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Do Sports Still Need China?

The rewards for international sports leagues and organizations are plain: lucrative broadcast deals, bountiful sponsorship opportunities, millions of new consumers.

The risks are obvious, too: the compromising of values, the public relations nightmares, the general atmosphere of opacity.

For years, they have surveyed the Chinese market, measured these factors and come up with the same basic math: that the benefits of doing business there outweighed the possible downsides. The N.B.A. might blunder into a humbling political crisis based on a single tweet, and rich contracts might vanish into thin air overnight, but China, the thinking went, was a potential gold mine. And for that reason leagues, teams, governing bodies and athletes contorted themselves for any chance to tap into it.

But recent events may have changed that thinking for good, and raised a new question: Is doing business in China still worth it?

The sports world received a hint last week of a changing dynamic when the WTA — one of many organizations that have worked aggressively over the last decade to establish a foothold in the Chinese market — threatened to stop doing business there altogether if the government failed to confirm the safety of Peng Shuai. Peng, a top women’s tennis player once hailed by state media as “our Chinese princess,” disappeared from public life recently after accusing a prominent former government official of sexual assault.

The WTA’s threat was remarkable not only for its reasoning, but for its rarity.

But as China’s president, Xi Jinping, governs through an increasingly heavy-handed personal worldview, and as China’s aggressive approach to geopolitics and its record on human rights make the country, and those who do business there, a growing target for a chorus of critics and activists, sports leagues and organizations may soon be forced to re-evaluate their longstanding assumptions.

That sort of direct confrontation is already taking place elsewhere: Lawmakers in the European Union recently called for stronger ties with Taiwan, an island China claims as its territory, only months after European officials blocked a landmark commercial agreement over human rights concerns and labeled China a “totalitarian threat.”

For most sports organizations, the WTA’s position remains an outlier. Sports organizations with multimillion-dollar partnerships in China — whether the N.B.A., England’s Premier League, Formula 1 auto racing or the International Olympic Committee — have mostly brushed aside concerns.

Some partners have acquiesced at times to China’s various demands. A few have issued humbling apologies. The I.O.C., in perhaps the most notable example, has seemed to go out of its way to avoid angering China, even as Peng, a former Olympian, went missing.

But an evolving public opinion may get harder for sports organizations to ignore. A report this year from the Pew Research Center, for instance, found that 67 percent of Americans had negative feelings toward China, up from 46 percent in 2018. Similar shifts have occurred in other Western democracies.

Mark Dreyer, a sports analyst for China Sports Insider, based in Beijing, said the WTA’s standoff with China represented an escalation in the “them or us” mentality that appeared to be forming between China and its Western rivals.

The threat from the WTA, then, could serve as a sign of showdowns to come, in which case, Dreyer said, China could lose out.

“Frankly, China is a big market, but the rest of the world is still bigger,” he said. “And if people have to choose, they’re not going to choose China.”

To some experts, then, the WTA’s extraordinary decision to confront China head-on might actually signal a turning point, rather than an aberration.

“The calculation is one part political, one part moral, one part economic,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor of international sports business at Emlyon Business School in Lyon, France. He said that the WTA’s dispute with China reflected the “red line” growing between the country and many of its Western counterparts, with the sides seeming more entrenched in diverging sociopolitical ideologies.

“I think we are rapidly heading toward the kind of terrain where organizations, businesses, and sponsors will be forced to choose one side or another,” Chadwick added.

The WTA’s own about-face was stark. Only three years ago, the organization was heralding a deal that made Shenzhen, China, the new home of its tour finals for a decade starting in 2019, accepting promises of a new stadium and a whopping $14 million annual prize pool. In 2019, just before the pandemic, the WTA held nine tournaments in China.

Fast forward to last week, when Steve Simon, the WTA’s chief executive, said in an interview with The New York Times that if China did not agree to an independent inquiry of Peng’s claims, that the tour would be willing to cease operations in the country.

“There are too many decisions being made today that aren’t based on what is simply right and wrong,” Simon said. “And this is the right thing to do, 100 percent.”

The language raised eyebrows around the sports world.

“They are not the first ones to have had a run-in with China,” Zhe Ji, the director of Red Lantern, a sports marketing company that does work in China, said about the WTA. “But I haven’t seen anybody else come out with as strong a wording as that.”

The run-ins have proliferated in only the last few years.

The N.B.A., for instance, was seen as a pioneer when it played its first games in China in 2004, including a game featuring Yao Ming, the Chinese star for the Houston Rockets. The ensuing years brought prosperity for the league there, and relative peace. It was praised for its patient, culturally sensitive approach to building there. Then, in 2019, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Rockets at the time, tweeted in support of pro-democracy protests taking place in Hong Kong, and in the blink of an eye a relationship that had developed over several years imploded.

Merchandise for the Rockets — China’s favorite team in China’s favorite sports league — was removed from stores, and the team’s games were no longer broadcast on television. Fans took to Chinese social media to attack the league. Then, when the N.B.A. issued what was widely taken as an apology, it sparked an almost equally robust wave of criticism back home. (The N.B.A. did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.)

