Written by Staff Writer by Staff Writer By Chloe Melas, CNN
In 2015, the NBA world gasped when a photograph of Yao Ming cradling his son, Wesley, whose mouth was covered with an American flag, appeared on social media. Despite Wesley’s parents not being NBA players, the gesture that Mao Chin, owner of Li Ning Co., showcased was so bizarre it triggered widespread outrage and speculation on whether these athletes were revealing classified information, or just being stupid.
If that didn’t make for great catnip for media in the US — China, after all, is where Yao was born and raised — things seemed set to get a whole lot juicier this summer. That’s when the NBA allowed Yao’s son to have his own Snapchat account, allowing users to follow the teen, scold him and buy some face filters.
This was likely a wise decision. As chairman of the Business of Sports Council , Yao co-authored a report with fellow sports entrepreneur Eric Simonson called: The Future of Sports, Technology and Youth Coexistence. It comes after Kobe Bryant joined Snapchat last year, signing off with the words: “I’m moving into the black tech space.”
“Black tech” is a reference to NBA All-Star DeAndre Jordan, who is due to become a free agent on Monday and has a fan following bigger than the entire Mexican population. Jordan’s mother is Mexican and his father is black; however, critics who point to their different heritage do not question whether he’s culturally diverse. They simply question whether such cultural diversity is expressed through representation in the NBA at all.
DeAndre Jordan does not need the NBA to represent his existence. In 2013, Vanity Fair published an article featuring Jordan about his own evolution into a superhero — he was the first NBA player to wear neon pants.
When Kobe Bryant made a transition into “the black tech space,” nothing about that says “yes, I’m a person of color” or “this is good for diversity.” Bryant not only doesn’t fit that mold but, in the eyes of many Americans, he is currently pretty much the blackest thing ever.
Nike has a 31.5% stake in Snapchat in a partnership that started in 2016. That year, Bryant appeared in a Snapchat commercial, watching a basketball game in a sports bar and muttering, “The power is in the hands of the players.”
As Jordan just told a US sportswear company, “The popularity of hip-hop is playing a major role in ‘street-style, casual wear,’ but also ‘formal wear,’ which adds to overall ‘street style,” according to ESPN.
It’s easy to feel like it’s all a bit of a cop-out, a feint to get out ahead of an impending boycott by sports fans who are tired of claims that positive stories in the NBA promote diversity while simultaneously underwhelming performances by minority NBA stars demonstrate what can happen when the league hides behind “street-style,” or then attempts to leverage its accomplishments by fronting a trick like this.
Video screenshot by Chloe Melas/CNET
But this is also a tricky time for the NBA.
The league’s overall demographic isn’t losing popularity. Nielsen reports that US broadcast television viewership is expected to increase by 6.5% next year. And global viewership is on the rise too. This year, NBA games were on TV in over 200 countries and territories.
But that certainly doesn’t mean the league’s all-important Chinese audience is not well aware of the injustice it sees portrayed each day. Despite Nike’s association with the league, Chinese brands including Alibaba, Suning and NetEase have made big investments in the sport — and there are more and more Chinese players in the league.
Citic Securities believes the US game will experience difficulty in the NBA’s home market in 2020. As more than 100 Chinese brands are sponsoring the league, their investments are bound to cause some problems, the brokerage firm predicts.
Meanwhile, Deng Guangcheng, son of prominent rights lawyer Xie Yang, has created a large social media following while playing in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). It’s a trend that demonstrates how the popularity of sports and sportswear is driving demand in the country. This will not be the same for Chinese fans, who want to see their heroes held to high standards.