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The NBA is facing a clash between its business interests and brand identity in China

The league finds itself caught between a Chinese rock and a democratic hard place.

The NBA is facing a clash between its business interests and brand identity in China
[Photo: Visual China Group via Getty Images]

Yesterday, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted—then quickly deleted—an image that said “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” in support of the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The Rockets are one of the most popular NBA teams in China, so Morey’s tweet did not go over well with the government there, many fans, and the team’s Chinese sponsors and business partners. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta quickly responded with a tweet of his own.

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Even Morey himself followed up his deleted tweet up with a clarification.

But significant damage had already been done. The Chinese Basketball Association quickly severed ties with the Rockets, and such sponsors as the sports apparel company Li-Ning and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank (SPD Bank) Credit Card Center suspended work with the Rockets. The team’s games were dropped by China’s state broadcaster, and according to The Wall Street Journal, China’s streaming platform Tencent Sports has also dropped its Rockets broadcasts—after paying $1.5 billion to extend its NBA streaming deal in July—and offered fans the chance to dump the Rockets as their “home team” in the company’s league pass package. As The New York Times reported, 490 million people watched NBA hoops on Tencent’s platforms last year, including 21 million fans who watched Game 6 of the 2019 Finals, compared to the 18.34 million American viewers on ABC. Brooklyn Nets owner and Alibaba cofounder Joseph Tsai wrote in a lengthy post on Facebook outlining some of the reasons why Morey’s tweet was offensive to many in China, stating, “The hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”

For its part, the NBA put out a statement that attempted to walk the fine line between appeasing its Chinese business partners while not alienating its fans and partners at home. League spokesperson Mike Bass said in a press statement, “The values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have 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.”

A quick look at the online reaction to all of this reveals the quagmire that the NBA finds itself in. Support Morey—or at least his right to voice his opinion on a political matter—and risk billions of current and potential business in China. Denounce Morey—or limit his right to voice his opinion on a political matter—and risk losing American fans and damage to the NBA’s carefully constructed brand image as one of the most exciting, progressive sports leagues. The timing couldn’t be more acute, as the league is in the midst of an Asian brand-building tour, with the Rockets set to play an exhibition game against the champion Toronto Raptors outside Tokyo on Tuesday, and the Nets and L.A. Lakers meeting in Shanghai.

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Morey’s tweet, and the response to it, has quickly become a stress test for the NBA’s brand identity. Over the years, the league has not only tolerated but also encouraged its players to speak their minds on any number of issues. LeBron James has spoken out against President Trump many times, and the star’s Uninterrupted media startup is founded on the very idea that pros are “More Than An Athlete.” Back in 2017, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called Trump a “soulless coward,” and he’s been continually critical of the President. But there has been no move by either the Spurs or the NBA to silence LeBron or Popovich, despite it causing a backlash from some fans.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver told me last year that allowing and encouraging players and staff to speak their minds and express themselves is one of the league’s great strengths. “They care about their community, the environment, politics, and they also care about fashion, music, and entertainment,” said Silver. “And we know that the more the players can express themselves, the more touch points there are with fans.”

But now that there are billions of dollars at stake, and it’s all playing out in public, we get to see how seriously the league takes its brand values. It’s a tightrope walk particularly when two of the NBA’s largest growth markets, China and India, also happen to be home to wildly different political cultures. Disagreeing with Morey’s statement—but defending his personal right to it—might be as far as the league is willing to go here. It plays both sides juuuust enough to have it pass with hopefully limited damage. The initial response from its Chinese partners was quick and severe, but the league still holds plenty of cards in that it’s the home of the world’s best basketball and the sport’s biggest stars. As long as it remains that way, with all the Nike, Adidas, and other brand marketing muscle behind its stars, fans in China and everywhere else will be there and want to tune in.

What makes the NBA brand so strong is how it’s been able to cultivate this identity of openness and expression, whether that’s by not fining players for uttering anything outside of basketball, or encouraging fans to share highlight clips online. By doing this, it has managed to blend almost seamlessly the game itself with the culture of the game. Streetwear, music, entertainment, the NBA, and its stars are intertwined with these worlds, and that makes it attractive to international audiences as much as the skill on the court.

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If it abandons its values—or appears to—it puts that identity at risk, the very thing that makes it so valuable overseas in the first place.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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