A Single Tweet Got An NBA Team Cancelled In China
One pro-Hong Kong message, posted and quickly deleted, has landed the Houston Rockets and the NBA in a world of trouble in China.
The Texas-based pro basketball team has been unwittingly injected into the firestorm currently raging between Chinese authorities and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, after a lone tweet from the squad's manager came to light.
It has led to the Rockets -- among the most popular NBA teams in China, thanks to former star Yao Ming -- being blasted, with the Chinese government and sporting associations distancing themselves from Houston, and asking for a 'please explain'.
It comes at a delicate time, with the NBA looking to further expand its commercial and broadcast reach into China, as the country comes under further international criticism over its response to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Protests have raged for months, first in response to a controversial extradition bill, and later expanding to general protests about China's rule over Hong Kong. The situation has intensified in recent days, after Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam invoked strict colonial-era emergency laws on Friday, including bans on face masks.
The furore was sparked after Daryl Morey, general manager of the Rockets, tweeted a graphic on Friday bearing the phrase "fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong".
Morey's tweet was quickly deleted after it attracted attention. The team's owner Tilman Fertitta soon tweeted in response that the manager "does NOT speak for the Houston Rockets" and the team is "NOT a political organization."
However, that was not enough, and the Rockets soon found themselves facing a financial headache. Sponsors from China soon yanked money from the team, Chinese media laid into the team with blistering editorial and news coverage, and Chinese TV pledged to ignore the team's games for broadcast.
Even the Chinese Basketball Association -- whose president is Yao Ming, one of Houston's best ever players -- joined the pile-on, suspending its ties with the team.
"General manager of Houston Rockets club Daryl Morey made incorrect comments about Hong Kong," the CBA said on social media.
"The Chinese Basketball Association is strongly opposed to this and will suspend communication and cooperation with the club."
Aussie basketball star Andrew Bogut, who himself came under fire in China for comments he made during the recent World Cup held there, tweeted tongue-in-cheek that Morey should "enjoy the next few weeks".
Bogut was booed by Chinese fans through much of the tournament.
The NBA has long been eyeing China as a centre for future growth, and further ties between the league and the Asian powerhouse will be extremely lucrative. Match broadcasts and online streaming, sponsorship and merchandise will be a huge financial boon to the NBA, as well as matches linked to China -- including games played there, or with Chinese teams playing NBA squads, such as when the Shanghai Sharks played Houston just last week.
On Monday, Morey attempted to apologise again, tweeting that it was "one thought" on a "complicated event", and that he did not mean "to cause any offence".
China's CCTV television broadcaster, and online streaming service Tencent, have announced they will not show Rockets games. It is developing into an embarrassing and damaging situation for the NBA, with a series of pre-season games slated to be played through Asia -- including in China -- in coming days.
The basketball league issued a statement of its own on Sunday, saying the situation was "regrettable".
"While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them," the statement issued by chief communications officer Mike Bass said.
"We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together."
It is unclear how advertisers and authorities will respond to the apologies.