Chinese tech giant Tencent quietly live-streamed two NBA preseason games, a week after a controversy involving a tweet about the Hong Kong protests prompted all official Chinese sponsors of the league to suspend ties.
Tencent, on the morning of Oct. 14, streamed two games: one between the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls in Toronto, and another between Israel’s Maccabi Haifa and Minnesota Timberwolves in Minneapolis.
Just a week ago, the tech giant suspended broadcast of Houston Rockets’ games after the team’s general executive, Daryl Morey, expressed support for the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement in a tweet that was swiftly deleted.
The tweet ignited an uproar in China, where the ongoing protests are seen as a direct challenge to the mainland regime’s sovereignty. Houston Rockets’ and NBA’s Chinese business partners cut ties as a result, while the team’s sneakers and other merchandise were pulled from several Nike and NBA stores in major Chinese cities.
The NBA flagship retail store in Beijing, China, on Oct. 9, 2019. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Tencent later announced it would halt the broadcast of NBA preseason games that took place in China last week. China’s state broadcaster CCTV also pulled the broadcast of those games.
The internet giant has the exclusive rights to stream the NBA in China, and is the league’s largest digital partner outside the United States. The two had just signed a deal worth $1.5 billion in July, extending their partnership for another five years.
The current broadcast schedule on Tencent showed that all live-streaming of NBA games will resume on Oct. 23. Houston Rockets games weren’t on the schedule list.
About 490 million people watched last season’s NBA games on the Tencent platform, according to the NBA.
A man walks past an advertisement for scheduled exhibition games in China between the LA Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, at the National Basketball Association store in Beijing on Oct. 9, 2019. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)
When asked about the resumption of NBA streaming on Tencent, a foreign ministry spokesperson said at a press conference on Oct. 14 that they “generally do not comment on the business behaviors of companies,” but stressed that “sports exchange has played a positive role in China–U.S. relations and friendship.”
Tencent was blasted on China’s popular microblogging site Weibo for resuming streaming, with many nationalistic Chinese netizens decrying the move as an act of “betrayal.”
“Seems like the patriotism is short-lived,” a user wrote.
The move came amid efforts by the Chinese regime to reign in the crisis over concerns that its heated reaction against the NBA could harm its image abroad, The New York Times reported.
Meanwhile in the United States, the NBA faced mounting condemnation over its initial disavowal of Morey’s tweet. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver later defended Morey’s right to express his views on Hong Kong, adding that it isn’t up to the league to regulate what players, employees, and team owners say.
Ten bipartisan U.S. lawmakers wrote to Silver on Oct. 10 expressing concern over the NBA “equivocating” on free speech during the saga. They also urged the league to suspend its activities in China while the Chinese boycotts against the NBA and the Houston Rockets are still in place.
“Unless American businesses aggressively confront this intimidation campaign, the Chinese government will increasingly punish free speech outside China’s borders,” the joint letter (pdf) read.