On the eve of the current NBA playoffs, the league’s games returned to state-run TV in China after a nearly three-year ban. It was a quiet return, with nary a word from New York or Beijing trumpeting the apparent end of a bitter conflict.
NBA owners had remained largely silent throughout the ban, even as the league worked behind the scenes to repair a ruptured relationship that had cost hundreds of millions of dollars and laid bare the complexities of doing business with an authoritarian regime.
The owners had reason to stay quiet: In addition to the money their teams derive from the NBA’s $5 billion business in China, many have significant personal stakes there through their other businesses.
ESPN examined the investments of 40 principal owners and found that they collectively have more than $10 billion tied up in China — including one owner whose company has a joint venture with an entity that has been sanctioned by the U.S. government.
The owners’ myriad ties to the world’s second-largest economy leave their businesses vulnerable if they get on the wrong side of the Chinese government or the public there, according to the analysis.
Since a tweet from then-Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of Hong Kong protesters ignited the NBA-China conflict in October 2019, the NBA’s relationship with a country widely criticized for alleged human rights abuses has come under scrutiny. Last month, ESPN reported the many ways Nets owner Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, personified the compromises embedded in the NBA-China relationship.
“This is a significant issue and problem that American companies have,” said Robert Kuhn, a longtime adviser to Chinese political leaders and multinational corporations operating in China. “It’s a tension between those two poles … to see companies promoting social justice in the U.S. but staying silent on what would be perceived to be far worse issues in China.
“This is going to be an issue for the rest of our working lives.”
The NBA declined requests to interview commissioner Adam Silver or deputy commissioner Mark Tatum, who oversees the league’s international operations. In a statement, NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said, “We continue to believe that exporting media rights of NBA games to fans in more than 200 countries and territories around the world, including China, is consistent with our mission to inspire and connect people everywhere through the power of basketball.”
For this story, ESPN commissioned Strategy Risks, a New York firm that quantifies corporate exposure in China, to examine the conflicts not only for Tsai but also for the rest of the league’s owners.
The Strategy Risks analysis shows the NBA owners are exposed in two ways: First, NBA China has grown so large that it contributes significantly to the value of each team. And, second, though Tsai has by far the biggest exposure, many NBA owners also have substantial financial interests in China through their other businesses.