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As NBA conflict continues, Nike pulls Houston Rockets merchandise from Chinese stores

Even the swoosh is feeling the heat from the fallout over Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s pro-Hong Kong tweet.

As NBA conflict continues, Nike pulls Houston Rockets merchandise from Chinese stores
[Photo: Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]

The fallout over Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s tweet continues as at least 11 Nike stores in China have removed all Houston Rockets-related merchandise from their shelves, according to a Reuters report.

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It marks a new extension of consequences meted out by the Chinese government and companies, following Morey’s tweet supporting pro-Hong Kong protesters last Friday. Morey quickly deleted the tweet and apologized for any offense it may have caused, while Rockets ownership and the NBA both distanced themselves from Morey in public statements aimed to appease the league’s hundreds of millions of Chinese fans. Since then, the league—which is in the midst of a preseason Asian tour with exhibition games in China—has been playing a brand image balancing act between diffusing the situation in China and not angering American fans by appearing soft on free speech.

Nike store managers in Beijing and Shanghai told Reuters that they were told to remove Rockets gear through a company memo, while other Nike stores in Shenzhen also removed general NBA products.

Much of the discussion around the economic consequences have understandably focused on the NBA itself and its reported $4 billion business in China, threatened since broadcasters like CCTV and Tencent have pulled games off TV and streaming, while other sponsors, including sports apparel brand Li-Ning, have paused their partnerships as well. Now the broader basketball economy is feeling the pressure.

Beyond the Nike stores, Chinese shoe brand Anta has reportedly suspended NBA contract renewal talks. The brand’s 10-year deal with Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson is worth up to $80 million. The Rockets are one of the most popular teams in China, thanks to former star player Yao Ming, but current team member James Harden is now one of the league’s most popular players there. Harden is also the face of Adidas basketball, after signing a $200 million deal in 2015. The 2018 MVP issued an apology to Chinese fans this week while his team was in Tokyo saying, “We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there.”

While this appears to be an escalation of the ongoing feud, The New York Times is reporting that Chinese officials are actually moving to calm tempers and NBA criticism, seeing the ongoing coverage of the dispute as potentially damaging to its own brand image. The top editor of the nationalist Chinese newspaper Global Times, Hu Xijin, told the Times, “I think this issue will gradually de-escalate—Global Times will not push to keep it hot. I also hope the American side won’t make any moves to escalate it.”

Adidas declined a Fast Company request for comment, while Nike has yet to respond.

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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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