NBA’s China Furor May Make Nets the Country’s Most Popular Team

(Bloomberg) -- One man’s tweet could be another man’s treasure.

As the tempest over Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s quickly deleted tweet backing the Hong Kong protesters engulfs the team and the NBA, one club stands poised to win the hearts, minds and wallets of a basketball-loving nation perhaps searching for a new team to call its own.

The Brooklyn Nets are owned by Joe Tsai, the Taiwan-born co-founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., who responded to Morey’s tweet with an open letter to NBA fans explaining why the government and many Chinese consider the comments so offensive. Tsai is uniquely positioned to help mediate the dispute -- and convert Rockets fans to Nets fans along the way, one sports consultant said.

NBA’s China Furor May Make Nets the Country’s Most Popular Team

“Joe Tsai might be the only person who has the perfect solution for the current problem within the NBA and China,” said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd. “And in the process his team, the Nets, could supplant the Rockets in popularity and win the allegiance of the Chinese fans.”

Financial Blowback

Tsai mentioned in his letter the financial blowback that the Rockets and their billionaire owner Tilman Fertitta are feeling. Fertitta’s only comment on the matter so far has been that Morey didn’t speak for the organization and that the Rockets aren’t political.

“The Rockets, who by far had been the favorite team in China, are now effectively shut out of the Chinese market as fans abandon their love for the team, broadcasters refuse to air their games and Chinese corporates pull sponsorships in droves,” Tsai said.

Fertitta in 2017 paid what was then a league-record $2.2 billion for the Rockets, whose strength in China was one of the factors that drove the price higher, sports bankers said at the time.

Tsai, worth an estimated $10.5 billion, paid a record $2.3 billion for the Nets, who are scheduled to play LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday in Shanghai. China’s CCTV said it would expand its boycott of Rockets games to halt broadcasts of all NBA preseason games, and that it’s investigating “all cooperation and exchanges” with the league.

CCTV’s decision came after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver defended Morey’s right to freedom of expression.

NBA’s China Furor May Make Nets the Country’s Most Popular Team

The Rockets were the home of all-star Yao Ming, who now runs the Chinese Basketball Association and condemned the tweet, and Tracy McGrady, who later played in China. The Nets lack direct Chinese links beyond Tsai but are an up-and-coming team that recently added two of the league’s biggest stars, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Durant will likely miss the year while recovering from Achilles surgery.

Tsai ended his letter this way:

“I hope to help the League to move on from this incident. I will continue to be an outspoken NBA Governor on issues that are important to China. I ask that our Chinese fans keep the faith in what the NBA and basketball can do to unite people from all over the world.”

From, say, Beijing to Brooklyn.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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