and its business partners have spent the better part of several decades cultivating economic potential in the world’s largest nation. That process has been strategic and deliberate, ranging from exporting our games overseas – like this pre-season exhibition – to working to import Chinese athletes into the NBA, like former Houston all-star Yao Ming. It’s also important to mega-star athletes and their shoe sponsors, like Nike and Adidas, who use player clinics to build intense Chinese fan loyalty. In a business that survives based on its numbers of viewers and the sponsor and corporate interest that attracts, an increasingly wealthy and sports focused China is invaluable to a league that’s probably tapped out on US dollars. So to have China suddenly take a disinterest in the NBA is more than a rounding error.

Of course, that probably gets to the heart of the situation. American sports leagues, in particular the NBA, have long recognized the urgency of a global marketplace. Different sports have had different levels of effort and success, ranging from baseball’s current strategy to play a few games in Europe to the NFL once owning an entire league over there. But for a whole lot of reasons, European expansion has clear limitations, none-the-least of which is the longstanding intensity of soccer fandom. Add that to the complexity of working through the EU and flat economies, and there’s not a whole lot of space. But China, on the other hand, has neither the sports history nor the economic challenges of the West. Which means it’s a whole lot easier to cultivate new fans with fewer restrictions. That’s the promise of China to the NBA, at least until now.

But what China does have is oppressive governance, restrictions on free speech, and a miserable record around human rights. Which, to be clear, have become marquis of the modern NBA, where athletes increasingly use their platform to advance social justice. That’s part of why Commissioner Adam Silver was embraced by his players, because he’s the same commissioner who in basically his first hours on the job forced a long-time racist owner out of the league. It’s very hard to have a business with that ethos operate in a country that often treats free speech as criminal behavior. That’s the no-win dilemma for the NBA.

Perhaps this is a reminder that sport isn’t simply a commodity that can be bought and sold like wheat and soybeans. And even though this kerfuffle will likely simmer down, I don’t expect it to be the last. And why Adam Silver will have to think long and hard about the real ROI of playing in China, a spread sheet that goes beyond the numbers. And why for now, the US Government can take solace in knowing they’re not alone.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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