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Tencent Airs NBA Games as Chinese State TV Blackout Persists

Jinshan Hong, Lulu Yilun Chen and Gao Yuan

(Bloomberg) -- Tencent Holdings Ltd. live-streamed two National Basketball Association games played outside of China Monday, even as the nation’s top broadcaster shuns the league because of a controversy around Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

The Chinese social media giant aired a game between the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors and another between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Minnesota Timberwolves, according to its official program. That’s despite the WeChat operator last week freezing broadcasts of two pre-season games played in China: a pair of high-profile match-ups between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets in Shanghai and Shenzhen last week. China Central Television -- the government’s flagship broadcaster -- announced its boycott around the same time and has so far not resumed televising.

A Tencent representative didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment. At stake for the internet giant are billions of dollars in ad and subscription revenue, along with its strategy of becoming a go-to destination for NBA broadcasts online. The social media giant had just inked a $1.5 billion, five-year deal to stream league games online in China. It drew almost half a billion basketball aficionados to its streams last season -- an audience now in jeopardy.

Tensions flared after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong’s protests, which some in China view as a secessionist movement, triggering a backlash from companies and fans. By allowing games in China to go forward last week however, Beijing signaled it may be winding down its harsh response to the tweet, which was deleted but inflamed by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver defending Morey’s right to free speech.

There were other signs too: The New York Times reported that editors at state-run news outlets have told reporters to stop emphasizing the NBA issue, fearing it might get overheated.

According to Tencent Sports’s app, other pre-season games will only be streamed in text and images. Video-streaming is scheduled to return Oct. 23 as the regular season starts. The company’s shares gained 1.1% alongside other Chinese shares.

“We do not comment on the specific commercial decisions of individual businesses,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing Monday in Beijing in response to questions about Tencent’s decision. “Exchanges in sports have always played an important role in promoting China-U.S. exchanges and friendship, but like we stated earlier, be it in China or the U.S., mutual respect is a prerequisite for conducting exchange and cooperation.”

Read more: Tencent Gets ‘Wakeup Call’ From China’s Assertions of Patriotism

(Updates with government’s response in the final paragraph)

--With assistance from Dandan Li and April Ma.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jinshan Hong in Hong Kong at jhong214@bloomberg.net;Lulu Yilun Chen in Hong Kong at ychen447@bloomberg.net;Gao Yuan in Beijing at ygao199@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Edwin Chan at echan273@bloomberg.net, Sam Nagarajan

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