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Tue, Jan. 28

Kobritz: The intersection of sports, politics and money

Anyone who thought sports was merely about the games learned a valuable lesson in the recent dust-up between the NBA and China.

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey inserted the league into the middle of a debate over legislation that would allow extradition of criminal defendants from Hong Kong to China to stand trial. The bill sparked anti-government, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, some of which turned violent.

Morey’s six-word message read, “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, sensing the potential gravity of Morey’s tweet, quickly distanced the organization from the GM’s comments. The team also trotted out two of its stars for an awkward press conference to apologize for Morey’s tweet.

Morey contritely walked back his support for Hong Kong. “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” he said. “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.” Translation: After a trip to the woodshed, he was ordered to issue a mea culpa.

In the eyes of China’s leadership, Morey represented a foreign power intruding on its internal affairs. In response, China’s state-run television suspended broadcasts of NBA preseason games.

Rather than voicing support for Morey, the NBA chose to issue a statement designed to appease China, an about face for a league that prides itself in allowing coaches and players to speak out on social issues. U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle harshly criticized the league for choosing financial interests over human rights.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver attempted to clarify the league’s stance with a follow-up statement in which he claimed the NBA is about “far more than growing our business.” Sure it is. He also said the league would not regulate what players, employees and team owners say on issues around the world. Uh-huh.

Silver’s attempt to ameliorate China is understandable from a financial perspective. China has been a major market for the NBA ever since the Rockets drafted Chinese center Yao Ming with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft. According to Forbes, China and its 1.4 billion people represent a $4 billion market to the league, which was suddenly in jeopardy over Morey’s tweet.

The current buzzword in all U.S. sports leagues is “globalization,” which in plain English means selling the game around the world. That’s why every league – MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL – plays games in foreign countries. Those games lead to television broadcasts, sponsorship deals and merchandise sales, all of which put dollars in team, league and player pockets.

But as the China-NBA incident demonstrates, there are risks in doing business abroad. Foreign countries have different governments and cultures than we do, creating a minefield that teams and leagues must carefully navigate. One misstep and years of carefully planned growth can disappear.

As any league will tell you, when it comes to sports, best to leave the geopolitics to the diplomats.

Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at

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