The NBA is one of the great marketing success stories when it comes to American brands in China, and the Houston Rockets have played no small part in that thanks to their signing of Yao Ming (pictured above) in 2002. But after enjoying Chinese fans’ affections for the best part of two decades now, the Rockets are currently the subject of considerable vitriol on Chinese social media platforms after General Manager Daryl Morey apparently tweeted his support for the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.
On Saturday, as protestors in HK pushed back against Carrie Lam’s face mask ban by taking to the streets once more, Morey posted an image with the words “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong” under his personal Twitter handle.
Although Twitter is blocked in China — and although Morey deleted his tweet shortly afterward — a screenshot of his message has been widely shared by Chinese state media outlets (somewhat ironically also spreading the original image on the country’s highly-policed social media platforms). The story quickly shot to the top of the “hot searches” list on search engine Baidu and certain swathes of Chinese social media seethed.
Coming at a time when tensions are running high over Hong Kong and when overt shows of party loyalty have dominated Chinese media coverage for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, to say Morey’s tweet has not gone down well would be something of an understatement.
“Sack him or no business,” reads one succinct comment that’s been heavily upvoted under Global Times’ reporting of the story on microblogging platform Weibo. Another of the most popular comments on the same post calls for Tencent – who recently renewed their big money deal to broadcast NBA games – to not show the Rockets in the upcoming season.
Sports commentator Yang Yi’s message that “you can’t eat China, then insult China” (“eat” here being akin to “grow fat off”) has also made headlines, in addition to going viral and becoming a new nationalism-rallying hashtag on Weibo.
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta quickly went into damage limitation mode, tweeting that the franchise is “NOT a political organization.”
But Fertitta’s response seems unlikely to be enough to calm the situation. While there have been numerous calls for an official apology, many are clamoring for the Rockets to go further. The highest-rated comment on the Global Times’ Weibo post reads: “If you’re not a political organization, then get rid of the elements who are political.”
Beyond some puerile online commentary in certain quarters, Morey’s tweet is starting to have repercussions for the Rockets in China. This afternoon the Chinese Basketball Association issued a terse statement via its official Weibo announcing that it was suspending all cooperation with the team in the wake of Morey’s “improper talk about Hong Kong.”
The CBA’s chairman, one Yao Ming, has yet to issue any public statement on the matter personally.
Update: The Rockets’ Chinese sponsors are jumping on the bandwagon by announcing that they’re cutting ties with the NBA team; these include sports brand Li-Ning and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank. Tencent has also acquiesced to the demands mentioned above by stating that it will effectively shut the Rockets out of its NBA coverage:
State broadcaster CCTV has also said it will no longer show Rockets games, and Alibaba’s ecommerce site Taobao has seemingly taken down Rockets-related merchandise with Chinese-language searches for “Rockets” and “Houston Rockets” on the platform returning no results.
And for good measure, the Chinese Consulate in Houston has issued an official statement condemning the tweet, posting to their website that, “We are deeply shocked by the erroneous comments on Hong Kong made by Mr. Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets. We have lodged representations and expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Houston Rockets, and urged the latter to correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact.”
Morey has since taken to Twitter to share some very carefully-worded thoughts:
And while Morley and the Rockets’ usually-active Weibo feeds have gone silent, the NBA has issued a statement via its official handle on the platform:
Yet the statement may just be the start of even more headaches for the league. The heaviest upvoted responses so far on the Weibo post generally accuse the NBA of putting out a poor excuse for an apology, with one asking whether they “dare to post on Instagram and Twitter that Hong Kong is part of China.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese translation of the statement has been questioned:
And numerous parties are lambasting the league’s decision to apologize at all — including presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke:
“‘We apologise. We love China,’ he said, standing alongside fellow Rockets guard Russell Westbrook.
‘We love playing there. Both of us, we go there once or twice a year. They show us most support so we appreciate them.’
It seems like this episode has some way to run just yet — especially as next week sees the annual NBA China Games (not involving the Rockets, perhaps fortuitously) coming to Shenzhen and Shanghai.