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Did Joe Tsai, Nets play a role in China decision to air NBA games after a year?

WNBA: Preseason-China National Team at New York Liberty Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

A year after CCTV-5, China’s state-run equivalent of ESPN, shut down NBA games in the People’s Republic — and caused a huge financial loss for the NBA, the network announced Friday that it will air Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and Heat. It cited the league’s help in COVID-19 relief efforts and other instances of “goodwill” by the NBA.

“During the recent Chinese National Day and Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations, the NBA sent their well wishes to fans in China,” CCTV said in a statement. “We also took note of the league has been continuously delivering goodwill [to China], particularly making positive contributions to Chinese people’s fight against COVID-19 pandemic.”

CCTV also noted the popularity of the NBA in China. Indeed, as one NBA insider told NetsDaily, Chinese fans have been “craving” the NBA, particularly since the renewal of play in July.

The NBA have long believed that getting the NBA back on CCTV was critical to improving relations between China and the NBA. As Joe Tsai told Bloomberg Businessweek in January, “Once you are on the air, everything will come back.”

It’s not known how much of a role Tsai played in discussions that led to the decision, but he did indeed have the Nets contribute to COVID relief efforts in China at the end of February. (Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant of which he is executive vice-chairman, played a major role in China’s recovery.)

The Nets, along with the Joe and Clara Wu Tsai Foundation, sent a 25 million yuan ($3.7 million) donation on February 26. At the time of the contribution, the pandemic was raging in China but had yet to pose as big an effect in the U.S. Although the move didn’t garner much, if any, attention in the U.S., it was widely publicized in China via Weibo, the giant Chinese social media platform. (Weibo also provides Nets news in Chinese through a deal with the team.)

Here’s the February announcement from the Nets...

Joe Tsai, Executive Vice Chairman of the Alibaba Group Board of Directors and owner of the Brooklyn Nets, will donate RMB 25 million in the joint name of the Joe Tsai Charity Foundation and the Nets.

At the time, DeAndre Jordan told Weibo, “Joe is a great businessman. He is also considered in the league is good team boss, I think he really wanted to help the epidemic, the epidemic is now affecting the whole world has become things unfold.”

The NBA have donated medical equipment worth 18.5 million yuan (US$2.72 million) to hospitals in Wuhan since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, state media reported. It’s unknown if other teams provided relief. Starting in April, Tsai later donated millions of dollars worth of ventilators and protective personal equipment to New York, New Jersey, San Diego and Detroit.

In January, Tsai had told Ian Eagle on YES that the NBA and China were working to rebuild their relationship, referring to the controversy that shut down the NBA broadcasts as “a short-term setback” in a four decade-long affiliation. He did not elaborate.

In deciding to air the game, Chinese authorities reversed a decision from last October when Rockets GM Daryl Morey sent out a tweet supporting protests in Hong Kong. Although the tweet was quickly deleted and was never seen in China, Beijing reacted strongly, shutting down the CCTV agreement with the NBA. The Nets and Tsai were in China to play the Lakers at the time and for a time, it looked like the NBA China Games might be cancelled. Indeed, a number of promotional events surrounding the games were dropped.

Moreover, the controversy led to a debate in the U.S., with commentators suggesting that Commissioner Adam Silver and LeBron James had not been as forthright in defending Morey as they should. Tsai gathered a lot of criticism himself for a Facebook post in which he tried to explain Morey’s tweet in the context of Chinese history but also branded Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protestors as “separatists,” a description they vehemently deny. Although Taiwanese by birth, American by education and Canadian by choice, Tsai has made it clear he’s Chinese by heritage.

Silver has made improving relations with China a priority for months, reports ESPN. He said in February the league was facing more than $300 million in losses as numerous Chinese companies pulled their support of NBA teams.

Although some NBA games could still be seen on Chinese streaming service TenCent, there were fewer than in the past. CCTV holds exclusive TV rights in China for the NBA, while Tencent has exclusive internet streaming rights in the country.

The Nets did not respond to a request for comment.