Since drafting Chinese basketball player Yao Ming back in 2002, the Houston Rockets have been one of China’s most popular NBA teams. The Rockets have developed a strong relationship with the Chinese community which has led to multiple mutually beneficial financial partnerships between the franchise and the country.
All of this goodwill is now in serious jeopardy due to a tweet that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sent out on October 5, 2019. Despite Houston’s owner Tilman Fertitta’s attempts to distance himself and the Rockets from Morey’s tweet, the damage has already been done.
Morey stands with Hong Kong
Daryl Morey tweeted out an image with the phrase “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” over the weekend. This image and line come from Stand With Hong Kong, a website that explains the situation in Hong Kong and why the city is protesting against China.
According to the website, these protests stem from Hong Kong’s desire to protect the freedoms that were promised to them in the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. The site gives a timeline of how these freedoms have been encroached on, and why many ordinary citizens in Hong Kong are fighting the establishment over it. Bloomberg has been keeping a timeline on the riots and how violence has escalated over the last four months.
To say that this is a delicate situation would be an understatement. Facing immediate backlash after the tweet, Tilman Fertitta tweeted the following:
“Listen… [Daryl Morey] does NOT speak for the Houston Rockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the NBA internationally, and we are NOT a political organization.”
The fallout from Morey’s tweet
Not long after the tweet went out, the Chinese Basketball Association announced on Sunday that it would suspend all cooperation with the Rockets.
In a crushing blow to Houston’s exposure in China, both CCTV 5 and Tencent announced that they would no longer air Rockets games. CCTV is the main sports broadcaster on television in the country. Tencent, which is the NBA’s exclusive digital partner for streaming live games, was reportedly viewed by nearly 500 million people last season.
Sponsors, including the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank and the sportswear company Li-Ning Company, have also followed suit in suspending their cooperation with the team. All of these companies are demanding that the Rockets give a clear response on the matter.
Adam Silver backs Houston’s GM
In an interview with Forbes last year, NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum reported that NBA China, which manages NBA-related events in the country, was worth over $4 billion. With billions of dollars potentially at stake, NBA journalists and fans were left wondering if the league might choose China’s side over Daryl Morey’s right to freedom of speech. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver took Morey’s side in the controversy.
“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” Silver said to the Kyoto News in Tokyo. “There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have. I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear; that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”
This story is just beginning to take shape. If the NBA stands behind Daryl Morey, the blacklisting that has taken place against the Houston Rockets could eventually extend across the entire league. Will Silver’s support waiver if the Chinese Basketball Association, sponsors, and broadcasters take action against the NBA as a whole? And what could this potential standoff mean for the NBA’s future in China?
These are serious questions that will be answered in time. It’s a testament to how tense the situation is in Hong Kong right now that all of this commotion could be stirred up over a single tweet.