Sports

Chinese State TV to Air N.B.A. for First Time Since Hong Kong Rift

China Central Television, the state-run TV network, announced Friday that it would televise an N.B.A. game for the first time since a dispute with the league began last fall after a team executive expressed support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

The move suggested a softening of tensions between the N.B.A. and China that the league estimated had cost it hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and that elicited criticism from fans and politicians.

The change was to begin with Game 5 of the N.B.A. finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat on Friday night.

“On the morning of October 10, the channel of CCTV Sports will broadcast the fifth game of the N.B.A. finals,” the network said in a post in Chinese on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. “Welcome everyone to watch at the time!”

In a separate statement in Chinese, a spokesperson for the China Media Group, which oversees CCTV, said: “In the Chinese National Day and Mid-Autumn Festival that just passed, the N.B.A. expressed holiday blessings to Chinese fans. We have also noticed the good will continuously expressed by the N.B.A. for some time. Especially since the beginning of this year, the N.B.A. has made active efforts in supporting the Chinese people in fighting against the novel coronavirus epidemic.”

It was unclear whether the network would resume broadcasting regular-season games next season.

A spokesman for the N.B.A. did not respond to a request for comment.

The N.B.A. had not been completely off the air in China, and there had been signs that the icy relationship was thawing. Tencent, a streaming network in China, had been airing up to three games a night during the regular season. After the death of Kobe Bryant in January, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, posted a Twitter tribute to Bryant, who was one of the most popular athletes in the country. In February, Huang Ping, the Chinese consul general, publicly thanked the N.B.A. at a news conference in New York for donating $1.4 million to help fight the spread of the coronavirus in China.

Even so, CCTV’s airing of a finals game indicated a formal normalizing of relationships between the two entities. Joe Tsai, the owner of the Nets and co-founder of Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, told Bloomberg Businessweek in January, “Once you are on the air, everything will come back.”

The conflict began on Oct. 4, 2019, when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, shared an image on Twitter that said “FIGHT FOR FREEDOM STAND WITH HONG KONG,” just days before the Nets and Los Angeles Lakers were to play preseason games in mainland China.

The backlash was immediate.

N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver later said that he had rejected a demand from the Chinese government to fire Morey. But criticism came domestically as well, after the league issued a statement calling it “regrettable” that Morey’s views “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” Several prominent American politicians, like Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, have criticized the N.B.A.’s continued business relationship with the authoritarian country.

In September, Silver told CNN during a live event: “At the end of the day, I think those are decisions for our government, in terms of where American businesses should operate. I continue to believe that the people-to-people exchanges we’re seeing by playing in China are positive.”

Protesters began to appear at N.B.A. games when the regular season began. The league’s relationship with China came under more scrutiny in July, when ESPN reported about abuse at N.B.A.-sponsored basketball academies there, a partnership that the league announced it would be “re-evaluating.”

The N.B.A. has long made global expansion — particularly into China, where it now has more fans than in the U.S. — a core part of its mission. In 1979, the Washington Bullets became the first N.B.A. team to travel there, playing exhibition games against the Chinese national team. The scoreboard referred to the team as the “American Bullets.”

In the late 1980s, David Stern, the former league commissioner who died in January, negotiated a deal with CCTV to begin airing games in China. In 1994, the N.B.A. finals were broadcast there live for the first time. A decade later, the league held a preseason game in Beijing for the first time. By then, Yao Ming had entered the N.B.A. and become a dominant figure both on the court and culturally in the U.S. and China, his home country.

Stern, in a 2006 interview with Sports Illustrated, acknowledged that China’s repressive human rights record concerned him, but he added: “At the end of the day I have a responsibility to my owners to make money. I can never forget that, no matter what my personal feelings might be.”

David Chen and Claire Fu contributed reporting.

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