Chinese organisers on Wednesday cancelled a fan event on the eve of a National Basketball Association (NBA) exhibition game in Shanghai, the latest fallout in a growing dispute over a tweet by a team official supporting protests in Hong Kong.
Chinese sponsors and partners have been cutting ties with the NBA after the Twitter post by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey last week supporting anti-government protests in the Chinese-ruled city.
The Shanghai Sports Federation said the cancellation ahead of Thursday's game between the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers was due to the "inappropriate attitude" of Morey and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
A Wednesday news conference with both teams was indefinitely delayed, organisers said. Outside the team hotel, workers tore down massive banners advertising the game, a Reuters witness said.
The NBA controversy also comes against the backdrop of a US-China trade war that escalated after Washington imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials on Tuesday.
Silver said on Tuesday the league supported Morey's right to exercise his freedom of expression, saying it was not up to the league to regulate what players, employees and team owners said. His remarks further angering authorities and some fans in China and threatening the NBA's business there, said to be worth more than $4 billion.
The NBA initially described the anger over Morey's post as "regrettable," drawing criticism from US politicians, who accused the league of putting its China business ahead of free speech.
Morey deleted the tweet and apologised on Monday, but Chinese broadcasters, sportswear companies and sponsors have said they are reviewing their ties with the NBA, which has had a presence in China since 1992.
On Wednesday, an editorial in the official English-language China Daily accused Silver of "brazenly endorsing Morey's secessionist-supporting tweet" and giving "a shot to the arms of the rioters of Hong Kong".
"If Silver thinks endorsing the indiscriminate violence the radical Hong Kong protesters are resorting to ... is supporting freedom of expression, then he should think again," it said.
Asked about the NBA controversy in an interview with PBS, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said American businesses were waking up to the risks of operating in China.
Some Chinese fans expressed dismay at how the controversy had spread, while voicing support for Beijing's view.
"I'm patriotic of course. I support that Hong Kong is part of China, but I just don't understand this," said Yu Jie, a fan waiting to see the players in Shanghai.
Basketball is the most popular sport in China, with about 500 million people consuming NBA content. The league has deals with TV and digital media outlets across the country, and teams have played exhibition games annually since 2014.
NBA China, launched in 2008 to run the league's business, is now worth more than $4 billion, according to Forbes.
The NBA had planned media events in Shanghai ahead of the Nets-Lakers game, but Chinese organisers cancelled an event at a Shanghai school on Tuesday and an open training session with the Nets on Wednesday.
Online travel agency Ctrip said it had stopped selling tickets to NBA games and NBA-related tour packages. Smartphone maker Vivo and sportswear maker ANTA Sports Products Ltd have also stopped working with the NBA.
Chinese e-commerce platforms Alibaba and JD.com appeared to have taken Houston Rockets merchandise, including sneakers, off their sales platforms, including mobile apps.
The growing controversy did not seem to bother some waiting outside Shanghai's Ritz Carlton hotel for a glimpse of the NBA players.
(Text from Reuters)