When Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protesters in October, the relationship with China that the NBA worked so hard to build over the last decade fell apart almost instantaneously.
Nearly five months after the incident, relations between the two parties haven’t seemed to improve much. Chinese state broadcaster CCTV has yet to resume airing NBA games, and many of the NBA’s Chinese sponsors are still hesitant to pick up ties with the league. Tech giant Tencent’s video arm is currently the only organization offering limited access NBA streams in mainland China, but many die-hard NBA fans have been disappointed by their inconsistent service through the first half of the regular season.
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However, there are now bigger fish to fry. China’s battle against the Covid-19 virus may have provided an opening for the NBA to begin mending its broken relationship with the government and disgruntled Chinese fans. The NBA provided financial assistance to Hubei province and the city of Wuhan where the epidemic first broke out, and seems committed to joining the fight against the virus. The New York Times reports that in an email statement to them, NBA commissioner Adam Silver wrote,
Right now, our focus is on working with global health organizations to provide whatever assistance we can to the people of China in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
While the NBA appears committed to mending the relationship out of altruism, it is still at its core, a business. In his state of the league press conference at the 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend, Silver took time to address pain points and potential for NBA-China relations. He admitted that the NBA is set to lose “hundreds of millions of dollars” from lost airtime, sponsorships and fan revenue. But, he was adamant that there was no permanent damage to the NBA’s operations in China, and that “everything should return to normal sooner rather than later.”
It’s unsurprising that he would strike an optimistic note, but Chinese social media chatter about the All-Star Weekend — which this year saw similar numbers discussing the related hashtags on Weibo as last year — to some extent supports this sentiment.
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As China works to contain the outbreak, the future of basketball in the country remains uncertain. The NBA has discussed hosting more preseason and exhibition games in China in the lead up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but growing fears of a global pandemic could ultimately thwart those efforts. Nevertheless, China’s huge NBA fanbase remains vigilant, hoping for the league’s success in repairing the relationship — and one day making it back to CCTV.
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