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MLB commissioner on NBA and China: 'Sooner or later, something happens to everybody'

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

One month into the NBA season, ratings are down big for the NBA: all but two of the TNT games so far declined from the year before, and nine of the ESPN games have notched fewer than 1 million viewers.

Chalk it up to more of the big stars playing on the West Coast (which means later games), including LeBron James (L.A. Lakers), Anthony Davis (Lakers), Kawhi Leonard (L.A. Clippers), and Paul George (Clippers); or to the fact that the Golden State Warriors are struggling and Steph Curry is out with an injury. The Big Lead says it’s because the only interesting teams so far are the Lakers and Clippers. The New York Post suggests the NBA consider starting its season closer to Christmas, as happened in 2011, the lockout year.

But the NBA has also not fully escaped the China crisis that erupted during its preseason after Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted a single image in support of Hong Kong protesters. Players have gone silent on the issue, even as some fans still appear at games in “Stand with Hong Kong” T-shirts; the fallout from the tweet even weighed on Tencent’s most recent earnings report.

You can bet the other U.S. pro leagues are watching closely.

The NFL had its own political crisis here in America that lasted for two seasons, with scores of players protesting police brutality by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, and President Trump tweeting angrily throughout that time. But Major League Baseball has not experienced that kind of issue in recent memory.

“We pay a lot of attention to what happens in other leagues,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told Yahoo Finance when asked about what the NBA is going through in China. “Sooner or later, something happens to everybody. Your time is going to come. And we try to pay attention as to how they handle crises like these and problems like these and how they try to move forward.”

Manfred added: “In terms of our own business, we have tried to invest in countries to grow the game where we feel like we have a stable, sustainable relationship with the government that’s in power. We’ve been able to do a lot of business in China, successfully, and we hope to do so in the future.”

Indeed, MLB has made a number of low-profile partnerships in China, including a 10-year deal in 2017 with Beijing Enterprises Real Estate Group Ltd. (BEREGL) to grow the game in China by opening up baseball fields across the country. But it has not made anywhere close to the kind of deep inroads that the NBA has made in China, inroads that have made China crucial to the NBA’s global financial growth.

When asked what he’d do if he was in the NBA’s position, Manfred grinned and said, “I think that’s a little too close to second-guessing my friend Commissioner Silver, so I’ll leave that one.”

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred (R) shakes hands with Le Sports CEO Zhenjian Lei at a press conference for Le Sports and MLB announcing their strategic partnership in China at Caesars Palace on Jan. 6, 2016, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Dan Steinberg /Invision for Letv/AP Images)

Of course, Manfred is busy dealing with his own crisis right now that has nothing to do with geopolitics: the Houston Astros cheating scandal. The Astros are alleged to have used a camera positioned in center field to record opposing catchers’ signs and quickly relay it to their own batters.

Manfred told Yahoo Finance on Nov. 14 that the league is “in the midst of gathering the facts. We want to make sure we understand everything that went on, who was involved, how far up in the organization it went. And at that point in time, we’ll make a decision as to what, if any, discipline is appropriate.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance and hosts the daily live show Yfi AM. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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