Although the NBA’s regular season has now begun, the league has been making headlines for a different reason. One tweet from the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, created an international incident. By invoking his support for protesters in Hong Kong, Morey set off a tidal wave of criticism in China that resulted in threats to the NBA’s billion-dollar TV licensing, loss of sales, and disruptions to the preseason games that were being held in China.
NBA star LeBron James was playing one of those games and fanned the flames further with comments criticizing Morey. The backlash at James was justified: Long a supporter of free speech by players when the discussion has been about American politics, his call for discretion in international affairs struck a hypocritical note. And you don’t have to know what an illegal defense is to know that James was speaking his pocketbook.
What’s an American fan to think? The tangle between politics and sports have been trying enough the past few years, as fans of either the U.S. national women’s soccer team or the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick have been urged to take sides in the face of their activism and responses by President Donald Trump. As much as Americans profess to love freedom of speech — when asked as a general matter — when your favorite players take sides in an emotionally charged debate, it can test team loyalties. Millions of Chinese NBA fans had held up the Rockets as “their team” since eight-time NBA All-Star Yao Ming played for Houston, beginning in 2002, but in the time it takes to read a tweet they chose national loyalty over team loyalty.
Between Morey’s tweet and James’ ham-handed response, it’s enough to want them to clam up and stay out of politics. But let’s draw alternate lessons from the “tweet that struck a nerve.”
Team values have been skyrocketing. It helps to have as many as 800 million viewers in China. But let’s be clear: This doesn’t change the product that the American fan sees on the floor. Whether an NBA team is worth $1.9 billion, as estimated this year, up 13% over 2018, and whether player contracts are routinely eight digits or nine, makes no difference to the dribbling and dunks.
What is the NBA selling to American fans? It has long burnished an image not only of a fast-flowing game, but of a certain hipness and relevance, one where L.A. and New York celebrities can be seen at courtside. The players bring their personalities to the game, and a willingness to engage in social commentary is part of that — even among the management, it seems. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver worked to toe a difficult line in the response to Morey’s tweet but eventually found his way to a defense of free speech. It would be natural for NBA fans to want even more: a culture that challenges convention rather than one that toes the line.
So embrace free speech, even if that means offending China over Hong Kong. Does it matter to American fans if the NBA struggles in markets with authoritarian governments? No.
The NBA ownership needs to hear these messages loud and clear:
Don’t chase fans whose loyalties are only an inch deep. Global media rights are wonderful, but the fans are at home. Consider the fortunes of Manchester United, once the global fan favorite of English soccer’s Premier League. As performance on the field has waned, the team’s value has dropped precipitously. True fans don’t abandon their teams over losing seasons or tweets. Don’t build on them.
And, have a little faith in the product. Although Team USA can no longer walk into any international competition and assume to bring home a gold medal, the NBA remains the highest-caliber league by far.
There are those around the world who will wake up at any hour to watch the NBA Finals. Those are the fans to celebrate and embrace: those who will be drawn to the quality of the game — and who will embrace the American character of the league, both on and off the floor.
Patrick Schmidt is a professor of political science and co-director of legal studies at Macalester College. On Twitter: @pdwschmidt