Now that last week’s roiling spat between the Chinese government and the NBA has mostly cooled, the global-sports-industrial complex is back to business as usual. Pre-season NBA games were held in China on Thursday and Saturday and everything went off relatively smoothly (with only a few minor hitches), and the Chinese government has also reportedly tamped down on its rhetoric against the NBA. One thing that remains to be seen, however, is what is to become of ESPN insider Adrian Wojnarowski’s Chinese basketball show, Woj in the House.
Update (2:15 p.m. ET): A source with knowledge of the situation, who requested anonymity because they work in the industry, confirms Tencent has told ESPN that it will no longer broadcast Woj in the House.
Update (Tuesday 9:30 a.m. ET): Deadspin spoke to another source with extensive knowledge of Tencent and Woj in the House. The source, who requested anonymity to protect their job, said the show is not “officially” canceled but that the future production of the show is still being discussed, given the complexity of the situation. ESPN has not responded to yet another request for comment.
The bi-weekly show, which is broadcast by Chinese internet company Tencent in partnership with ESPN, launched in January. It is “the most watched basketball show in the world” according to Wojnarowski’s ESPN bio, but that popularity may be under threat due to the fact that Wojnarowski pissed off a lot of Chinese fans and at least one important business by “liking” Daryl Morey’s now infamous pro-Hong Kong tweet before it was deleted.
ESPN’s biggest NBA news breaker appearing to support Morey’s tweet, which said “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” barely registered in the United States (only The Big Lead covered the “like,” reporting that Wojnarowski was subsequently hounded by “hordes of accounts” expressing their support for the Chinese government), but in China, Wojnarowski’s decision to like the tweet was a hot topic of conversation across social media.
Particularly bothered was Yuan Fang, a former ESPN NBA reporter and founder of Fountainhead Sports, a sports marketing company in Beijing. According to Fang’s LinkedIn profile, he worked for ESPN up until this year, where he worked “with both Tencent’s studio and editorial team and ESPN to plan the right daily mix of content that will resonate with users in the China market.”
In a post on Weibo (with a screenshot posted on Hupu, a Chinese social media forum dedicated to sports), Yuan Fang wrote a long missive about Morey’s tweet and the fact that Wojnarowski had liked it. Posted on Oct. 5, one day after Morey wrote and deleted the tweet, Yuan Fang expressed sadness and anger over the tweet before revealing that he used to personally manage Morey’s Weibo account and helped Wojnarowski develop his show with Tencent:
Last night I had a meeting with Americans and didn’t get to sleep until 4 or 5 in the morning. Right after I woke up, I saw Morey’s tweet and that Woj had liked it and felt really sorry and angry! Morey writes his own tweets and I have no doubt Woj is responsible for his own twitter as well. I am quite familiar with both of these men, especially Morey; from the summer of 2015 until early 2019, I managed Morey’s Chinese-language Weibo and posted all of his content including text, pictures, comments, answers etc. He would email all of this content to me. He was quite clear on what he could and could not say and was always very cautious. Furthermore, after Woj joined ESPN and became my colleague we started working together to develop a show for the Chinese market. Although after the show officially went online I no longer had anything to do with it, I was always quite clear as to the nature of his personality. These two men are the absolute cream of the crop of American society. Because they have been in the sports world for so long, they have a huge amount of influence. Thanks to the nature of their jobs they have developed extremely meticulous and cautious work habits. They know that there are certain things they could say that could hugely impact operations and have a disastrous impact on their career. Therefore, if I start to hear explanations like “I was hacked”; “I liked that by accident”; “That’s not what I meant by that” etc. I will absolutely not believe them.
As someone who worked in America for 10 years, including 3 years at ESPN, I can say with certainty to you all that there are quite a lot of people in America – people from the elite — who have the same views as Morey and Woj. However, they don’t express these views because America has a very stringent culture of political correctness. Any opinions you express about black people, minorities, women etc. can have very serious consequences. Although some people like to brag about America’s freedom of speech, there’s a lot of topics that are actually quite tightly censored – if you say one thing that goes against the politically correct line, you will immediately lose your job and be scorned by the entire population. In fact, freedom of speech has never been about saying whatever you want. Speech has always had to comply with the country’s laws, culture and customs. Therefore, although so many Americans are taught from a young age that Taiwan is its own country, that Hong Kong, Macau and Tibet should split off, there’s a certain group of Americans – especially very high-class ones who do business with China – who won’t say these things, express these things, tweet these things, “like” these things because they maintain a modicum of respect for China and they are not willing to complicated matters and lose business for the sake of things that have nothing to do with them.
In America, individual rights and values are accorded with great importance, but it’s also true that individuals have a very tight relationship with their workplace, and the views of individuals represent the views of their workplace – especially those very high profile individuals. When it comes to large international organizations like the NBA, the Rockets, ESPN etc, there are very stringent internal requirements and regulations regarding what employees can and can not say externally. In the age of social media, any “like” can represent an individual and their company. In the event an individual exhibits problems, the company should absolutely stand up to express the company’s position, and then punish that individual accordingly.
I reckon the Rockets’ boss never thought Morey would suddenly come out with a statement like this. And aside from the China department, I don’t ESPN would ever have found this to be a problem.
The reason Morey invests his own money hiring a company to manage his Weibo is not for the sake of the Rockets, but so that he can raise his own profile in China. Every month, he pays more than a 1000 US dollars to Mailman [Shanghai sports media localization company] to manage his Weibo. Woj, meanwhile, has since last year been hosting the Chinese market-facing program “Woj in the House.” Woj and ESPN very much hope that can leverage Woj’s strong personal brand to open up new market opportunities in China and make even more money, to the extent they are considering applying to trademark this four character phrase [wo shen lai le 沃神来了; Chinese name for the show. WoShen 沃神 is Wojnarowski’s Chinese name; literally means something like “Wo God”]
As for the Rockets and ESPN (Woj’s employer, these are both outstanding examples of sports companies that make money in China. The Rockets, after all are the NBA’s “China team.” Countless Chinese sponsors bring them millions of US dollars in sponsorship money every year; after so many years I can’t how much money they’ve made. ESPN, meanwhile, has over the past four years reaped a stable income from the Chinese market, at least 15 million US dollars. Of course, Teacher Yang [Yang Yi, famous Chinese basketball commentator] has already pointed this out.
If you want to become even more popular, make even more money – no problem. But if you have to understand that China is not a country of moneyed idiots. You have to understand, in this world, there is only one China.
ESPN flacks Ben Cafardo and Josh Krulewitz ignored multiple questions about Wojnarowski, if he was going to face consequences for liking Morey’s tweet, or if the status of Woj in the House was under threat as a result. Yuan Fang initially agreed to speak to Deadspin, but was unable to get in touch. Wojnarowski forwarded Deadspin’s questions to ESPN PR. Last week, Deadspin reported on an internal ESPN memo that directed shows and talent to avoid any mention of Chinese politics in discussions about Morey’s tweet. The backlash to Wojnarowski merely “liking” Morey’s tweet is the sort of backlash the company was probably hoping to avoid when it sent that memo.
The most recent episode of Woj in the House that is available online is from Sept. 2, 2019, which was the first of the show’s second season, according to ESPN editor Kevin Wang. At least one other episode aired after that, per Wang’s Instagram.
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