In the late 1980s, when the NBA began making inroads into China, the league sent CCTV NBA games on videotape and told the state-run TV station it could air games at no cost. By 1992, the league had opened an office in Hong Kong, and by 2004, the NBA was playing preseason games in China.
Today, the NBA has billion-dollar deals in China.
And its business relationships are in tumult after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sent a pro-Hong Kong tweet that offended China and ignited a geopolitical crisis between the league and the communist country. As commissioner Adam Silver has apologized while underlining the league's stance on free speech, CCTV has pulled the plug on showing the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers preseason games in Shanghai and Shenzhen.
At stake in the standoff: billions of dollars for both sides and a strong four-decade-long relationship that began with a Washington Bullets exhibition game in 1979. It is a relationship that has multiple layers including Chinese-related business partnerships with NBA players in the millions, a friendship with Basketball Hall of Famer and former NBA All-Star Yao Ming, who is the president of the Chinese Basketball Association and is a vital goodwill ambassador for the NBA in Asia, and millions of fans.
“If all of a sudden China decided it was no longer going to broadcast the NBA, clearly that would hurt CCTV and Tencent [an Internet conglomerate offering multiple e-services], but it would hurt the NBA more,” Syracuse University professor John Wolohan, who specializes in sports law and U.S.-China sports relations, told USA TODAY Sports. “If one of these sides is going to lose, it’s going to be the NBA.”
NBA revenue from China — and a conservative estimate puts that at $500 million annually based on deals that are publicly known — is part of basketball-related income which impacts the salary cap and how much money is available to players on an annual basis.