Is that so? If the past 48 hours were all you had to go on, that might seem like a startling assertion. Over the weekend, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted and then deleted a brief statement of support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. He swiftly apologized, saying he was “merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event.” By Monday morning, the NBA released a statement saying that Morey’s remarks had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. … We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
It’s been a disgraceful and abject spectacle by a league that is supposed to be one of the most powerful cultural forces on the planet. But the NBA isn’t alone. As countries such as China and Saudi Arabia become increasingly important entertainment markets, sports leagues, movie studios and streaming networks will have to decide which is more important to them: the perception that they export something more consequential than mere entertainment, or access to markets governed by regimes with little or no interest interest in values such as free speech.
In purely financial terms, if not in moral ones, this is a genuinely difficult choice. Entertainment businesses have to weigh the vast oceans of cash available to them in emerging markets against the cost that compromising to gain access to those markets might have on their domestic brands.
World Wrestling Entertainment has a 10-year deal with Saudi Arabia to hold major events there; in 2018, the so-called Greatest Royal Rumble was supposed to bring in $25 million for the company. In return, WWE has not staged matches between women in the kingdom, and in 2018, the company played up tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia in one of its heel story lines.
And as the movie industry becomes increasingly reliant on a few tent-pole blockbusters, the tastes of foreign audiences carry tremendous weight. “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” made $173 million in the United States, but nearly $585 million overseas, with more than $200 million of those ticket sales coming in China. The disparity was even bigger with Sony’s 2018 super-antihero movie “Venom,” which made $214 million domestically and $269 million in China. Some movies even shoot alternate scenes to include Chinese characters and to lock down sponsorship deals with Chinese companies, complying with the demands of the Chinese marketplace and Chinese censors by addition rather than subtraction.
Different industries — and even different artists — may make different calculations about the value of overseas audiences versus their brands at home. Netflix, which aims to grow subscriptions overseas, may decideto play ball in exchange for market access, as it did in January when the streaming service made an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” that was sharply critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unavailable in the kingdom.
In contrast, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the long-running irreverent animated show “South Park,” criticized their entertainment industry colleagues for collaborating with Chinese authorities in a recent episode. The price was a total ban of “South Park” in China, an effort that effectively provides a subsidy to the duo’s iconoclastic reputation here in the United States, where it matters most.
The NBA, of course, faces a different conundrum. A majority of NBA players are black, and a 2014 analysis from FiveThirtyEight suggested that a lot of NBA teams have minority-majority fan bases. Recognizing that, the commissioner made a point to defend the right of his players to protest police shootings and speak up about politics, differentiating the NBA from the National Football League, where such protests have sparked intense controversy.
Apparently, the value of those principles is limited, though. In July, the league extended its digital broadcasting deal with Tencent Holdings Limited, which airs the league’s games and coverage in China to hundreds of millions of viewers; Bloomberg estimated the total value of that partnership at $500 million.
My colleague Isaahn Tharoor noted this week that “We are not far from an age where the habits and demands of the Chinese middle class consumer will carry more weight than that of their US equivalent. That seems like a pretty scary age.”
In fact, that future has pretty much arrived. Its consequences may have been largely invisible to U.S. audiences so far. But the impact of this new normal won’t stay hidden forever. And if American entertainment companies want to claim to export American values, they’ll have to do it even when standing up for free speech and equality comes at a cost.