According to league sources, a single, seemingly innocuous tweet by an NBA general manager cost the league as much as $200 million.
The multi-million-dollar tweet, posted by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey on October 4, simply expressed solidarity with the protesters in Hong Kong pushing back against the invasive Chinese communist regime. “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” Morey tweeted. Those seven words sparked a massive controversy that the NBA struggled to contain for weeks and, according to newly reported data, appears to have cost the league nine figures.
In response to Morey’s brief tweet expressing solidarity with Hong Kong protesters, Tencent, the digital rights holder of the NBA in China, quickly announced that Morey was blacklisted and all streaming of the Rockets would be blacked out. The Chinese Basketball Association, meanwhile, issued a “strong condemnation” of the GM’s expression of support for the protesters. “We want to express our indignation and strong condemnation,” the statement read. “We have already stopped our cooperation with the Houston Rockets, and continue to urge them to give a clear answer on this matter.” The end result was more limited NBA coverage in China and fewer sponsorships, which, as ESPN reported Wednesday, has taken a toll on the league’s bottom line.
“China’s decision to pull sponsorships and television coverage because Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong in October is believed to have cost the NBA anywhere between $150 million and $200 million,” ESPN reported. Citing front-office executives with the league, ESPN reports that the loss of that China-driven revenue “has caused many teams to prepare for the possibility that the original 2020-21 cap projection of $116 million could drop as far as $113 million.”
The network, which has a major media deal with the NBA, predicted that the potential drop in revenue will likely not “significantly impact the deadline behavior of teams,” noting that “only seven teams are currently poised to have salary-cap space above the projected $9.8 million midlevel exception” and the less than “strong” free agent talent pool.
The fallout from the China-NBA free speech debacle hasn’t just been financial; the NBA’s reputation as a “progressive” league has likewise taken a hit.
Amid pressure, Morey quickly deleted the tweet, while the NBA issued a statement describing the post as having “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”
The NBA’s initial response sparked accusations that the league had “caved to Chinese censorship,” prompting NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to attempt to “clarify” the league’s stance, stating the league “will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues.” Morey, said Silver, has a right to “exercising his freedom of expression.”
But while the league scrambled to minimize the financial and reputational damage, it also made the notable decision to shut down press appearances for players before and after games in China. The decision came after a series of problematic responses from stars, including the Lakers’ LeBron James, whose ham-fisted statements inspired yet more blowback against the league.
In response to the situation, James chided Morey for expressing support for the pro-democracy demonstrators and painted the league as the true victims in the situation. “I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke,” James told reporters. “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, and spiritually. So, just be careful what we tweet and say and what we do even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, there can be a lot of negatives that comes with that too.”
LeBron James rips Daryl Morey, says Morey was uneducated. Says, “We do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negatives that come with that too.” Really. pic.twitter.com/ZTw6a3FZ5n
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) October 15, 2019
After intense backlash, James specifically named his team as victims in the mess. “My team and this league just went through a difficult week,” he tweeted. “I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it.”