The backlash in China to a tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey supporting Hong Kong protesters has accelerated over the weekend, now to include formal consequences. The Rockets, long one of the most popular NBA teams in China, are now seeing their foothold in the country swiftly eroded and destabilized, and they appear headed for a possible blackout.
Morey posted a tweet Friday night that said, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta sort of clumsily tried to distance his team from Morey’s tweet later that night, and Morey deleted it overnight, but the damage has apparently been done. Sunday the Chinese Basketball Association announced that it was suspending cooperation with the Rockets organization, as a reaction to Morey’s comments. Tencent Holdings, the massive Chinese conglomerate that operates as the “exclusive official digital partner of the NBA in China,” announced that it will indefinitely suspend media coverage of anything related to Morey, and is reportedly offering a “switch home teams” option for fans who purchased a Rockets single team plan on China’s version of NBA League Pass. Yu Fu, a former Rockets reporter for Tencent, says at least one Chinese business has suspended a sponsorship arrangement with the Rockets.
Tencent’s refusal to cover anything related to Morey and the move to facilitate a viewership exodus suggest that a blackout could be on the horizon. Even without a blackout, this is a dramatic turn of events for the Rockets, who’ve been one of the most popular teams in China since the ascension of Hall of Fame center Yao Ming, who was drafted by Houston in 2002 and quickly became one of the best at his position in the league. Yao is now an executive with the CBA, which this morning all but gave the finger to the Rockets and cut off an important link between the franchise and its Chinese fans. According to a study released just last month, the Rockets were the second-most popular NBA team in China, as measured by online engagement, behind the Golden State Warriors.
Fertitta told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon that he’s still committed to Morey, who has been one of the NBA’s best and most successful personnel honchos for more than a decade:
“I have the best general manager in the league,” Fertitta said. “Everything is fine with Daryl and me. We got a huge backlash, and I wanted to make clear that the organization has no political position. We’re here to play basketball and not to offend anybody.”
The fact that Morey even needs a vote of confidence from his owner over a single tweet demonstrates both the outsized importance of China as a growth opportunity for the NBA, and the power that the Chinese government wields to kneecap a team or even an entire league over something as benign as a relatively innocent endorsement of civil liberties, from a non-political figure based in the other hemisphere. It’s also a reminder that all that extraordinary authoritarian power, and its misuse and overuse, is exactly the substance of the protests in Hong Kong, as well as a reminder that placating that government in the interests of expanding a business opportunity is an inherently political act. It just happens to express the opposite position from that taken by Morey.
UPDATE: It appears the blackout may be underway: