When it comes to international expansion, the NBA has been far ahead of its domestic rivals for years. Ever since David Stern took the reins as commissioner in 1984, the league has focused on eclipsing the boundaries of the United States, with a specific emphasis placed on China.
Given all the potential consumers and revenue, the world’s most populous country has been at the center of the league’s expansion strategy.
Through TV deals hearkening back to the heyday of Lakers-Celtics, a collaborative relationship with the Chinese Basketball Association, yearly preseason games, and—of course—the arrival of Yao Ming in the league in 2002, the NBA has succeeded in capturing the attention of Chinese sports fans.
Basketball is now the most popular sport among Chinese youth and the NBA is the country’s most popular sports league. Shortly before becoming Chinese president in 2012, Xi Jinping caught a Lakers game and cheered on Kobe in Los Angeles. Floor seats for Thursday night’s Lakers-Nets preseason game in Shanghai were recently being sold for upward of $2,500. Some of the league’s former and current stars—like Kobe Bryant and James Harden—have become heroes to the passionate Chinese hoops fans.
It’s an understatement to say the NBA is big in China.
However, the strength of that robust relationship is in peril this fall. There is big money—we’re talking billions with a B—on the line for the NBA. And, in an interesting twist, the league that was most beloved in China, given its history with Yao, is at the center of the tumult.
The issue now dominating the sports news cycle originated when Houston general manager Daryl Morey and the Rockets arrived in Hong Kong on Friday for their preseason series with the Raptors, the first game of which took place Wednesday in Tokyo. Shortly after they touched down in Asia, the analytically minded GM—who has friends in the area—expressed his support on Twitter for Hong Kong protestors and their resistance against the Chinese government (more on that situation in a bit).
Morey seemingly believed he was just advocating for civil rights—as a guy who works for a league that touts political free speech as one of its core values, nonetheless. He probably thought this was more of a sure thing than The Beard drilling an open three. Morey had no idea what would ensue.
Since his tweet taking the side of the protestors, everything has spiraled, with the executive apologizing, numerous business relationships falling apart, and the league’s relationship with China suddenly looking shaky. He may have had no idea what he was doing, but the outspoken GM seems to have placed the league, and his team, in an impossible position. The NBA is now trying to appease its Chinese fans while staying true to its ideology, and it’s unclear whether both goals can be accomplished (more on that, too, in a bit).
Given the drama, we thought this would be an opportune moment to recap how the NBA has gotten into hot water with a country and market it values so highly.