Why NBA's China ties may hinge on Rockets GM Daryl Morey's future

As Chinese business partners suspend their ties to the NBA, the league’s ability to salvage its $4 billion relationship with the country may rest on Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s next move.

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s defense of Morey’s right to free speech over a now-deleted tweet about pro-democracy Hong Kong protests triggered a harsh response among the league’s broadcast partners. State-run CCTV said it was “strongly dissatisfied” with Silver’s remarks, adding that it would suspend all NBA game broadcasts and review its overall relationship with the league, while state-owned English language newspaper China Daily penned an editorial accusing Silver of "brazenly endorsing Morey's secessionist-supporting tweet."

With Silver’s response, the NBA sought to affirm its commitment to freedom of speech and expression while assuaging outrage among Chinese fans regarding Morey’s foray into what Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai described as a “third-rail issue” among China’s populace. But as Chinese sponsors distance themselves from the league by the day, an independent decision by Morey to resign over his tweet – free of influence from the NBA or any other entity – may provide the only path for the NBA to satisfy critics on both sides of the debate.

“Just because you have the freedom to express something doesn’t mean you don’t have any responsibility for consequences based on what it is you said. It’s one of those things that if done properly, could go a long way to helping calm the waters,” sports industry consultant Marc Ganis, whose firm, Sportscorp, orchestrated Chinese sponsorship and rights distribution deals with the Houston Rockets, told FOX Business. “It upholds Adam’s position about freedom of expression and it supports the Chinese position about consequences for such expression. If it doesn’t get done soon though, this may continue to spiral.”

Several of the NBA’s most prominent sponsors in China took immediate action in response to Morey’s tweet. Tencent Sports, the NBA’s exclusive streaming partner in China, suspended planned broadcasts of preseason games despite a deal with the league worth a reported $1.5 billion through the 2024-25 season. Sportswear brand Li-Ning and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank suspended their ties with the Rockets, while e-commerce giant Alibaba and its affiliates appeared to have scrubbed listings for Rockets gear from their websites.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta initially issued a harsh rebuke to Morey over his tweet, though later clarified to ESPN that there was no ongoing dispute between him and his team’s general manager. In a subsequent tweet, Morey noted that he “did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China.”

While Silver noted that Morey has the right to free speech, he acknowledged that the NBA does not take political positions and suggested that Morey was responsible for any fallout generated by his comments.

"Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right as one of our employees," Silver said. "What I also tried to suggest is that I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences."

The NBA’s initial response to Morey’s tweet drew bipartisan criticism from prominent U.S. politicians, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, who deemed the league had failed to uphold American values in favor of its business relationships. In China, critics took Silver’s defense of Morey on Tuesday as a sign of insensitivity to fan outrage.

“There’s a difference in what Adam is saying and what is being interpreted. Adam is saying that Morey has the right to express himself,” Ganis said. “Adam is not saying that the NBA supports his expression, just the right to express himself. In China, that’s being interpreted that the head of the NBA is supporting Morey’s expression itself. That’s where the big problem is coming in.”

Any bid by the NBA or the Rockets to forcibly remove Morey would only worsen stateside criticism of the league’s handling of the situation.

Morey has not made any public comments since his follow-up tweets. He reportedly agreed to a five-year contract extension last March.

A Rockets representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Morey faced any disciplinary action over his tweet.

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Absent a new effort to placate Chinese fans and sponsors without rankling U.S. onlookers, the fallout from Moray’s tweet poses a long-term threat to the NBA’s plans in the region.

“It’s actually becoming that. It was not when it started, but it is now evolving into that,” Ganis said.