“They do that occasionally. It’s big business for them too, having the N.B.A. in China,” Looney said. “Hundreds of millions of people watch basketball in China — and I know they’re unhappy with lack of access. But I doubt anything happens during this N.B.A. season, unless the government decides that bringing the game back would be a welcome distraction from the public health crisis.”
The stakes are high for the league. Since 2004, the N.B.A. has played 28 games in China. Star players travel every year for promotional tours. Shoe sales are a major source of revenue for manufacturers. There are more basketball fans in China, a country with 1.4 billion residents, than in the U.S., which has a population of 330 million. The league still has offices throughout China, including in Shanghai, Beijing, Taiwan and Hong Kong, staffed by about 200 employees.
“I see it as something that’s going to take time,” said Todd Ramasar, an N.B.A. agent with overseas clients who has also negotiated deals in China. “I don’t think it’s something as simple as saying this is centered around the N.B.A. This is much bigger than that.”
The timing of the All-Star game, on Sunday, may be a stroke of good luck for the N.B.A. because of the larger domestic politics involved. On Friday, the first phase of the trade deal struck last month between China and the U.S. will take effect, signaling the warmest point in the relationship between the two countries since President Trump took office.
Earlier this month, at his State of the Union speech, Trump said, “We have perhaps the best relationship we’ve ever had with China, including with President Xi,” referring to China’s leader, Xi Jinping. On Feb. 7, Trump praised Xi for the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus.
But there is also mixed messaging — an indication of the often fraught relationship between the two countries. At the end of January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the ruling party in China the “the central threat of our times.”