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NBA owners have $10 billion in China, afraid to criticize Communist regime

Basketball swishes through a net. (Unsplash)
March 15, 2023

Owners of NBA teams have collectively invested more than $10 billion in Communist-controlled China, giving them a personal interest in a country increasingly at odds with the U.S. as the league’s lucrative business expands there.

NBA China now contributes about $150 million to the value of each of the league’s 30 teams, ESPN reported last year. But that is only one part of that $10 billion figure, which also accounts for team owners’ various other financial ties to the world’s second-largest economy.

The NBA owner with by far the highest percentage of their net worth tied to China is Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, according to ESPN. He has 53.5 percent of his fortune there, largely because he co-founded the Chinese e-commerce titan Alibaba.

The next highest is Sacramento Kings co-owner Paul Jacobs, with an estimated 30 percent of his net worth linked to Chinese business, according to ESPN.

The NBA has come under increasing scrutiny for its China ties since former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters in 2019. NBA players and officials distanced themselves from the tweet, but China still banned NBA broadcasts for 18 months, exposing the league’s increasing dependence on Chinese goodwill.

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Robert Kuhn, who advises Chinese political leaders and multinational corporations doing business in China, highlighted the incentive not to criticize China as “a significant issue and problem that American companies have.”

“It’s a tension between those two poles … to see companies promoting social justice in the U.S. but staying silent on what would be perceived to be far worse issues in China,” he said. “This is going to be an issue for the rest of our working lives.”

An example of that came in 2021 after Nike, the longtime sponsor of legendary player and Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, faced allegations that its cotton came from forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region. The U.S. State Department has declared that China is committing an ongoing “genocide” against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Nike said it was “concerned” but “does not source products” from the region, a response that drew a boycott from Chinese consumers, ESPN reported.

“If they say what Americans want them to say, it’s death in China. If they say what China wants, it’s death in America,” said attorney Dan Harris, whose firm represents companies doing business in China.

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In a statement, NBA spokesperson Mike Bass told ESPN: “We continue to believe that exporting media rights of NBA games to fans in more than 200 countries and territories around the world, including China, is consistent with our mission to inspire and connect people everywhere through the power of basketball.”

ESPN’s reporting on NBA owners’ China ties stems from an analysis it commissioned from a China-focused risk management firm, Strategy Risks. The analysis modeled current and projected revenues, growth opportunities, and supply chain dependencies, among other things, according to ESPN.