The fallout from the NBA’s clash with China hasn’t been limited to the league’s lucrative broadcast deals in China. A number of Chinese stores as well as the country’s top e-commerce sites have pulled NBA merchandise from sale, particularly products related to the Houston Rockets. It was the NBA team’s general manager, Daryl Morey, who tipped off the confrontation last week with his now-deleted tweet in support of the Hong Kong protesters.
Quartz searches for Rockets merchandise on Alibaba-owned e-commerce sites Tmall and Taobao returned no results. Their official NBA landing pages are still functioning, just with Rockets merchandise removed—a notable absence since the Rockets, the longtime team of former Chinese star Yao Ming, are popular in China. On rivals JD.com and Suning, searches for “NBA” and for Rockets products turned up no results. The South China Morning Post reports that the popular shopping app Pinduoduo has also taken down Rockets merchandise.
Similar occurrences are happening offline. In Chongqing, a reporter for ifeng.com (link in Chinese) visited a number of stores yesterday and found them removing Rockets-affiliated jerseys from sale.
According to Reuters, several Nike stores it visited in Shanghai and Beijing had removed Rockets merchandise, including jerseys and sneakers. Store managers said they had received memos from management to pull the products. The stores went so far as to cover up the letters “NBA” on displays.
The unofficial ban may be aimed at the Rockets and the NBA, but it could put many Chinese retailers, particularly smaller ones selling on e-commerce platforms, in a difficult position. Even if sites continue to stock products, removing them from search effectively blocks shoppers from finding them. On the Nice app and Du app, two popular resale platforms for sneakers and sportswear, products related to both the Rockets and NBA could still be found with some digging. But searches for “NBA” or “火箭队” (Rockets team) yielded no results. Meanwhile, the retailers selling the items may not want to remove products from sale, as that income can be important, but they’re also not able to push back.
For a brand such as Nike, the situation is also sensitive. The US label is the official apparel provider to the NBA, meaning in addition to the products removed from its own stores, some of the items being pulled from sale elsewhere are likely Nike products too. While the official Nike page on Suning.com still lists all kinds of products, as Quartz checked today, no NBA team names or NBA stars are mentioned in the product listings. These items are just part of Nike’s giant business in China, of course, much of which isn’t specific to basketball, such as casual sneakers and running shoes.
But Nike and other brands could begin to notice an impact if the conflict escalates and broadcasts of NBA games are further restricted. “Without the exposure of the NBA, who is still buying signature shoes?” asked a sales associate at one of the stores visited in Chongqing.
Sales of basketball shoes in China are robust: An estimated 300 million people in the country play the sport at least recreationally. Matt Powell, the sports industry analyst for research firm NPD Group, noted in a blog post that, from what he sees, brand sponsorships of NBA players still drive sales in China, in a way they no longer do in the US. It’s part of the reason brands such as Under Armour and Nike send their NBA stars on tours of Chinese cities. If Chinese shoppers stop buying, voluntarily or not, the sneaker brands’ giant investments in athlete endorsements could lose value. “The same goes for NBA licensed products; if Chinese kids stop wearing NBA jerseys, the sales and investments in the licenses will, in my opinion, likely be in jeopardy,” Powell wrote.
Nike had not replied to a request for comment by the time of publication. We will update this story with any response.
So far, sneakers seem mostly spared, since they’re less likely to be explicitly branded in relation to the Rockets or the NBA itself, as opposed to specific brands or players. On JD.com, for example, searches for Nike and Air Jordan appeared unaffected. The report from Chongqing noted that signature lines for NBA players such as LeBron James (who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers) and Kevin Durant (now on the Brooklyn Nets) were still for sale, as were James Harden’s signature Adidas shoes. Though Harden plays for the Rockets, his shoes aren’t specifically branded for the team. (He was also quick to apologize to China and its fans after Morey’s comments.)
But whether and how quickly the NBA and China resolve their tensions has implications for other brands and businesses, too. They’re likely watching anxiously to see what happens next.