Amid rift with China, will NBA be forced to apologize?

With billions of dollars at stake from things like merchandise sales and media rights, some experts are wondering if anything other than an apology from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will mend fences with China.

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A Chinese flag sits on a mannequin wearing the USA basketball uniform in the NBA flagship retail store in Beijing.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

When major corporations have done something to anger Chinese authorities in recent years, the playbook has called for one thing: an apology.

Marriott issued one. So did Delta. Mercedes-Benz, too.

The NBA, embroiled in a rift caused by a tweet expressing support for pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, has avoided going that route — for now. But with billions at stake from things like merchandise sales and media rights, some experts are wondering if anything other than an apology from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will mend this fence, especially with the Chinese indicating that is what they want.

“I think that Commissioner Silver might have to do what everyone in our country doesn’t want him to have to do,” said Windy Dees, a sports marketing expert at the University of Miami. “He may have to say, ‘I understand that your government, your political system, your culture, your ideologies are different than ours and we shouldn’t push our beliefs on you.’”

“And that’s exactly what Americans and NBA fans don’t want to see their commissioner say,” Dees added.

Silver has chosen his words carefully to this point, defending the right of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey — who sent the tweet, long-deleted yet still causing major problems — to freedom of expression.

Silver also said the league is apologetic over the disharmony caused by Morey’s tweet but stopped well short of apologizing for the tweet itself.

Morey attempted to clarify his position in subsequent tweets, which some — including Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, the Taiwanese-Canadian co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba — considered an apology.

But the only true apology so far came from Rockets star James Harden, the 2017-18 NBA MVP who tried to fix things by insisting, “We love China.”

Clearly, that wasn’t enough.

“I don’t know Daryl personally. I am sure he’s a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been,” Tsai said in an open letter to fans in which he tried to shed light on the Chinese perspective when it comes to Hong Kong. “But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”

The question is, how long?

No one knows. LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are scheduled to play Tsai’s Nets on Thursday in Shanghai, then again Saturday in Shenzhen. For now, those games are expected to be played.

But China state broadcaster CCTV is not going to air the games as previously planned and said it is examining other aspects of its relationship with the NBA.

Tencent, the Chinese conglomerate that has a $1.5 billion streaming deal spanning the next five seasons with the league, has said it will not show Rockets games and pulled some planned preseason coverage from NBA arenas. Chinese companies like apparel giant Li-Ning and Vivo, a smartphone maker that was going to be a sponsor of the Lakers-Nets games, have suspended their business dealings with the NBA.

“If you have CCTV and Tencent saying, ‘We’re not airing the NBA,’ that is a huge red flag,” Dees said. “It’s almost like a Chinese lockout. If China does not broadcast games, this is a major financial problem for the NBA. And I’m thinking this is going to go on for a while. This is not getting resolved right away. The one thing that you don’t mess with is Chinese government, and unfortunately not everyone in the U.S. understands the global power that China is.”

In the meantime, Silver is “upholding the values of the two countries where the NBA is based,” the U.S. and Canada, said Heather Dichter, a professor of sport management and sport history at De Montfort University in Leicester, England.

“If he had gone the other way, that to me becomes more damaging for the league financially,” she said. “China puts in money, but they’re not the core of your business. The teams can survive without their money. They can’t survive if they have no ticketholders.”

The NBA’s ties to China go back at least 30 years, from when then-Commissioner David Stern opened a fledgling office in Hong Kong with a bare-bones staff and struck a deal to show games to Chinese viewers on a tape-delay basis.

The game’s popularity in China has soared since. Many top NBA players visit every summer to promote footwear and apparel, usually greeted by huge crowds of adoring fans. The typically cited numbers are that 300 million Chinese play basketball and 500 million watch the NBA.

Now those carefully cultivated and highly lucrative ties have been thrown into jeopardy.

“As to what the NBA should say and do next, I believe it knows better than anyone else,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

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