If you’ve been following the NBA preseason with any sort of regularity this year, you know that the biggest story line isn’t how the newly assembled Lakers look, or how Kawhi and Paul George have been playing together, or not even how the young phenom Zion Williamson has been doing.
No, the biggest story so far has been how China has clamped down on the NBA after Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted out support for Hong Kong in their long-lasting fight for independence from China.
The delicate situation has shed some light into how the NBA operates and what really is of utmost importance to their operation and ultimate goals for the future.
“Cash Rules Everything Around Me” – Wu Tang Clan
The NBA has long been known as the one professional sports league in the U.S. that supports player empowerment and free speech. While the NFL famously blackballed Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality against unarmed black civilians, the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver have allowed players to openly express their political views or stances on controversial societal topics.
NFL, NHL, and MLB players are essentially considered highly payed independent contractors while the players in the NBA and their respective team owners have a relationship that could be akin to more of a partnership than an employer-employee relationship.
It turns out that the NBA is all about free speech and expression until the bottom line is severely threatened, and then the tone suddenly changes drastically. Daryl Morey tweeted support for the ideal of free speech itself by voicing his allegiance to Hong Kong in a tweet. Hong Kong has been fighting for its independence from China for a long time now, and wants to exist as a democracy instead of living under the communist rule of China (the exact opposite of free speech).
The Chinese government regularly censors media and free speech in general, and actively tries to control what the citizens of the country think, feel, and do. Basketball has been a very popular sport in China ever since Yao Ming was drafted by the Houston Rockets back in 2002 as the first overall pick. When Yao entered the league, the NBA made it a mission to actively grow the game and its business in China by sending top players at the time like Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and Tracy McGrady to China in the offseason to play in exhibition games and to hold skill-building clinics for the Chinese people.
The popularity of the NBA has grown tremendously in China in the 17 years since Yao was drafted. Of course since the best Chinese player was on the Houston Rockets, they became by far the most popular NBA franchise among the Chinese people. Morey’s tweets now present an even bigger problem for the NBA and China since Morey is the G.M. of the Houston Rockets.
China has a population of over one billion people and presents the NBA with tremendous growth opportunities outside of the confines of the USA. The NFL and MLB also have no presence in China which puts the NBA in a very unique position as they face no competition in a gigantic country with a rapidly growing middle-class. You can almost smell the dollar signs (or Yuan depending on how you want to look at it).
Since the Morey tweet, China has suspended the broadcast of the preseason games that were set to take place there. The games were still played, but they weren’t aired on any of the national t.v. channels which means there were no advertising dollars generated during those games.
Adam Silver very tepidly backed Morey’s tweet while also trying to curry favor with China and trying to avoid ruffling any more feathers. One man’s tweets might destroy billions of dollars in potential revenue and the NBA is scared. When Steve Kerr, who never shies away from offering his view on Trump or American politics, was asked about the situation in China, he declined to offer any opinion at all. Was he told by NBA executives to avoid speaking about the situation at all? It certainly could be a possibility.
During a Houston Rockets player press conference, James Harden and Russell Westbrook were asked what they thought of the situation by an international reporter, and before they could answer, a Rockets’ P.R. person chimed in and denied the question by saying, “James and Russell will only be answering questions related to basketball.”
The NBA is a large sports league. They generated close to $8 billion in revenue last year as opposed to the NFL, which did roughly $17 billion in 2018. Neither of these leagues come close to their true “master”, Nike, which did approximately $36 billion in revenue for the year of 2018. Nike sees China as a massive opportunity, and they did $1.68 billion in revenue in China during 2018. Nike without a doubt isn’t happy at all with the China situation and they want the NBA to correct course as quickly as possible here.
So while the NBA may seem like it’s the “player empowerment” league and the “cool free speech” league, they’re ultimately beholden to one thing, money and sponsors! So if the NBA’s money is threatened, and more importantly, if the money of the NBA’s overlord (Nike) is threatened, they may be willing to overlook some free speech or civil rights violations for the almighty dollar. As Wu Tang once said, “Cash rules everything around me, C.R.E.A.M, get the money, dollar dollar bill y’all.”