Last year’s NBA Finals were back on the air in China. A handful of games (such as the All-Star Game) have appeared on state-run television, but primarily it’s been younger viewers streaming games in the world’s most populous nation.
That’s good business for the NBA, but the league’s relationship with China is “complicated,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski on his SiriusXM show “Basketball and Beyond with Coach K.” Those complications tie back to more than just the Daryl Morey Tweet on Hong Kong and reaction by China, the NBA is a business caught in the wash of the global trade and power conflicts between the two superpowers.
Here is how Silver described it:
“I’ll begin by saying, of course it’s complicated. And at the end of the day, we’re a U.S. company and we’re going to follow, you know, American policy towards China. And, you know, whether it was the Trump administration, the Biden administration, at least so far, they’ve still been encouraging trade.
“And, you know, ultimately we’re an export business. We export American basketball to China, and I would say what comes with it is American culture as well, and that, you know, my personal feeling is when I look at the mission of the NBA, which is to improve people’s lives through basketball, I think continuing to operate in China is completely consistent with our mission. To your point, putting aside how you define a fan, we have hundreds of millions of people in China who watch NBA basketball over the course of the year.”
“And I, you know, as a former political science major from Duke University, I’m still a believer in soft power. I think these cultural exchanges are critically important. I think it’s an opportunity through sports as you well know, having traveled the world, you know, for Duke and for USA Basketball and for Army, that it’s a way of building commonality among people through sports. Frankly, I’m pleased to hear that no one’s calling for a boycott right now. Not no one, but the administration is not calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, you know, coming up in two years. I think that, you know, especially when tensions are even higher as they are right now between us and China, you know, unless somehow we’re truly going to go our own way, which seems impossible in this interconnected world, that basketball, sports, culture, are an opportunity to bring people together.”
“So the relationship has gotten more complicated than it used to be. Certainly since we were there many years ago for I guess was the 2008 Olympics. But I also think frankly, the future of the world depends on these two superpowers, the U.S. and China figuring out a way to work with each other. It doesn’t mean we don’t speak up about what we see are, you know, things in China that are inconsistent with our values, you know, and that we don’t continue to support players’ ability to speak out on things that are important to them.
“But, you know, at least right now we continue to operate in China. Again, and, our games are not being shown right now on CCTV in China, but there’s a streaming service called Tencent that’s how people are seeing our games right now. And again, as I said, I think it’s something that still remains important culturally for us to continue doing.”
It’s good business for the NBA to be in China — part of the boom in NBA franchise rights is the potential for international growth for the league. Nowhere is that more true than China. The NBA has the best players, and it pushes them to play at a higher level than anywhere on the globe — the way soccer fans globally tune into the Premier League in England or La Liga in Spain to watch the best of the best, they tune into the NBA.
Culturally it is a somewhat different discussion, with some people pushing an “America First” protectionist ideology — favored by the Trump administration — and others pushing for more globalization. I think Silver finds the right balance here — the NBA does export American culture with its game, and that’s good for the league and the nation. The world and its global trade will never return to the more isolationist trends of the previous century, an ideal that was never close to as rosy as some wish to remember it. Corporations are now global, business is global, but balancing American interests with that is an open discussion our nation needs to have—one with no easy answers.
The NBA is part of that discussion, and Silver approached it with thought and nuance. That’s a good thing.
Silver and Krzyzewski also discuss the NBA’s bubble, COVID protocols and the 2020-21 season, the return of fans to arenas, and much more. To check out the full interview, look at SiriusXM for air dates and times, or download the podcast.