Evanson column: Welcome to NBA-Business 101
Sports are big business, that shouldn't be news to anyone. But while most have seen the light in recent decades as to the extent of the connection between money and the games we play, the proof of its existence has never been as clear as it is today.
This past weekend, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for the protesters in Hong Kong, posting the following tweet on his Twitter account: "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong." A firestorm resulted and dignitaries ranging from NBA owners to Chinese and American politicians have spoken out.
Morey has since "clarified" his stance, Houston Rockets owner Tillman Fertita and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver tried quickly to huff and puff and blow the fire down, and United States senators — Republicans and Democrats alike — simultaneously chastised the league for pandering to what has historically been a highly oppressive Chinese regime. But while the murky waters of the controversy continue as the result of Morey's 40-character protest, what couldn't be any clearer is the increasingly complex relationship the western world has with what they see as an economic Garden of Eden.
But even Eden had its share of problems.
The NBA makes a lot of money off the Chinese. They televise games, buy shoes and other merchandise and even house NBA offices in both Beijing and Shanghai. Since Morey's tweet, the fallout has been both swift and severe, with at least one Chinese sporting goods company saying it was no longer cooperating with the Rockets and Tencent Sports, a major media company with NBA broadcast rights in China, saying they would not cover the team. In addition, the Chinese Basketball Association, which is governed by former Houston Rockets player Yao Ming, is suspending its ties with the Rockets in retaliation for Morey's tweet.
Twenty years ago this wouldn't have been a problem. Never mind that Twitter and the rest of the social media world failed to exist, but prior to the turn of the century, things were still moving at a proverbial snail's pace. In 1978, the Chinese initiated what came to be known as its Open Door Policy, which opened up the country to foreign business. While it was at that point companies began dipping their toe into China in the form of mass production facilities, it wasn't until two or even three decades later that the country reached its full potential, overtaking the United States to became the world's biggest trading nation in goods with total imports/exports valued at US $4.16 trillion annually. That's a lot of coin — in any currency — and a slice of pie no business wants to turn its back on, including the NBA.
The difficult part is the basketball association's recent stance on social issues ranging from racisim to discrimination regarding sexuality, and most recently police brutality, while wrapping their players in a warm blanket of support in the wake of the Colin Kaepernick controversy.
The NBA took the all-star game from Charlotte in 2017 after legislation passed that allowed for discrimination against the LGBTQ community, including transgender individuals. The law was later rescinded and the game returned last season.
The league also forced Los Angeles Clippers longtime owner Donald Sterling to sell the franchise in 2014 in the wake of a scandal involving the owner, his girlfriend and an audio tape of him making disparaging remarks in reference to African-Americans.
And most recently, the league has gone out of its way to side on behalf of the players regarding their feelings relative to the social climate du jour, even suggesting that franchise owners no longer be referred to as "owners," but rather governors as a result of some players' feelings regarding connotation involved with the word.
All fine and within their rights to do so, like it or not. But now, with Morey's words, the backlash which has ensued and the billions of dollars on the line, the NBA finds itself in the unenvious position of having to choose between the civil liberties they've aligned themselves with in the past and the money they stand to lose if they continue to walk that now much more difficult line.
It was easy to run from Charlotte, and even easier to run from Sterling, whose not-so-closet racism was for years the elephant in the room. But to chest-up to China and the roughly billion potential customers, in the interests of right and wrong, is where the rubber meets the road for a league that's prided itself in being ahead of the curve.
The NBA's been talking the talk — now it's time to see if they'll walk it.
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