China’s state TV network CCTV said Tuesday that it would halt broadcasts of the National Basketball Association’s games as a backlash intensified against the U.S. league over a tweet that expressed support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.
The NBA is under pressure after the tweet Friday by Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, sparked fury from supporters of the communist government, casting a shadow over one of China’s favorite teams.
While the tweet was quickly deleted, it incited anger in China which broadened rapidly beyond the Rockets to encompass the entire league after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver defended Morey’s right to freedom of expression.
CCTV said in a Weibo post it won’t broadcast NBA’s pre-season games, and is investigating “all cooperation and exchanges with the NBA,” which would include the broadcast of its full season.
The broadcaster pointed specifically to Silver’s comments as the reason for its decision. “We strongly object to this statement,” the post said. “We believe that any comment that challenges China’s sovereignty does not belong in the scope of free expression.”
The pro-democracy movement that has rocked Hong Kong since June has become a red line for companies doing business in China, as any hint of support for the protests has been seen in China as a challenge to the nation’s sovereignty over its territory. The intense pressure on the NBA comes after companies like Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. were censured by Beijing after their employees expressed support for the movement in Hong Kong.
The issue of foreign support for Hong Kong protesters is particularly sensitive for Chinese officials, who have previously accused demonstrators of advocating independence, as well as seeking support from external governments, said Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based international relations professor.
“The Chinese government has difficulty seeing foreign businesses doing business and making money in China while disrespecting China’s legitimate interests,” Shen said. “You have the right not to respect us, but we also have the right not to do business with these people. We don’t think we’re demanding something unreasonable.”
At its daily briefing in Beijing, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said on Tuesday that “it is impossible to conduct exchanges and cooperation with China without knowing the public opinion of China.”
The fallout has transformed what was supposed to be a high-profile promotional week for the league in one of its biggest markets into a public-relations disaster.
Celebrities and fans said they would skip the exhibition games this week in China where top stars like LeBron James were scheduled to play, while an NBA charity event at a Shanghai primary school was canceled on Tuesday.
Chinese sponsors including sportswear maker Li Ning Co. have already suspended ties with the Rockets and broadcasters stopped airing their games. Sports forum Hupu said it has blocked all Rockets-related news, streaming and comments.
Because CCTV is a monopoly, the NBA likely doesn’t make as much money from its broadcast rights in China than it does in the U.S., where bidding wars between TV networks pushes the price up.But Chinese state broadcasts of NBA games was what brought professional basketball to the country: CCTV showed its first NBA game in 1987, introducing millions of Chinese people to stars like Magic Johnson at a time when the Chinese economy and society was still shut off from the outside world.
China’s love of the NBA has only grown since: 800 million people now watch its programming on various platforms every year. Tencent Holdings Ltd. reportedly paid $1.5 billion earlier this year for NBA’s digital rights for the next five years.