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The ESPN story by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru said the return is not being trumpeted by the league, which declined to directly address the return. Instead, it gave a spokesman’s statement extolling the NBA’s right to “inspire and connect people everywhere.’
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The story noted the NBA owners collectively have more than $10 billion in asset exposure to China, as well as doing $5 billion of NBA business in the country. That presumably includes broadcast and internet rights, as well as merchandising and sponsorships.
Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey angered the Chinese government by tweeting “First for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” during the uprising in that city.
ESPN estimates that tweet cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars. It also gave the league a black eye when it hesitated to support Morey’s call for freedom. ESPN pointed out the hypocrisy in the NBA’s calls for social justice in the US and its position on China’s human rights violations.
“Nobody really wants their name associated with China, but what can they do?” attorney Dan Harris, who represents a number of companies who do business in China, told ESPN. “They’re sort of betwixt and between. If they say what Americans want them to say, it’s death in China. If they say what China wants, it’s death in America.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in 2019 at a conference in New York that Chinese officials asked him initially to fire Houston Rockets GM Morey.
The subsequent uproar by China over the tweet caused problems during what was originally a goodwill tour by the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets. Posters were torn down, merchandise taken off shelves, TV and streaming options derailed, and media conferences canceled. For the US, the NBA and Silver caught grief for initially appearing to apologize, then giving a somewhat muted response instead of a full defense of freedom.
The tepid response was galling to many, since the league and many of its players previously showed no hesitation in speaking out against perceived injustice in the US.
“We were being asked to fire him by the Chinese government. … We said there’s no chance that’s happening,” claimed Silver. “There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”
The NBA in China accounts for a reported 10 percent of annual revenue for the league.
LeBron James threw gasoline on the fire with his remarks that Morey was “either misinformed or not really educated on the situation.” Hong Kong protesters subsequently burned James’s jerseys in the street.
Silver claimed the NBA has suffered monetary losses he characterized as “substantial”in 2019. “Our games are not back on the air in China as we speak, and we’ll see what happens next.”
“I don’t know where we go from here,” Silver added. “The financial consequences have been and may continue to be fairly dramatic.”
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