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NBA partners with huge Chinese firm to expand China ties

Timothe Luwawu Kongbo of France and Keldon Johnson of the USA. (NBA/Released)
February 24, 2023

The U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA) has partnered with the major Chinese financial technology firm the Ant Group, to expand its presence in the country. The partnership comes as the basketball league has come under fire for its responses to human rights concerns in China.

On Monday, the Ant Group announced a “strategic partnership” with the professional basketball league. The partnership will see the financial technology giant bring NBA programming to Alipay app users.

Alipay is a subsidiary of the Ant Group (also known as Ant Financial). The Ant Group is an affiliate of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and both are owned by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma.

The Ant Group plans to expand its NBA partnership by developing original video content, an NBA mini-program, joint marketing campaigns, digital collectibles, and social responsibility initiatives to “engage fans and communities.”

“We have a common vision with Ant Group, which is to bring rich and high-quality content services and consumer experience to fans through digital services, blockchain technology and other user-friendly technologies,” said NBA China CEO Michael Ma. “Through our cooperation with Ant Group, more fans will be able to experience the excitement and passion of the NBA more conveniently than ever before.”

Ant Group chief technology officer and Alipay chairman Xingjun Ni said, “We are very delighted to collaborate with the NBA, a sports league with such a powerful brand. Bringing NBA’s high-quality content and engaged content creators onto our platform is an important step for Alipay to embrace the content ecosystem as an open platform.”

The Alipay chairman said, “We hope to build a young digital interactive platform for NBA fans in China and bring in new services and interactions in sports in the digital era.”

The NBA has been seeking ways to expand into the massive Chinese market for years, but its past efforts have devolved into controversy.

In October of 2019, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for protesters in Hong Kong who have opposed China expanding its authorities over the semi-autonomous territory. The basketball league went on to apologize and disavow Morey, to the criticisms of U.S. fans and lawmakers.

The state-run China Central Television (CCTV) ended nearly all broadcasts of NBA games following the 2019 controversy, save for a single NBA finals game in 2020. In March of last year, CCTV reversed course and resumed regular broadcasts of NBA games.

League players have also voiced criticism of China. In 2020, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert shared a post to his Instagram story condemning China over the claims “millions of Uyghur Muslims are detained and tortured in concentration camps in China.”

This summer, NBA free agent Enes Kanter leaked audio from his time on the Boston Celtics, revealing the league had told team marketing officials not to let signs criticizing China or supporting Hong Kong appear in photos or on camera.

It remains to be seen if the NBA’s new business relationship with the Ant Group will help the league expand further into China, or if the Chinese financial tech firm will be forced to distance itself from the league if further controversies should arise.