A worker removes a promotional banner for last week’s NBA pre-season game in China between the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers in Shanghai, China. Picture: AFP/HECTOR RETAMAL
A worker removes a promotional banner for last week’s NBA pre-season game in China between the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers in Shanghai, China. Picture: AFP/HECTOR RETAMAL

Hong Kong/Beijing — Tencent live-streamed two National Basketball Association (NBA) games played outside China on Monday, even as the nation’s top broadcaster shuns the league because of a controversy about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

The Chinese social media giant aired a game between the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors and another between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Minnesota Timberwolves, according to its official programme. That’s despite the WeChat operator last week freezing broadcasts of two preseason games played in China: a pair of high-profile matchups between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets in Shanghai and Shenzhen last week.

China Central Television — the government’s flagship broadcaster — announced its boycott about the same time and has so far not resumed televising.

A Tencent representative didn’t respond to e-mailed requests for comment.

What's at stake?

At stake for the internet giant are billions of dollars in ad and subscription revenue, along with its strategy of becoming a go-to destination for NBA broadcasts online. Tencent had just inked a $1.5bn, five-year deal to stream league games online in China. It drew almost half a billion basketball aficionados to its streams last season — an audience now in jeopardy.

Tensions flared after Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong’s protests, which some in China view as a secessionist movement, triggering a backlash from companies and fans. By allowing games in China to go forward last week, however, Beijing signalled it may be winding down its harsh response to the tweet, which was deleted but inflamed by NBA commissioner Adam Silver defending Morey’s right to free speech.

There are other signs too. The New York Times reported that editors at state-run news outlets have told reporters to stop emphasising the NBA issue, fearing it might get overheated.

According to the Tencent Sports app, other preseason games will be streamed only in text and images. Video-streaming is scheduled to return on October 23 as the regular season starts.

“We do not comment on the specific commercial decisions of individual businesses,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing on Monday in Beijing in response to questions about Tencent’s decision.

“Exchanges in sports have always played an important role in promoting China-US exchanges and friendship, but like we stated earlier, be it in China or the US, mutual respect is a prerequisite for conducting exchange and co-operation.”

Bloomberg