China’s state broadcaster blacked out the first two days of the NBA’s new season and Tencent did not stream the majority of the games live, as the league continues to face off with the Communist government over free speech.
The NBA has been at odds with Chinese sponsors, networks and fans in its most critical foreign market – where it conducts $4 billion in business, some estimate – in the wake of a tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey earlier this month in support of the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Both CCTV, the NBA’s exclusive broadcast partner, and Tencent, its exclusive streaming partner, canceled broadcasts of two pre-season games played in China in retaliation, while Chinese sponsors like smartphone maker Vivo and sportswear firm ANTA Sports have fled the league.
The backlash has now spilled over into the regular season. Tuesday night’s games – one between the Toronto Raptors and the New Orleans Pelicans, another between L.A.’s Clippers and Lakers – were not shown on CCTV, nor were any of Wednesday night’s 11 matches. In past years, sports channel CCTV-5 has typically broadcast all games live. (Evening games air the morning of the next day in China due to time differences.)
While Tencent did stream NBA content, six out of the 11 matches appeared only as an image-less score on their platform in real time, with video feeds of the actual games uploaded hours after they’d finished, Chinese culture-watching website RADII noted. Those that were streamed live did so under strictly monitored conditions, with a several-minute delay and cutaways to static images during game play. Unlike in years past, the option of selecting English-language commentary from the NBA’s official TV stream was not available to viewers.
Tencent has also removed the Houston Rockets’ Thursday night season debut from its list of scheduled games. The team was formerly one of China’s most beloved, thanks to retired Chinese star Yao Ming.
At the Tuesday night opening games in both Toronto and Los Angeles, pro-Hong Kong activists handed out T-shirts with political slogans to fans entering the stadiums. Activists in California crowdfunded about 10,000 shirts printed with Morey’s tweet, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” to distribute outside of Staples Center.
Like all Chinese tech firms, Tencent is responsible for censoring its content to meet official standards. Live broadcasts pose a problem, as the camera and microphones could at any moment encounter images or audio of political points of view condemned by Beijing.
“Even if Tencent Sports wanted to continue streaming the NBA games, if they really did live-stream an image of a bunch of fans wearing the T-shirts, they’d be strictly ordered to stop,” a sports commentary on Weibo explained.
But even though many Chinese fans remain incensed that the league hasn’t delivered what they deem a sufficient apology for Morey’s tweet, it didn’t stop them from tuning in in record-breaking numbers to watch the Clippers beat the Lakers. Tencent Sport said that 25 million people tuned in, which is more than the 21 million fans that NBA China has previously said watched the most live-streamed game of all time, last year’s penultimate championship series game between the Raptors and Golden State Warriors.
There were, however, notably no sponsors or brands present on the normally ad-covered tables of Tencent’s sports commentators.
As a more market-driven company than state-backed CCTV, Tencent has to consider its shareholders and actual financial concerns, former ESPN reporter Yuan Fang told the South China Morning Post. “Every NBA game that doesn’t get streamed is money lost for the company,” he said, adding that the company is now “testing the water to see if fans still want to watch and see how the public reacts.”
Tencent renewed its reportedly $1.5 billion contract as the league’s exclusive streaming partner for the next five years in July. It says that last season, more than 490 million viewers watched the games on its platform – more people than the entire population of the U.S.
Despite the big viewership, the company has been hit with flak online from vocal nationalist critics who say that love of country should come before love of a sport. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said last week that Chinese authorities had demanded that he fire Morey over his tweet. Beijing denied this.
Star player, Shaquille O’Neal waded into the controversy Tuesday, declaring that “Daryl Morey was right.”
“Whenever you see something wrong going on anywhere in the world, you should have the right to say, ‘That’s not right,’ and that’s what he did,” O’Neal said. “We as American people do a lot of business in China. They know and understand our values, and we understand their values. And one of our best values here in America is free speech.”