An NBA sign is seen at the third China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai, China, Nov. 5, 2020. 

Global Politics

The NBA works ‘super hard’ to reestablish ‘open dialogue’ in China

After the NBA was banned on Chinese TV, the US basketball association made a series of public and private gestures in China to quell political tensions that erupted from one NBA player’s infamous pro-Hong Kong tweet. 

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An NBA sign is seen at the third China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai, Nov. 5, 2020. 

Credit:

Aly Song/Reuters

Recent college graduate Chris Qiao lives in China’s northern Shanxi province. Like many young Chinese sports fans, he used to check NBA highlights on his phone every morning after waking up. A year ago, he saw a piece of news that shocked him. 

Houston Rockets' general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters. 

That gesture hit on a hot-button issue in China — the status of Hong Kong. For Qiao, it was enough for him to stop watching. 

“The tweet really hurt people’s feelings and crossed a line. ... It made me feel he didn’t respect us, so why should we still keep watching the NBA?”

Chris Qiao, NBA sports fan, Shanxi province, China

“The tweet really hurt people’s feelings and crossed a line,” Qiao said. “It made me feel he didn’t respect us, so why should we still keep watching the NBA?”

It wasn’t just him. State-run TV network CCTV responded with a ban on the broadcast of any NBA games in China. 

This was a disaster for the NBA. There are more Chinese NBA fans than there are people in the US. Billions of dollars are wrapped up in the game in China. NBA teams and players have merchandising deals, advertising agreements and sponsorships. And a lot of that was canceled.

In response, the NBA has tried to appease China through a series of public and private gestures to repair the harm done by that infamous tweet. 

At games broadcast in the US at the start of the pandemic, the NBA put up big signs and videos saying “Go Wuhan.” It also sent medical equipment and personal protective gear to help fight the coronavirus.  

NBA players also reached out to fans directly with messages and donations. Every year, players film Chinese New Year greetings and other content for their Chinese fans, but this year they tailored their videos to fans in lockdown.

Joseph Krassenstein is the director of marketing at MORE Sports, a company that helps NBA players connect with their fans in China.

“If the NBA is going through a bit of political tension, people will still authentically follow their favorite icons and their idols. I think that fandom never stopped. If anything, I think the fans doubled down in their fandom in their efforts to keep connected to their favorite stars.”

Joseph Krassenstein, marketing director, MORE Sports 

“If the NBA is going through a bit of political tension, people will still authentically follow their favorite icons and their idols. I think that fandom never stopped. If anything, I think the fans doubled down in their fandom in their efforts to keep connected to their favorite stars.”

A few days after the ban, Shanghai hosted an NBA exhibition game. Some fans boycotted. One man filmed himself ripping up his tickets to the game. But plenty of other fans said that despite the ban, they kept watching their favorite sport. 

Basketball players at a public court in Shanghai say the ban didn’t impact them at all. They just watched it online. One player on the court who asked to remain anonymous told The World: “I can’t give up the NBA. The way they handled the incident upset us, but we still follow our favorite teams. If the Lakers are playing, I’ll be watching.”

But the NBA also made some structural changes. In May, for the first time, it hired a Chinese national to head up NBA China. Tensions between the NBA and China remained, but as the LA Lakers and the Miami Heat went into the final playoff games, China lifted the TV ban and broadcast the last two games. 

CCTV said it was due because of the care the NBA had shown during the pandemic and its good wishes during a holiday celebrating the founding of modern-day China.

Susan Brownell is an anthropologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who studies sports in China. She says the NBA’s efforts to appease China were part of a political dance.  

"[The NBA] did manage to hit the two biggest culturally important things, which is to support Chinese sovereignty and to express concern for the health of Chinese citizens.”

Susan Brownell, anthropologist, University of Missouri-St. Louis

“I don’t know if they were smart enough to do it, but they did manage to hit the two biggest culturally important things, which is to support Chinese sovereignty and to express concern for the health of Chinese citizens.”

Krassenstein says he can only imagine the kind of negotiations that went on behind closed doors. 

“There's a lot of things happening behind the scenes with a lot of very influential people on both sides, from the government side, the distribution broadcasting side, to also the NBA China side — they've all worked super hard to get back to a level of open dialogue and commitment to pushing the game further in China.”

Brownell says that historically, China has used sports to build bridges — and sometimes to burn them. 

“I think [the Chinese government] has a very, very long memory when it comes to who our friends are. So, punishing people economically, that does have a long history going back at least to 1989. But they didn't have that much economic clout then. Now, they have much more economic clout in the world and I think it’s an official strategy that they will be using as much as they can.”

She thinks other sports organizations should take note — and tread carefully.

Ella Cao contributed research to this story.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Joseph Krassenstein's company.

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