How The NBA Overstayed its Welcome In China
By: Lukas Woerner
The National Basketball Association (NBA) is the most universally recognized basketball organization and is wildly considered one of the most innovative athletic associations across all sports. Beyond offering the most competitive televised basketball, the league has been applauded for their management, growth, and effective business strategy which has made it an eight-billion-dollar global company. Yet, outside of entertainment, the NBA can be recognized as an extension of the U.S. soft power worldwide. Although there are more NBA watchers in China than anywhere else in the world, most of the league’s decisions are derivative of greater U.S.-centered ideology. And, like any great U.S. corporation, expansion is continually on the mind of league executives, whether openly dictated through development initiatives or behind carefully constructed marketing tactics. The NBA and basketball have become surprisingly politically charged in recent years, but through the use of western media and tactical business decisions, the NBA has the potential to be an asset in monitoring future U.S. business policy, specifically in China.
Being based predominantly in the U.S., the widespread lack of foreign player representation until the 1990’s made attracting a global audience difficult. Breakout foreign superstars such as Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Steve Nash (Canada), and Peja Stojakovic (Croatia) at the turn of the century began to offer a greater global appeal of the league. In 1994, the U.S. Olympic Men’s basketball team, nicknamed “The Dream Team” offered much watch television at the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona, and the success of Michael Jordan’s collaborative effort with the Looney Toons in Space Jam (1996) only further propelled the sport onto a world-wide audience. Yet, the largest emerging basketball market, China, had not yet been exploited, with the greater Chinese populous having difficulties adopting the sport for its lack of name recognition and potential political censoring by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). By the year 2000, there was a rekindled interest from league officials to enter the Chinese market. In the late 1980’s, league commissioner David Stern struck a deal with the state-sponsored China Central Television (CCTV) to begin airing NBA games to the Chinese public, albeit in a limited capacity. This globalization of basketball all leads into the importance of the 2002 NBA draft, which would forever change the concept of basketball in China forever.
In the 2002 draft, all eyes were on which team would receive the number one overall draft pick to select Yao Ming, a seven-foot six-inch prospect from China. Although most basketball enthusiasts can agree that Yao may not have been the best player available, his value transcended the sport on a financial, political, and social level that arguably had not been seen since Michael Jordan signed a shoe deal with Nike. This theory has been dubbed the “Yao Ming Effect”. The theory stated that along with “basketball” Yao came “political” Yao, which opened access to billions of fans in China, which could potentially double the global fanbase of the league. Additionally, Yao’s legacy saw the breaking of traditional stereotypes and racial sensitivity within the basketball community, offering a representative figure for the Chinese basketball market. This ultimately reached its peak during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, in which Yao was ceremoniously the flag bearer for China (also in Athens 2004).
Since the 2002 NBA draft, popularity of the NBA in China boomed, with it regularly being broadcasted nationally on CCTV. Further, league sponsored NBA China initiatives saw preseason tours of franchises and players across the country, hosting camps, playing exhibitions, and all-around promoting the sport overseas. Surprisingly, the most popular NBA player in China is Kobe Bryant, and after his death in 2020, many CCP sponsored companies offered condolences on their platforms, which further shows how the NBA has become integral to the socio-political climate of the country. Not only was this integration a great financial success, but it also influenced globalizing U.S. sports worldwide, as the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) associations began their own business development efforts in Latin America and Europe. But this all seemed to come to a stop in 2019 when then Houston Rocket’s General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for the ongoing Hong Kong protests, directly conflicting the beliefs of CCP officials.
Leading up to this point, the NBA had been making all the right moves in China; promoting the sport, highlighting Chinese players abroad, and refraining from any political conversation in the media. Yet, with the push of one tweet, the whole NBA-Chinese house of cards came tumbling down, further showing how instable U.S. businesses are in China when having to negotiate with the local government. Immediately after the incident, the Chinese government called for a complete censure of the NBA in the country by painting over murals, cancelling exhibitions, and removing the NBA from the CCTV. Further, NBA commissioner Adam Silver was contacted to remove Morey from the league, to which Silver refused. The relationship between the two seemed to be ruined. Although ideological differences between the U.S. and China had always been tumultuous during the 21st century, the lack of politically charged conversation in the basketball sphere seemed to preserve the working-business relationship. Even though games have been removed from CCTV, an interesting development has resulted from the breakup.
Surprisingly, major Chinese business innovators Tencent have been crucial to the preservation of the NBA in China. Although the company does have heavy links with the anti-NBA CCP, they have continued to broadcast games on their platforms whilst the CCTV has continued their blackout. Similar to the Cuban government censoring Cuban MLB players whilst broadcasting baseball games, the CCP tries to censor the greater U.S. centric media that enters the country, but Tencent’s unique business structure allows for non-censured broadcasts of the games. Although not an ideal situation, the forward-thinking NBA continues to try and mend its relationship with China through channels such as these. Tencent is currently the NBA’s largest digital partner outside of the U.S., and the two have a contract together lasting through the 2024-2025 NBA season. After more than a year of the CCTV blacklisting of the NBA, the network began limited broadcasts of the NBA starting with the 2020 NBA Finals. Although tensions are still high, this transition could be key for basketball relations moving forwards.
The emergence of the Tencent-NBA relationship could be concerning for both the U.S. and Chinese governments. Although he growth of multinational corporations can be vital for private business growth in each of the two superpowers, these ties can become unpredictable, as seen with both Alibaba and WeChat (subsidiary of Tencent) in international markets. Although Tencent has been valuable for the preservation of the NBA-Chinese relationship, the CCP may not be thrilled with the idea that a multinational corporation can challenge their censoring, and on the contrary, the U.S. should not be thrilled that the only linkages between the NBA and China are hedged on a Chinese media company amidst data privacy concerns. Many U.S. businesses are hesitant of entering the Chinese market because of CCP interference in everyday business operations. The NBA’s ties with Tencent can potentially alleviate stresses while operating in this space, as they have been successful at modifying their Chinese business model in response to CCP pressures. Although the NBA tries to put itself out of the political spotlight, actions like Morey’s continue to highlight how intertwined the two are. Although Chinese media may be reluctant to reintroduce regular broadcasts NBA back to CCTV, the greater Chinese populous is migrating to private channels, only greater emphasizing the importance of media and basketball in the modern Chinese landscape.