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NBA debacle in China: Respect is foundation of any business

By David Lee | | Updated: 2019-10-11 15:57
The NBA logo seen on a phone screen. [Photo/IC]

During the Golden Week over the National Day holiday, I took a trip to Europe, which included a leg in the amazing fortified Old Town of Dubrovnik, Croatia. At the gate of the ancient fortified city, I was greeted by a big billboard at the city gate, saying "Respect the Old City".

Surely, people who walk on the city wall must respect it, and they must go in the same one-way direction, because most sections of the wall measure about one meter or so in width and you could imagine the havoc and danger there would be on the high walls if anyone attempts to go the other way against the traffic.

Respect is the keyword everywhere you go, and it would be even more important to respect if you are going to make money as a businessperson instead of spend money as a tourist.

About three decades ago, almost no one in China knew anything about the NBA. In 1986, the NBA sent a videotape to CCTV, a recording of the sixth match between the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics of the 1985 NBA finals. The tape arrived as a free gift. CCTV aired the game recording, marking the humble beginnings of a huge NBA business presence in China many years later.

In 1989, then NBA Commissioner David Joel Stern humbly arrived in China, now bringing with him additional NBA game footage and saying free video content can be provided if the Chinese colleagues would be interested in broadcasting the games.

This humble sincerity formally opened the door for the NBA to enter the world's biggest basketball market, now boasting about some 500 million fans watching the games. All throughout the process, respect had been the keyword, even when the NBA was not making money and even distributing content free of charge, and even when at that particular point of time China was fiercely criticized by the United States.

Time flies fast. Now the NBA broadcasting license is worth $100 million per year based on the current contract with Tencent Sports, one of China's leading online sports content streaming service providers. In the next five-year contracting period to start in 2020, the NBA broadcasting license is rumored to cost some $300 million per year.

Then came Daryl Morey's social media tweet: "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong." Since the days of Yao Ming playing in the NBA, Chinese fans have loved the Houston Rockets. The tweet quickly backfired as Chinese fans questioned its meaning.

Many Chinese fans will raise serious questions about the tweet by the Houston Rockets general manager: What's your fight when Asia's leading financial center – long known for its peace, order, and stability – is being ravaged by riots? Do you really stand with Hong Kong, or do you say it because you see there is division in Asia's financial center and stand with street violence, vandalism and rioting? Or, even worse, do you imply Hong Kong and China are opposed entities and you can stand for one and against the other?

Morey quickly deleted the tweet, but the damage has been done. To many Chinese fans, Morey's strategy is to patiently wait out for things to calm down.

The NBA's initial response called Morey's tweet "regrettable", but Commissioner Adam Silver would have to reassure the home base by stressing the support for "freedom of expression" and the willingness to "live with those consequences". Obviously, Silver is trying to be accommodating to both sides of the Pacific Ocean, but he holds onto the American "moral high ground", painting the NBA's image as a tragic hero or some sort ready to sacrifice material gains for ideals.

Where is the humble respect to court Chinese fans in the first place? Does the respect disappear because of the secured contract worth millions of dollars? Many American commentators are angry that the NBA is kowtowing to China because of big money. On the contrary, with the multi-year broadcasting license contract secured, the NBA has the upper hand, and is not the disadvantaged and bullied entity as painted by the American media.

The NBA is a big sporting business, and as such, like any other business, you have to respect the people with whom you are doing business. The NBA debacle has happened exactly because of the lack or loss of respect.

Respect demands more effort than lip service. First and foremost, respect demands an effort to understand the context and sensitivities. Morey has demonstrated to many Chinese fans a perceived ignorance of Westerners about China. Silver has seemed make an effort to understand, but far from enough. Self-righteousness shall never be the approach to address a crisis created by lack or loss of respect.

When you travel in a historical city, you read the billboard message calling for respect, and you see the signs on the ancient city walls stating one-way traffic, things are very clear – you have to respect and follow the routes. When engaging with a nation of 5,000 years of civilization and a complex recent history of dealing with Western powers since the 1800s, things are not so clear. Therefore, it is a must to learn and understand, and to waywardly test the boundaries is diehard silly.

I agree with Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta, who opined that Morey "does NOT speak for" the Rockets and that the Rockets "are NOT a political organization". Now the ball is in the NBA's court – to prove the Rockets and American basketball are not about politics and to earn back the respect and market of China.

The author is a Beijing-based consultant working on international development issues, covering public health, clean energy and poverty reduction.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

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