Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA team the Houston Rockets, has obviously gotten himself into trouble. He tweeted a photo saying “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” on Saturday while accompanying his team in Tokyo. The tweet soon set the team’s Chinese fans ablaze. It can be imagined how Morey’s tweet made them disappointed and furious. Shortly afterward, CCTV sports channel and Tencent sports channel both announced they would suspend broadcasting Rockets’ games. Some of the team’s Chinese sponsors and business partners also started to suspend cooperation with the Rockets.
The public opinion over the incident in the US is just the opposite. Some American media professionals asked Morey and Rockets to stand firm. Andrew Yang, one of the Democratic presidential candidates, said “the Chinese government banning the Rockets is a terrible move.”
The incident shows an expanding worldwide culture gap. Imagine if Morey publicly tweeted support for the Beijing and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government, would rioters in Hong Kong smash up Rockets’ logos in the city?
Commercial and cultural organizations which engage in transnational operations should manage their attitudes and statements over sensitive issues. Impulsive words can easily trigger a backlash.
As the general manager of the Rockets, Morey shoulders the main responsibility for the marketing of his team, but he invited trouble on himself and offended the public on the Chinese mainland. His professional capability is simply too poor.
Some Americans try to link Morey’s tweet with so-called “freedom of speech.” That is ridiculous. Morey does have the freedom to praise Hong Kong protesters, just like the Chinese fans also have the freedom to abandon the Rockets. The problem is that Morey’s freedom is at the expense of Rockets’ huge commercial interests, which the team is unwilling to give up. It’s a paradox with which Americans are grappling.
Respecting customers is a universal business rule. Morey has to choose between safeguarding his individual freedom of speech and protecting the Rockets’ commercial interests by respecting the feelings of Chinese fans. When he opted for the former, the Rockets will have to make a second choice from the perspective of the team.
This incident has nothing to do with the Chinese government. Yang’s accusations were a poor tactic of a politician aimed at soliciting attention. The issue first of all is about the market. All Chinese fans are watching how the Rockets and NBA handle this crisis. Whether the team apologizes, in what way, and how it deals with Morey will directly influence fans’ enthusiasm for the Rockets and even the NBA.
It’s believed the Rockets have felt the intricacy of the matter as the franchise is also facing great ideological pressure from the US side.
How much wisdom the Rockets have to overcome the crisis and minimize the adverse effects will become an interesting test case.
The biggest lesson which can be drawn from the matter is that entities that value commercial interests must make their members speak cautiously. Chinese consumers are not overly sensitive. Wherever it is, touching a raw political nerve is extremely risky. Morey has neither the IQ nor the EQ to talk about political topics. He will become an example of clumsiness on some MBA courses.