The NBA is facing a clash between its business interests and brand identity in China

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Yesterday, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted—then quickly deleted—an image that said “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” in support of the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The Rockets are one of the most popular NBA teams in China, so Morey’s tweet did not go over well with the government there, many fans, and the team’s Chinese sponsors and business partners. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta quickly responded with a tweet of his own.

Even Morey himself followed up his deleted tweet up with a clarification.

But significant damage had already been done. The Chinese Basketball Association quickly severed ties with the Rockets, and such sponsors as the sports apparel company Li-Ning and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank (SPD Bank) Credit Card Center suspended work with the Rockets. The team’s games were dropped by China’s state broadcaster, and according to The Wall Street Journal, China’s streaming platform Tencent Sports has also dropped its Rockets broadcasts—after paying $1.5 billion to extend its NBA streaming deal in July—and offered fans the chance to dump the Rockets as their “home team” in the company’s league pass package. As The New York Times reported, 490 million people watched NBA hoops on Tencent’s platforms last year, including 21 million fans who watched Game 6 of the 2019 Finals, compared to the 18.34 million American viewers on ABC. Brooklyn Nets owner and Alibaba cofounder Joseph Tsai wrote in a lengthy post on Facebook outlining some of the reasons why Morey’s tweet was offensive to many in China, stating, “The hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”

For its part, the NBA put out a statement that attempted to walk the fine line between appeasing its Chinese business partners while not alienatin

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