The NBA and Chinese fintech company Ant Group have entered a strategic partnership in China to work on different projects like video content, broadcasting and membership, Ant Group announced Tuesday.
Chinese fans would gain access to NBA video content on Alipay, a payment app owned by Ant Group, the company said in a statement.
The relationship between the NBA and Ant Group will also feature joint marketing campaigns, digital collectibles and other areas, according to the statement.
Last week, NBA China launched a channel in Alipay that showcases user-generated content from NBA China’s network of influencers and Alipay’s authorized content creators.
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The NBA is a popular cultural export to China and the basketball league’s presence in the Chinese market brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. But the NBA’s longtime partnership with Chinese state broadcaster CCTV was strained in recent years after former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressed his support for anti-government protestors in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong in 2019.
Morey, now general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, shared an image on Twitter in October 2019 that read, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” He later deleted the tweet and said he did not mean to offend Rockets fans or the people of China.
China condemned Morey’s tweet and NBA games were pulled from CCTV shortly after.
The NBA initially said Morey’s tweet was “regrettable” and that he had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” The league later issued another statement saying it remains committed to free speech.
NBA free agent Enes Kanter Freedom, an outspoken critic of China over its human rights abuses, has repeatedly called out Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and other athletes for doing business with China.
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In 2021, Chinese video-streaming site Tencent pulled a Boston Celtics’ game after Freedom, who played for the team at the time, wore shoes criticizing China’s treatment of Tibet.
Yet, despite criticisms of China from some NBA personnel, the league’s games returned to Chinese televisions last March. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in June that the league lost “hundreds of millions” of dollars because of the 18-month blackout, but affirmed the NBA’s commitment to free speech.
“If the consequences are that we’re taken off the air or we lose money, we accept that,” Silver said at the time.
The commissioner, in his remarks in June, also addressed criticisms of the NBA’s business relationship with China given its human rights abuses of the Uyghur population, pointing out that a number of other U.S. companies also do business with the country.
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“From a policy standpoint, virtually every Fortune 100 company is doing business in China,” Silver said. “We have an enormous, humongous trade relationship with China. Virtually all the phones in this room, the clothes you are wearing, the shoes you are wearing, are made in China. From a larger societal standpoint, this is something where we have to look to the U.S. government for direction.”
NBA fans in China are now watching games at levels close to where they were before Morey’s comments in 2019, according to the league’s viewership data.
Reuters contributed to this report.