The league announced Tuesday that it had named veteran sports executive Michael Ma to lead its business in mainland China, one of its most important markets.
Starting next month, Ma will assume the tricky position of trying to fix the relationship with the Chinese government after the league faced a backlash in the country last year. Chinese state-run television network CCTV still has not aired any NBA games in the country because of that dispute.
Ma has worked as the CEO of Endeavor China, a prominent sports talent management agency. He also worked at the NBA in New York and Beijing for more than a decade, according to the league. He is the first Chinese citizen to head the organization in Beijing since its office there was set up in 2008, according to Chinese state media.
Ma’s appointment has been seen in China as an attempt to appease fans there after the NBA fell into a nightmare crisis last fall, leading to the broadcast ban and to all of the league’s official Chinese partners suspending ties.
The controversy began last October, when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong. His post, which was quickly deleted, included an image that read, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”
The former British colony, now a special administrative region of China, had been rocked by months of political unrest.
The NBA’s position became increasingly uncomfortable as that week unfolded. Some fans in China called for Morey to be fired, while US politicians urged the NBA to uphold its moral values.
Ultimately, the league got blowback from both sides as Commissioner Adam Silver said that it supported Morey “in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”
CCTV immediately halted its NBA broadcasts in response, pointing to “strong dissatisfaction” over Silver’s remarks.
Tencent (, which is the NBA’s exclusive digital partner in China, also temporarily stopped showing games on its platform before )quietly resuming live programming in October. The tech company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday when asked about its current ties with the NBA.
The NBA’s new appointment this week may not be enough to convince CCTV to start airing NBA games again once the pandemic eases, though. (The current NBA season was originally scheduled to end in June, but suspended in March because of the virus. It is unclear when or if the season will resume.)
“CCTV Sports Channel has had no contact and interaction with the NBA. When it comes to issues about China’s sovereignty, the CCTV Sports Channel’s position is solemn, clear and consistent, and there will be no room for ambiguity or flexibility,” the network wrote in a scathing post on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.
Calls for Morey to be “punished” were once again echoed in Chinese state media, too.
“Naming [a] native Chinese as NBA China boss is ‘not enough,'” Chinese state-run news outlet Global Times wrote in an article Tuesday. “Prominent commentators and fans noted if it wants to win its way back to the Chinese mainland market, it should properly handle Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.”
The NBA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rebuilding the relationship with Beijing will be the top priority for the NBA’s new China CEO, noted Weisheng Chiu, an assistant professor of sport management at the Open University of Hong Kong.
“That’s the first task for Michael Ma, and I also think this will be the most challenging task for him,” he said.
But Ma also has an advantage because of his personal background, according to Chiu.
According to Chinese state media, Ma is the son of Ma Guoli, who co-founded CCTV’s sports channel and helped “introduce NBA live games to CCTV in the 1990s.” His father is also a renowned basketball executive and adviser to former NBA Rockets star and legend Yao Ming, who now leads the Chinese Basketball Association.
The elder Ma has now resigned his post advising Yao, citing “personal reasons,” state-run news agency Xinhua reported on Tuesday.
“It’s a very smart move for the NBA league” to hire Michael Ma, said Chiu. “He’s probably the best candidate for the position … I think this will help the league to rebuild the relationship and expand the market in the future.”