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Houston Rockets, NBA Face Backlash After Tweet Supporting Hong Kong Protesters


Now we're turning to a story of how the NBA has gotten wrapped up in global politics. The Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters. He quickly deleted this tweet, but the Rockets immediately faced backlash from China. The Rockets in the NBA have a huge following in that country, but public opinion in China is mostly against the protesters in Hong Kong. Ben Cohen, who covers sports for The Wall Street Journal, has been following this story and is on the line with us. Hi there, Ben.

BEN COHEN: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So I guess you'd sort of call this, like, an unforced turnover in basketball, when you don't mean to get your team or yourself into trouble, but you give the ball away. I mean, the league is really caught in a tough spot here.

COHEN: That's right. And I'm not really sure who is dunking on who here, to continue...

GREENE: (Laughter) To keep the metaphor going.

COHEN: ...The metaphor. That's right. It's - the league is in a really tricky spot because it depends on China for its business, like basically every global brand in the United States these days. And yet it is learning that when you play in China, you have to play by the rules or risk the consequences.

GREENE: Wow. So to what extent does the league depend on China? I mean, how important is financial support from fans and elsewhere in the country and how important is it to the NBA's brand?

COHEN: So the financial support is significant. They have a streaming deal with Tencent sport that's worth more than a billion dollars over the course of five years, which is not nothing for the league's bottom line. But the most interesting part about China is that it is central to the NBA's plans for international growth. And there is no American sports league with a future internationally as bright as the NBA's, which is part of the reason why valuations for teams have soared so much.

And there has been - you know, people are so bullish about the NBA's future because it is seen as one of the few American sports, if not the only American sport, with a real future abroad, and there is no country that has been more important to that international growth for the NBA than China.

GREENE: And has there already been financial backlash?

COHEN: Well, yes. CCTV has canceled some of their games. Tencent sports has suspended its broadcasts with the Rockets. And most interestingly, Rockets merchandise has basically disappeared on the top Japanese - the top Chinese e-commerce site overnight. It's almost as if the Rockets just never existed in the first place.

GREENE: Wow. And the Rockets in particular had a real fan base in China because of one of their players, Yao Ming, right?

COHEN: That's right. I mean, they are - they - for the last decade or so, they have been one of the most popular teams, if not the single biggest team, in the NBA. I mean, and we're talking about a really huge market here. There are 300 million basketball players in China, and the estimates are that roughly 500 million people watched a game in China last year. So, you know, this is not a small country. It is - as everyone who knows anything about China knows, it is central to the global economy, and it's really crucial for the NBA.

GREENE: And it sounds like this is not just a sports story; I mean, this is a story about an American corporation in any industry and how they respond to pressures from a regime that may be authoritarian, obviously.

COHEN: That's right. We've seen this with other American companies that are trying to operate in China, but for whatever reason - and it is probably because of the NBA's outsized stature and its profile - this seems to be the story that is really blowing up.

GREENE: Ben Cohen covers sports for The Wall Street Journal, joining us this morning. Ben, thanks a lot.

COHEN: Thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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