The first game of the NBA’s Western Conference semifinals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets was banned in China.
On Friday, Tencent — China’s official NBA broadcasting partner — revealed that it would not air Game 1 due to the controversial tweet made by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey back in October of last year.
At the time, Morey tweeted out his support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong with a message reading “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” He would subsequently delete the tweet, but the damage was done.
China immediately blasted the position as unacceptable and threatened to cut all ties with the NBA. The two had developed an increasingly profitable relationship dating back to Yao Ming’s playing days, so the threat — and its impact on the bottom line — raised alarm among players, executives and owners alike.
LeBron James came out shortly after Morey posted his tweet and blasted the Rockets GM for essentially interfering with his business interests.
“I don’t want to get into a feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke,” he said at the time.
“And so many people could have been harmed not only financially, physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and say and we do, even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too.”
NBA ratings noticeably declined after last week’s stoppage. https://t.co/DzvGJoEOjh
— Game 7 (@game7__) September 2, 2020
Rockets games have been kept off Tencent and China Central Television (CCTV) ever since Morey’s remarks sparked international upheaval, but there was some optimism that perhaps the highly anticipated Lakers-Rockets series would air.
Both teams are immensely popular in the nation and James’ decision to toe the line in the face of China’s treatment of pro-democracy protesters seemingly put him in favor with the country’s decision makers.
Despite all that, Game 1 between the Lakers and Rockets did not air in China on Friday. The rest of the series will also be unavailable to fans in the country.
Back in June, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver revealed that he felt like the league was slowly repairing its relationship with China following the Morey debacle. Some estimates have the NBA losing up to $400 million in various revenue streams as a result of the kerfuffle, so simply cutting ties and moving on was obviously not an option for him.
If the relationship is in fact getting better, that improvement did not extend to arguably the most fascinating series currently going on in the NBA Playoffs. the Lakers were upset by Houston on Friday and now find themselves in a 0-1 hole. That will inevitably make the series even more of a must-see event, particularly if it goes six or seven games.
One NFL player has decided to honor a fallen police officer on his helmet next season. https://t.co/a87RpietTQ
— Game 7 (@game7__) September 3, 2020
Domestically, the NBA is suffering from a prolonged ratings decline that has been attributed to a variety of factors. The league’s strategy — up until Morey’s tweet took a sledgehammer to it — was to embrace international audiences and diversify its revenue base.
Obviously that game plan took a bit of a hit last October.
Once this season concludes and the next one begins, it will be worth keeping an eye on how the NBA’s relationship with China progresses.
If games return to air and the ill will subsides, then everyone will move on and forget anything ever happened. However, if the NBA’s bottom line keeps getting negatively impacted, something will need to be done to repair the relationship.