NBA games return to China screens but Houston Rockets not included

Live broadcasts of the National Basketball Association’s preseason games have resumed in China – except for matches with the Houston Rockets – as Beijing cools its rhetoric on a controversial tweet by the team’s general manager in support of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.

Tencent, the NBA’s exclusive digital partner in China, streamed two games live with commentators – Chicago Bulls vs Toronto Raptors and Maccabi Haifa vs Minnesota Timberwolves – on Monday morning after skipping live broadcasts of two exhibition games in China last week.

Games featuring the Houston Rockets, who are next on court on Wednesday, have been taken off the schedule. Tencent last week offered subscribers who chose the Houston Rockets as their preferred games to change to another team or be refunded.

Monday’s live broadcast came days after Tencent’s announcement that it would not broadcast two of the exhibition games in China, which took place last Thursday and Saturday, after league commissioner Adam Silver said the NBA supported Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s right to exercise free speech.

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Morey’s now-deleted tweet – which said: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” – prompted a backlash in Chinese media and online, while Silver’s remarks further offended fans on the mainland, the NBA’s biggest market outside the US.

Fans left angry comments at the NBA China account on social media platform Weibo and threatened to boycott the whole league unless there was an apology. The crisis prompted 12 of the NBA’s 25 sponsors in China to announce they were suspending cooperation with the league.

State broadcaster CCTV criticised Silver’s remarks, saying they “challenged the national sovereignty and stability and do not count as freedom of speech”, and announced it would not broadcast the two exhibition games and would also review its cooperation with the NBA.

China’s foreign ministry urged the league to “pay attention to ordinary people’s opinions” and suggested the league “knows very well what it should say and do next” after working with China for a long while.

Although the league has not issued an apology, Beijing appeared to be stepping down from its initial lashing of the league.

“Ending cooperation with the NBA does not have to become a kind of trend,” Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, said.

Although events leading up to the exhibition games were cancelled, matches between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets went ahead in Shanghai and Shenzhen and were met with enthusiastic and cheering fans.

The broadcast was taken by some as pouring water over patriotic fervour, with one Weibo user asking: “So the boycott is so easily dismissed? Are we still going to boycott anything and have a slap on the face?”

“I understand the reasoning but I can’t stop my emotions … I’d better stay quiet the next time something like this happens,” another Weibo user said.

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“There is nothing to be disappointed at. The authority said [the NBA] should pay attention to opinions of ordinary people and the ordinary people showed they wanted to watch the NBA,” said a third.

Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation, welcomed the decision to resume NBA broadcasts.

“It’s good the NBA can be broadcast again. We shouldn’t make decisions based on the voices of social media. We should see the big picture. A blanket boycott is not good for China’s image,” Wang said.

Tencent, which started the partnership with the NBA in 2009, expanded it to an exclusive streaming contract worth US$500 million for five years in 2015. It renewed the contract for US$1.5 billion through to 2025 earlier this year.

Some 490 million fans watched the NBA games via live broadcast and video programmes last season, three times the number for the 2014-15 season. More than 21 million fans watched the championship game last year, setting a record for single NBA game viewership on a streaming site, according to NBA China.

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