To the surprise of no one, China has done it again. When German soccer star Mesut Ozil of the Arsenal criticized China’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim population, China sprang to action.
Quickly, the state-run TV in China announced it would no longer be broadcasting the match between Arsenal and Manchester City. Meanwhile, feeling the heat, the Arsenal distanced themselves from Ozil’s comments.
If this seems like deja vu, you only have to think back to this fall when Houston Rockets’ GM Daryl Morley expressed his support for the protestors in Hong Kong via a seven-word tweet.
Chinese leaders were not amused by Morley and reacted with a fury, refusing to broadcast NBA preseason games. They then put pressure on the NBA in an attempt to get Morley fired. This was no empty threat, given the NBA has lucrative streaming and merchandise deals in the country.
What is a sports league to do?
The Chinese market for Western sports has just recently been tapped, and China, with its ginormous population, economy, and manufacturing prowess, is a potential gold mine for them. They certainly don’t want to bite the hand that is about to feed them caviar.
On the other hand, with the proliferation of social media, it is unrealistic for sports leagues and teams to believe that it can control every comment from its players, coaches, and administrators and prevent them from ever saying anything critical of China. Additionally, if Western sports leagues and teams turn their backs on what are perceived human rights abuses in the name of the almighty dollar and yuan, they come off as hypocrites. This is especially true for the NBA, who had no issues throwing its muscle around to pressure North Carolina into changing its public restroom laws for what the NBA considered as unfair treatment of people.
Nor is this a problem just for the sports world. This past year the world’s airlines and airports stopped using the word Taiwan as a destination. Although Taiwan has been an autonomous country since the late 1940s, China stills considers it theirs, and if you want to fly into China you dare not mention the word Taiwan.
Even social media giants such as Google and Facebook, who have considerable leverage and assets, have kowtowed to Chinese demands for censorship and spying in order to do business in the country.
In the heady days when China first reformed its markets in the ’80s, many experts believed that by China now doing business with the world, the country would liberalize in the process. 40 years later that belief seems overly optimistic.
It is also unlikely that Western sports organizations doing business in China will do much to impact the culture. Sports are limited role models. Take the modern Olympics as an example of why this is so. A major core of the official Olympics goal, “is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world.” Yet despite every major country participating faithfully in the Olympics, the 20th Century was by far and away the bloodiest century in human history. Sporting events are fun and exciting but are unlikely to change the world.
We are all familiar with the Latin term caveat emptor, which translates to buyer beware. But for sports leagues and teams expanding into new countries, they should brush up on a similar Latin term, caveat venditor, which means seller beware. As sports teams and leagues venture from their home countries to sell their product, they should be aware that the extra revenue comes with strings.
Matthew Kastel is a 25-year veteran of working as an executive in the world of sports, including professional teams, organizations, and some of the largest vendors in the industry. Matt has also written two novels and teaches and lectures at universities on the business of sports. For more information you can visit his website at thirdstrikeproductions.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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