China's state broadcaster said Tuesday that it will no longer televise NBA games, cutting off the league from its second-largest market, as the row over a Tweet from the Houston Rocket's general manager threatens to overshadow the upcoming season.
The CCTV Sports channel of China Media Group said it will suspend NBA broadcasts, which attracted some 800 million viewers last year, after league Commissioner Adam Silver defended Daryl Morey for sending a Tweet earlier this week -- for which he later apologized -- that expressed support for the ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. Tencent Holdings (TCEHY) , which cut a deal to broadcast NBA games online in 2015, and renewed it for a reported $1.5 billion in July, said it would join the CCTV blackout.
"I think as a values-based organisation that I want to make it clear ... that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression," Stern told Japan's Kyodo news agency Tuesday ahead of an exhibition game between the Rockets and the Toronto Raptors in Tokyo. "I accept that it is also Chinese governments' and Chinese businesses' right to react to those words and, at least from my long-time experience in the NBA, it will take some time to heal some of these issues."
The Houston Rockets, purchased by hedge fund billionaire Tilman Fertitta in 2017, have a long history with basketball in China, linked in part to its decision to draft Yao Ming, one of the country's greatest sporting heroes, in 2002.
The move not only introduced Yao, a 7-6 phenomenon who ultimately played nine years with the Rockets while earnings eight All Star recommendations, to an American audience but also marked the first major bridge between the U.S. and China, where professional basketball is now a $4 billion enterprise and more than 300 million people currently play the game.
The NBA's account on Weibo, the popular online chatroom, has more than 33 million followers, far more than its official Twitter account, and videos from last year's playoffs were watched some 2.9 billion times in the China market.
With so much at stake for both the league and many of its star players, who earn lucrative sponsorship dollars in the world's second-largest economy, the NBA moved swiftly to distance itself from Morey's Tweet, noting it was "extremely disappointed in the inappropriate remarks" while adding it has "great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together".
That response, however, drew sharp criticism from several U.S. lawmakers, including Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who accused the league of putting profits before principle.
"The NBA wants money, and the Communist Party of China is asking them to deny the most basic of human rights," Sasse said in a statement. "In response, the NBA issued a statement saying money is the most important thing."
The league's most-decorated franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers, is scheduled to play an exhibition game this Thursday in Shanghai against the Brooklyn Nets, which is owned by the founder of online e-commerce giant Alibaba Holding Co. (BABA) - Get Report Joseph Tasai.
"Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for citizens of China," Tasai wrote on his Facebook page.
"The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China, is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country's sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable," he added.