Earlier this month, I published a piece on The American Conservative website scolding the National Basketball Association (NBA) and some of its star players and coaches for too often knuckling under to Chinese human rights-related pressure for fear of getting shut out of the People’s Republic’s vast and rapidly growing market. I justified my call for a more outspoken China stance by this normally politically outspoken league by noting that China wasn’t the only big foreign market capable of adding to the league’s already healthy profits and thus to the players’ and coaches’ already titanic salaries. And I observed that in fact, U.S. pro basketball has enough leverage with China to lead a global sports world push for better behavior from Beijing, especially when it comes to Hong Kong and the country’s Uighur Muslim minority.
That’s largely why it’s been great to see these arguments being reinforced lately both by some new NBA-related business developments and by a leading authority on Asian affairs.
On the business front, a recent report from Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review (NAR) observes that the league is indeed continuing full steam ahead with its efforts to win fans and rake in bucks in Japan and India. The former, not so incidentally, is the world’s third largest single national economy (after the United States and China). The latter has a population so huge and still growing so fast that it’s soon expected to surpass China as the world’s biggest.
According to NAR, this fall the NBA played its first games in Japan (exhibitions) in 16 years and the stands were packed. Moreover, the publication cites one estimate claiming explosive recent growth in subscriptions for the streaming service authorized to carry league games.
Further, the NBA’s popularity in Japan looks set to keep surging for the foreseeable future. For next year’s summer Olympics will be held in Tokyo, and the U.S. and other foreign teams slated to compete will contains dozens of NBA stars. And in 2023, Japan will be one of the co-hosts (along with other big Asian countries the Philippines and Indonesia) of the basketball World Cup.
But perhaps the biggest boost to the NBA’s popularity has been Washington Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura. Hachimura isn’t the first Japan-born player to appear in an NBA game. But so far he looks to be the best by far, and could boost the league’s Japanese fan base in ways reminiscent of Yao Ming’s impact in China.
As for India, the league opened its first office in that population giant in 2017, and although its athletes don’t seem NBA- (or major college-) ready yet, but its fans could identify with Vivek Ranadive, Indian-born owner of the Sacramento Kings. And the Kings played the Indiana Pacers in Mumbai this fall shortly before the Japan exhibition games.
Meanwhile, my claim that the NBA possesses ample clout to confront China successfully on human rights issues was seconded recently by Victor Cha, a Georgetown University political scientist and former National Security Council Asia specialist under George W. Bush’s administration. In a December 8 post for the Lawfare blog, Cha wrote:
“China may continue to ban broadcasts of [certain NBA] games, but how long before Chinese people express frustration? It’s not like there is an alternative to NBA stars like Lebron James or Steph Curry for youth on a Chinese basketball team to worship. China’s punishment may be costly in the short term, but in the long run, the demand signal from Chinese consumers will remain strong. And if the Beijing authorities are seen to be standing in the way, the Chinese Communist Party may be doing more harm than good to its own domestic standing. Moreover, the attention brought to the Chinese over the NBA ban could make the Chinese people aware of alternative narratives of the events in Hong Kong beyond the official media’s framing of the protests as criminal, thuggish and unjustified behavior.”
And I would strongly second Cha’s broader conclusion that “China’s predatory liberalism is an affront to the liberal international order, and the NBA, whether intended or not, is now a part of this struggle. Its actions going forward will set precedents, hopefully positive, for governments, companies, and individuals both inside and outside of China.”