N.B.A. Basketball Returns to Chinese TV After a Long Absence

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China Central Television, China’s state-run TV network, has begun to broadcast N.B.A. games again, signaling that the rift between the league and the authoritarian government that has persisted since 2019 appears to be coming to an end.

The news was first reported by Global Times, a state-run Chinese media outlet, and confirmed by a spokesman for the N.B.A.

The first game this year on state TV, according to Global Times, was Tuesday night’s matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Utah Jazz. According to Global Times, the broadcast was the start of a full return of the N.B.A. to China’s airwaves. The league has been almost entirely off the air on Chinese state television since 2019, except for a lone finals game in 2020. Games have been broadcasting on Tencent, a digital streaming platform based in China.

“N.B.A. games have aired in China continuously for nearly 35 years, including this season on a number of other services,” Mike Bass, an N.B.A. spokesman, said in a statement on Thursday. “We believe broadcasting games to our fans in China and more than 200 other countries and territories is consistent with our mission to inspire and connect people everywhere through the game of basketball.”

The league said it was informed on the day the game was played that it would be broadcast.

The dispute between China and the N.B.A. began in the fall of 2019, when Daryl Morey, then an executive with the Houston Rockets, shared an image supportive of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. He posted it just as the Los Angeles Lakers and the Nets were getting set to play a preseason game in China. The social media post angered the Chinese government, causing games to be pulled off the air and Chinese companies to pull sponsorships from the league.

The league came under withering criticism at home from politicians all across the ideological spectrum because of what some saw as its deference to China. Morey later issued a statement saying he did not intend to cause offense and he was also rebuked by the owner of the Rockets, Tilman Fertitta. The league issued a statement that said it was “regrettable” that Morey’s post had offended many of the N.B.A.’s “friends and fans” in China. A Chinese translation of the N.B.A.’s statement suggested that the league was apologizing to the Chinese government, further feeding domestic criticism that the N.B.A.’s response was not forceful enough in standing behind Morey.

“We have always supported and will continue to support members of the N.B.A. family expressing their views on social and political issues,” Bass said in his statement on Thursday.

Since Morey’s post, the N.B.A. has often become a target for criticism, particularly from elected Republicans who have assailed the league’s willingness to make money off a repressive government accused of a litany of human rights violations.

It wasn’t just the response to Morey that invited detractors. In 2020, ESPN reported that there was rampant abuse of children at basketball academies in Chinese-government-run facilities co-sponsored by the N.B.A. A league spokesman recently said that the league was no longer affiliated with those academies.

The broadcasting of N.B.A. games on Chinese television opens up a revenue stream of hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the league. The league’s relationship with China came under more scrutiny in recent months as Enes Kanter Freedom, an N.B.A. center most recently with the Boston Celtics, criticized the Chinese government and the league for its business interests in the country. Freedom was traded by the Celtics to the Rockets, who cut him in February.

Kristen Looney, an assistant professor of Chinese politics at Georgetown, said in an interview that the Chinese government’s decision may be a result of enough time passing or a larger geopolitical calculation.

“It could mean that enough time has passed that things have kind of blown over,” Looney said. “From a macro perspective, it could mean that China is trying to signal that it still wants to maintain good economic relations with the United States despite differences in opinion on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. It’s possible that China is fearful that its close relationship with Russia would have ripple effects on its economic relations with the United States and the rest of the Western world that is on the side of Ukraine.”

The N.B.A. has targeted China — and its population of 1.4 billion — for roughly a half-century. China now has more fans of the league than there are in the United States, a country of 330 million. Before the pandemic, the N.B.A.’s top stars routinely traveled to the country between seasons to promote sneakers. Since 2004, the N.B.A. has played dozens of games there.

Adam Silver, the N.B.A.’s commissioner, has steadfastly maintained the N.B.A.’s position on China, despite the critics. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Silver said he believed the league was being unfairly singled out for criticism given how many companies in the United States do business with China.

“Virtually every American uses products manufactured in China,” Silver said. “And in many cases, they are the products that we are most reliant on. Our computers, our phones, our clothes. Our shoes, our kids’ toys. So then the question becomes why is the N.B.A. being singled out as the one company that should now boycott China?”


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