NBA games are back in China, but not everyone seems thrilled about it. As Tencent seeks to move past the recent controversy that had Chinese fans calling for an NBA boycott, the tech giant may have proved how much it has to lose.

Tencent is the NBA’s streaming partner for China, and it suspended games last week along with CCTV. But the Tencent Sports streaming app now shows that some pre-season games are back on the schedule.

“Can penguins kneel on their knees?” asked one Weibo commenter in response to the news, referencing the tech company’s mascot.

Tencent streamed games between the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors and between Maccabi Haifa BC and the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Picture: Tencent Sports)

Some people are lashing out at Tencent for what they see as giving in to the NBA. It’s not even clear if this is a change; Tencent pointed out that its original announcement specified “China games” in parentheses, which some fans thought was a sly use of words.

But it’s easy to see why Tencent is keen on bringing back NBA games. When the company signed a new five-year deal for exclusive streaming rights to NBA games in China, the deal was reportedly worth US$1.5 billion. Tencent Sports streams all major league sports events, including soccer, football, baseball and basketball. 

“They have almost a monopoly on sports in China right now,” said Elliott Zaagman, co-host of China Tech Investor podcast. He added that Tencent is positioning itself as a portal between Chinese consumers and international sports.

But basketball is the crown jewel of international sports in China. Last season, 490 million people watched NBA games on Tencent, meaning that China has more NBA fans than the US has citizens. We reached out to Tencent for comment but did not receive a response.

The NBA’s popularity appeared to be threatened when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted an image saying “stand with Hong Kong” in support of the city’s ongoing anti-government protests. Many Chinese fans erupted in anger online, calling for a boycott. Even the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented on the controversy.

But the NBA still enjoys immense popularity in China. Thousands of fans filled the stands for a promotional pre-season game in Shanghai last Thursday and again in Shenzhen over the weekend.

Tencent Sports is just one component of Tencent’s video streaming platform, but it’s an important one. Keeping NBA viewers on its platform helps Tencent build up its streaming business to complement its social media empire led by WeChat and its extensive gaming business.

Tencent’s willingness to throw cash around made it seem unstoppable when it signed a new deal with the NBA.

“Tencent’s commitment to NBA basketball in China is unparalleled,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver when the deal was finalized. Tencent could have no idea that just a few months later, that commitment would be challenged by a single tweet.

Not everyone was happy that Tencent is bringing NBA games back to its platform, and some have even taken swipes at the company’s mascot. (Picture: Mao Siqian/Xinhua)

During the backlash, CCTV vowed to drop pre-season games, collaboration with the NBA was scrapped by smartphone maker Vivo and NBA merch was purged from the country’s top ecommerce platforms. Fans renounced their favorite teams.

But there are already signs that the worst of the controversy has passed. Reporters at state media outlets have been instructed not to emphasize the NBA controversy to avoid heated discussions, according to the New York Times. And now, a few days later, pre-season games have found their way back onto Tencent’s platform.

Plenty of fans were happy about it. But Adam Silver’s decision that the NBA won’t regulate what players, employees and team owners say on political issues didn’t go down well with some Chinese netizens.

“Tencent never objected strongly, after all, they have the biggest interest in this,” said one Weibo commenter who vowed to delete the Tencent Sports app.

Since the start of the Hong Kong protests, online nationalist vitriol has struck a number of western brands, including Blizzard, a gaming company in which Tencent also owns a stake. Tencent isn’t the only Chinese company getting burned, though. Chinese sports brand Anta, which has promotional contracts with several NBA players, decided to call off contract renewal negotiations

“Across the board, what we are seeing is that it’s a lot more difficult for all these companies to do business,” Zaagman said.