by Aron Salomon,

BOXSCORE: NEW YORK (December 2, 2021)

With sport and politics on a seemingly endless collision course, the league and the governing bodies are faced with a binary choice: do the right thing or do business as usual.

The Women’s Tennis Association took the more restrictive option last night, announcing it was pulling its business from China in response to lingering concerns over the welfare of one of their own, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. In early November, Peng Shuai disappeared from the limelight after accusing the former Chinese vice premier of sexual abuse. WTA President Steve Simon immediately threatened to pull his organization out of China, including the huge season-ending WTA Finals. Last night, the WTA and Simon backed their threat, announcing that all play in China was immediately suspended:

“In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has apparently been pressured to contradict his allegation of sexual assault. Considering the current state of affairs, I am also very concerned about the risks all of our players and staff could face if we host events in China in 2022. “

With the courage of the WTA comes a prize of $ 1 billion, at the absolute minimum. The WTA will not only have the baseline of lost revenue from its operations in China, but also a big TV contract. The prize money of the last WTA Tour final, held in Shenzhen in 2019 alone, had a prize of $ 4.7 million, a huge sum for women’s tennis.

These stories always have a contrast, so enter the International Olympic Committee and the National Basketball Association.

The IOC is 64 days away from the Beijing Olympics. Peng Shuai’s situation and the accompanying narrative is simply bad news for an organization struggling against gigantic obstacles to make these Olympics really happen. The IOC has done a remarkably poor job assuring the world that their video calls with Peng Shuai are emblematic of his true safety. This is what happens when you allow a member of the Chinese Olympic Committee and a member of the Party to be on the call, creating the perception that you are okay with those who harm him being the ones watching over him. security. In the #MeToo era, it’s absurdly deaf and practically dangerous. With the Beijing Olympic narrative being that holding the games there is tantamount to embracing China’s genocide, the IOC continues to ignore how the ice is on their organization and the future of the modern Olympics.

As for the NBA, as the New York Times revisited last month, the World’s Premier Basketball League and China are deeply connected, more than any other major sports league in the world:

“Since 2004, the NBA has played 28 games in China. The star players travel every year for promotional tours. Footwear sales are a major source of income for manufacturers. There are more basketball fans in China, a country of 1.4 billion people, than in the United States, which has a population of 330 million. “

The relationship with China is not one that the NBA will soon turn its back on. In fact, a recent CNBC article explains how the NBA fits into US-China relations. Hoping to play a “positive role” and defuse tensions. Of course, it’s not the NBA that’s altruistic.

“The NBA has an interest in finding common ground because its operation in China is worth more than $ 5 billion. The company includes a $ 1.5 billion media rights deal with Chinese tech company Tencent.

So, is this the future in which the big sports leagues assume a quasi-political role in China, acting as a massive for-profit NGO? Maybe, which in itself wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing. As someone who lived in Beijing, I have seen that international sports, especially Premier League football, Formula 1 and the NBA, carry a lot of weight with the government. It is a huge sign of national pride to have big events in China and for fans in China to feel a connection with these sports. So from that point of view, the actions of the WTA will ultimately have the desired impact. While women’s tennis will lose up to $ 1 billion, some of which will be replaced by substitution, the Chinese government is losing something more intangible and just as valuable to them – what I like to call access as currency. .

For years, professional sports leagues have sought access to China because that access was a tangible currency – that of real money. For every 500 fake NBA jerseys sold on the streets of China, at least one real jersey is sold to Chinese fans through official channels. And while that calculation might not sound great, it’s actually fantastic considering the size of the country. In return, the currency that was given to the Chinese government is access to one of the most popular leagues in the world.

The good relationship between China and the NBA not only facilitates this access, but also greatly helps China’s domestic professional basketball league, the Chinese Basketball Association. While COVID-19 has dramatically reduced the number of foreign players in the league this year, some – like Jeremy Lin who signed a new deal this week with the Beijing Ducks – are staying and others will join again. In fact, the CBA remains the showcase of China’s national sport to and from the rest of the world. The league itself has a long history, but not anywhere as long as the sport in China. As early as 1935, basketball was considered a uniquely Chinese pastime, and until the arrival of the NBA in the 1990s, no one associated it with America.

This currency is so precious to China that it cannot be measured in real dollars. The CBA without any former NBA player or American influence cannot be one of the top six professional basketball leagues because it was at its peak. But more important to China is this perception of membership – that the nation is modern and part of a truly elitist global group in areas such as fashion, cars and sports.

Having had the opportunity to do the right thing in their relationship with China in 2019, the NBA chose the opposite. When Daryl Morey, then general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted sympathetically about the protesters in Hong Kong, urging people to “fight for freedom, stand by Hong Kong”, it spiraled downward. moral death of the NBA. As VOX then reported, the response was quick and clear:

“Morey was denounced by the Chinese consulate in Houston and by the owner of his team. His tweet was deleted, the Chinese Basketball Association announced it was suspending all cooperation with the Rockets, Morey was asked to apologize and the NBA issued a statement calling his tweet “regrettable” and clarifying that its support for the Hong Kong protesters’ does not represent the Rockets or the NBA. The Rockets are reportedly considering sacking Morey in an effort to appease the Chinese. ”

Yet unlike the NBA selling its soul to China for a few billion dollars, the WTA bought something potentially far more valuable by leaving China: the perception of independence. While it is true that the WTA board has been very courageous in giving up a huge sum of Chinese money, this is a huge opportunity to take women’s tennis to the next level on its own terms. . What draws people to women’s tennis today is what sets it apart from the men’s game – the positive personalities, camaraderie and parity in the sport. The vast majority of the WTA’s top 10 players ending in the top 10 for the very first time. Their average age is 24 years. And that’s just the start, with the reigning US Open champion scoring victory at 18 and the other runner-up making her first Grand Slam final at 19. 2021, many also still teenagers.

So where does the WTA go from here is just upwards. After taking the moral and political lead, the league ends 2021 on a perfect note, ready to move from its short and tumultuous offseason to its first Grand Slam of the year, just six weeks away. None of this is easy and the terrain always changes rapidly in politically charged situations in China like these. But what history and potential sponsors will surely not miss is that unlike other professional sports leagues, the WTA here has taken care of theirs and in doing so can chart a better path to success. long term of their business.

About Aron Salomon

Aron Solomon, JD, is the chief legal analyst at Esquire Digital and Today’s Esquire Publisher. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania and was elected to the Fastcase 50, which recognizes the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron was featured in CBS News, TechCrunch, The hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture out, The independent, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, and many other leading publications.