The game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets in Shanghai was supposed to be a celebration of the National Basketball Association’s decades-long foray into China. Instead, the U.S. league is fighting to contain a crisis.

When star players who’ve become household names in China -- including LeBron James and Kyrie Irving -- take to the court on Thursday evening local time, it will be under a shroud of controversy. The preseason matchup won’t be shown by Chinese broadcasters in a snub to the NBA, which is struggling to manage the fallout from an executive’s comments last week supporting Hong Kong’s anti-Beijing protesters.

The NBA, which has built a veritable empire with millions of fans in what is its second-biggest market, is facing a wave of backlash since the tweet by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey angered the government. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s defense of Morey’s right to free speech infuriated Beijing further.

The result: Names of Chinese sponsors have been chiseled out from the stadium floor in Shanghai where the game is scheduled to be held. Almost all the NBA’s local sponsors have pulled out, while banners promoting the game throughout the city have been removed. Chinese celebrities due to attend have canceled their appearances after denouncing Morey’s tweet. There won’t be any media conference for the game either.

The game -- the first of two in China -- won’t be televised in the country, but it’s supposed to be broadcast internationally, including on NBA TV in the U.S. As of Thursday afternoon in Shanghai, it was still scheduled to go ahead, potentially putting Commissioner Silver in the position of having to air a game with bare stands or angry fans. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 a.m. New York time.

“While it might seem pointless to play at this point, the NBA has too much invested in the market to abandon its plans,” said Paul Swangard, who teaches sport brand strategy at the University of Oregon. “Behind the curtain of government-led boycotts is a massive citizen fan base I believe will ultimately forgive the NBA because they don’t want their sports mixed with politics.”

International exhibition games like that planned for Thursday, and Saturday in the southern city of Shenzhen, are usually star-studded, feel-good affairs -- used by the league, its players and sponsors to build a bigger fan or customer base. The NBA has spent years cultivating international interest, especially in China, and is widely viewed as the most global of the major U.S. sports.

But things turned nasty late last week after Morey sent out his tweet. The Rockets, where China-born All-Star Yao Ming played his whole career, are especially beloved in the country.

Embedded Image
Yao Ming during FIBA World Cup 2019 in Beijing on Sept. 15. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images) 

The reaction from China was immediate. Both broadcasters with local rights to the Thursday and Saturday preseason games -- state-sponsored CCTV and Ten cent Holdings Ltd. -- backed out. The Chinese pro basketball league distanced itself from the Rockets, as did a number of the country’s biggest e-commerce sites. Chinese companies that sponsor the NBA and its China series walked away from their partnerships.

The league, meanwhile, postponed scheduled media sessions with players set for Wednesday in Shanghai.

While that created speculation the games might be called off, the league is moving forward as planned for now. NBA TV is scheduled to air the first game on U.S. pay-TV services from the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai. ESPN has the second in Shenzhen.

“There’s a lot of heat around this. This one goes beyond sports,” said Chris Bevilacqua, a New York-based media consultant. “From ESPN’s perspective, even if there’s no one in the building, this thing will have interest beyond the basketball fan.”

ESPN spokesman Chris LaPlaca said the number or lack of fans in the arena won’t change the network’s coverage. Tickets for the Shanghai game were selling for between 350 yuan ($49) to as much as 18,888 yuan Thursday on booking websites.

If fans do fail to show, it won’t be a first for a major sporting event. Soccer is sometimes played in empty stadiums if there are security concerns or if a team is being punished for the prior behavior of its fans.

In 2015, baseball’s Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox played an afternoon game with no fans because of concerns about civil unrest following the death of a young African-American man in police custody. The game was broadcast in both local markets and was offered free nationwide on MLB’s digital offering.

That said, the NBA is in uncharted waters this week. The furor over Morey’s tweet has mushroomed into a full-scale international crisis for the league. The most popular U.S. sport in China, pro basketball has been in damage control for days, trying to protect its multibillion-dollar business interests there and support Morey’s right to express his opinion.

Angry Fans

Many Chinese fans have expressed anger over Morey’s since-retracted tweet and against the league, which they believe failed to denounce his message. Other fans who still want to attend the games may choose to stay home because of the controversy.

President Donald Trump also weighed in Wednesday, targeting head coaches Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors and Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, both of whom have criticized him in the past. Kerr has declined to comment on the controversy, while Popovich defended Silver.

“The NBA, they know what they are doing,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “But I watched the way that Kerr and Popovich and some of the others were pandering to China and yet to our own country, it is like they do not respect it.”

The NBA’s China business is the product of decades of work expanding the game across the country. The NBA was the first U.S. league to televise games in China, the first to put an office in China, and the first to play games in China. Tencent, which has a five-year US$1.5 billion deal with the league, is the NBA’s largest partner outside the U.S.

The controversy, along with the appearance of major stars and the prospects of them potentially playing in a near-empty arena, should stoke viewer interest worldwide.

“People are going to tune in and see what happens not only during the game but before and after,” said Lee Berke, a media consultant. “It’ll attract more attention than it usually would.”