Chinese NBA fans choose to stand with country amid Morey spat

By Shan Jie and Zhang Dan in Beijing and Chen Shasha in Shanghai Source:Global Times Published: 2019/10/10 19:04:26

Workers tear down a poster promoting NBA pre-season games scheduled in Shanghai on Wednesday, after tension between the league and Chinese society triggered by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's tweet in support of the Hong Kong rioters escalated. Photo: Yang Hui/GT

NBA has been promoting itself in China for several decades, building a large group of Chinese fans

With Daryl Morey's irresponsible post and the league's reaction, NBA could lose the Chinese market and suffer great losses

Despite huge popularity of NBA, Chinese fans choose to stand with the country on the issue

Lin Yiqian, 25, still remembers his excitement when he watched NBA as a teenager.

"When dozens of teenagers, both boys and girls, squeezed together on a big sofa in a room of three square meters, the excitement brought by the 'wow' moments from NBA players were very enjoyable and impressive," Lin told the Global Times on Wednesday. 

Like many youths in China, Lin became an NBA fan in elementary school. For him, NBA is more than just basketball. It taught him the spirit of never giving up and had influenced his study and life. 

However, all those fond memories came to a sudden end in the past week.

A self-righteous post by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey on Twitter about Hong Kong has had a butterfly effect. In only five days, the NBA and its Chinese fans have been torn apart.

Morey's irresponsible comment, followed by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's backing of his "rights," was something China would not stand for.

For many Chinese people, Michael Jordan and his invincible Chicago Bulls were their first memory of basketball, together with Slam Dunk, the Japanese animated film.

In 2002, China's Yao Ming was chosen as the No.1 pick by the Houston Rockets at the age of 22. With Yao, NBA suddenly became a part of Chinese people's daily lives. 

In the following decade, dozens of Chinese companies joined the NBA bandwagon. Turning on their televisions in the morning, people could get immediate access to the hottest NBA games easily on China Central Television's sports channel.

Many Chinese people born in the 1980s and 1990s grew up watching Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Bryant's retirement in 2016 even resulted in a massive wave of tributes for him on Chinese social media.

But the situation may have irrevocably changed.

Chinese partners and companies began to cut their cooperation with the NBA. The long list includes CCTV, Li-Ning, PEAK and Vivo.

On its official Sina Weibo, CCTV Sport warned Silver: "Do not intentionally confuse national sovereignty and free speech."

Activities related to an NBA game in Shanghai between Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets this week have been called off.

"Our attitude is very clear. Morey must pay the price of his words. If not, there will be thousands of Morey's. If we cannot watch NBA live anymore, that's OK," Lin said. 

Chinese fans of NBA wait for NBA players at The Ritz-Carlton Shanghai on Wednesday. Photo: Yang Hui/GT

Disappointed fans

Li Yanzhong, 28, on Wednesday afternoon stood outside the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Pudong. The building is a part of Shanghai's most iconic skyline.

He was among 100 or so fans wearing jerseys or holding Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets posters.

The Shanghai resident, who works in the medical industry, told the Global Times that for the past decade, LeBron James has been his idol. 

He said that LeBron helping the Cleveland Knights become NBA champions was one of the best memories of his life. "June 20, 2016, I will never forget the day," he told the Global Times.

Li insisted that Silver has to apologize. "I want to see NBA in the Chinese market and want to support my team, but I stand with my country first."

A fan meeting activity had been planned for that afternoon, but was canceled due to the deteriorating situation. While Li was waiting, a scheduled press conference was postponed.

A fan of Kyrie Irving, surnamed Huang, told the Global Times that he had travelled from Suzhou, East China's Jiangsu Province to Shanghai to meet his idol of 10 years.

He felt sorry that the fans' meeting activity was canceled, and had wanted to see Irving, so he waited outside the teams' hotel with many other fans.

After that, he had to go back to Suzhou as he had not managed to get a ticket for the game on Thursday.

Talking about Morey and Silver, Huang said, "What they said hurt Chinese fans' hearts. They should first learn about what is happening in Hong Kong."

"Even though I am a fan, I am Chinese first," he said.

Chinese fans of NBA and reporters wait for NBA players at The Ritz-Carlton Shanghai on Wednesday. Photo: Yang Hui/GT

Fond memories

NBA's first attempt to enter the China market began as early as 1979, when the Washington Bullets became the first professional US sports team invited to China and played two games with the Chinese national basketball team.

In the early 1990s, NBA Commissioner David Stern made great efforts to promote the NBA in East Asia, especially in China. 

According to Stern, in 1989 he waited several hours to meet Li Zhuang, a CCTV employee in charge of importing programs. They made an agreement under which the NBA regularly provided game tapes for free to CCTV. Stern was certain that promotion in China was very important to NBA's overall development, ESPN reported.

Before Yao, another Chinese iconic player, Wang Zhizhi, signed with the Dallas Mavericks in 1999.

In the first year Yao joined the Rockets, Beijing-based Yanjing Beer sponsored the team to the tune of $6 million, according to news website Shanghai Observer.

The NBA has played an important role for many teenagers born in the 1980s and 1990s in China. 

Lin recalled that during middle school, even if they only had a 10-minute break, his classmates would search for games on the only computer in the classroom to watch the NBA finals. 

When the Houston Rockets made modern NBA history by achieving a 22-game winning streak in the 2007-08 season, he kept refreshing the webpage on his mobile phone at midnight. 

Lin told the Global Times he felt grateful for the role the NBA played as he grew up: "My English was so poor when I started my junior study. After I watched NBA games and played the English version of a game called NBA2K, I was motivated to study English hard." English finally gave Lin a ticket to college without taking the national college entrance examination. 

Even today, he keeps the NBA's slogan as a guide in life: "Where amazing happens."

What angered Chinese fans most is the topic of Chinese territory that Morey touched on. In Lin's words, Morey "knowingly" posted the tweet and must have known what consequences his words would bring. 

Discussing the updates in a social media group made up of loyal and professional fans of the Houston Rockets, Lin said many people believed Morey's action was influenced by somebody else and must be related to his personal profits. 

Li Yude, a die-hard fan of the Houston Rockets, told the Global Times that the team has enjoyed lots of benefits from Chinese fans.

"I flew from Beijing to Houston just to watch an NBA game and I saw large posters with words in Chinese. You could tell that Chinese fans can drive local employment and tourism in the city." He told the Global Times, adding that the journey costs between 12,000 and 20,000 yuan ($1,687 to $2,811) for a Chinese fan.

Important market

So far, the number of followers of the NBA official account on China's Twitter-like Weibo reached 41.78 million. 

In 2008, HoopsVibe ranked China as the NBA's largest overseas market, ahead of Europe, India and Brazil. China News Service indicated that the NBA's annual net profits were about $1.8 billion, and China contributed as much as $200 million, accounting for 10 percent.

In the 2017/18 season, the views of NBA games reached more than 600 million, according to the official Chinese website of the NBA. A regular-season game in the 2018/19 season in China could attract 7 million viewers on average, but only 3.8 million in the US, said the Shanghai Observer.

In July, China's tech giant Tencent reportedly extended its $1.5 billion contract with the NBA to rebroadcast games for five years. It has now decided to suspend its rebroadcast schedule. 

Because of Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets is often considered a home team by Chinese NBA fans. However, the Shanghai Observer said that by losing the Chinese market, they would suffer losses of 400 million yuan ($56 million) annually.

If the NBA lost the Chinese market, each team could lose about $20 million in operating income, and each player get a 20 percent pay cut, Jiemian news reported.


Newspaper headline: Off court controversy


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