“The NBA should have anticipated the challenges of doing business in a country run by a repressive single party government, including by being prepared to stand in strong defense of the freedom of expression of its employees, players, and affiliates across the globe,” read a letter sent to the league by a bipartisan group of United States lawmakers.

The letter’s signees — a cross-party group that included Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a Democrat, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican — accused the N.B.A. of compromising American values and effectively supporting Chinese propaganda.

“If you’re angering both sides, it means there is no middle ground, which I think was significant,” said Dreyer, the Beijing-based sports analyst.

Like other observers, Dreyer suggested the WTA’s stance was potentially game-changing. But he noted, too, that it was possibly easier for the WTA to defy China than it had been for, say, the N.B.A., for two reasons.

First, because the pandemic had already forced the WTA to cancel its events in China for the near future, the tour was not necessarily forfeiting big sums of money in the immediate term. (Severing ties with China permanently would of course require the WTA Tour to replace tens of millions of dollars in revenue and prize money.) Second, because China has essentially erased any mention of Peng and the ensuing international outcry from its news and social media, the WTA’s brand may not take much of a hit there. Many in China simply do not know about Peng, or the WTA’s response.

“With the N.B.A., they were burning jerseys,” Dreyer said. “You don’t have that reaction against tennis.”

To be sure, big sports leagues that have deep, longstanding interests in China, barring some extreme turn of events, will not exit the market any time soon. And some organizations are still going all-in.

The I.O.C., which will stage the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, has tuned out any and all calls from critics for the organization to make some statement about China’s human rights abuses, including the treatment of religious minorities in the country’s western regions.

Some in the industry, though, have already noticed a change, a slight cooling, among other companies pondering business in the sports market there.

“With increased political tension and the complications of doing business in China, I’ve seen more companies focus back on Europe and the U.S., where the reward may not be as large but the risk is much less,” said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an international sports marketing consultant and director of the sports management master’s program at George Washington University.

That dynamic has been vivid in European soccer, which had collectively seemed to view China as a sort of El Dorado five years ago, but now seems to be coming to terms with reality after a series of disappointments. In Italy, Inter Milan, one of that country’s most storied clubs, is in a tailspin after its Chinese owner, Suning, a consumer goods company, became engulfed in a major financial crisis. The team has been forced to sell player contracts to meet its payroll.

In England, the Premier League remains in litigation with a broadcast partner that failed to pay up after signing a record-breaking television deal to broadcast games in China. A new partner is paying a fraction of the previous agreement, leaving some clubs disillusioned.

“Over the last five years there had been a perception in the West that China is there for the taking — there’s lots of money, economic growth is strong, a growing middle class, disposal income, and we can go feast on this,” Chadwick said. “What has happened for some sports organizations in the West is that they have not found China as lucrative as they imagined, and they have also found China incredibly difficult to do business with.”

The difficulties appear to be deepening.

Half a decade ago, the Chinese government, emboldened about sports after hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, announced plans to create an $800 billion domestic sports industry, the largest in the world. That captured the attention of Western sports organizations.

What many organizations did not anticipate, though, were the peculiarities of the Chinese business landscape, the extent to which politics is woven through all aspects of China’s economy, and the growing spirit of nationalism under its increasingly autocratic president, Xi.

“I absolutely think over the long term that major sporting events will be hesitant moving forward to schedule out in China right now,” said Thomas A. Baker III, a sports management professor at the University of Georgia who has done extensive work in China. “The China that welcomed the world in 2008 is not the same China that people are doing business with in 2021.”

Tariq Panja, Matthew Futterman and Christopher Clarey contributed reporting.

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Bob Blitz Held the NFL to Task Over the Rams’ Relocation

In a separate deposition in October 2020, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell was pressed repeatedly on the question at the heart of the lawsuit: Did the N.F.L.’s team owners ignore their own relocation guidelines when they voted to allow the Rams to move? Goodell gave elusive responses on whether the owners had considered each of 12 predetermined factors or if they’d voted merely because a Los Angeles deal was available.

“And I will say it again that I think the ownership was very responsible in considering all of the various factors and really understanding the key issues and ultimately made a decision which is in the best interest of the N.F.L.,” Goodell said, according to a partial transcript of the deposition.

The realization that an answer like that was unlikely to satisfy a jury of Missouri residents, combined with the prospect of several N.F.L. owners being called to testify, made settling the case a more pragmatic option than opening a trial on Jan. 10, just weeks before the Super Bowl is scheduled to be played at SoFi Stadium, the splashy $5 billion venue in Inglewood, Calif., that Kroenke built after moving the team west.

In deciding to settle for $790 million, the N.F.L. closed its responsibility to Blitz and a city that has lost not just the Rams, but also the Cardinals, who left for Arizona after the 1987 season. But the league provided precedent for other scorned cities.

“The host cities may actually begin to gain leverage back,” said Daniel Wallach, a sports and gambling lawyer who has tracked the case.

For the N.F.L., the agreement ensures that a public rendering won’t happen and keeps private the juicy details of league business contained in the many documents pertaining to the lawsuit. It also ensures that the backbiting between team owners stays in house.

Before the league opted to settle, Kroenke and the other team owners appeared to be at each others’ throats as he, according to multiple news outlets, attempted to free himself of the indemnification agreement that held him liable for legal expenses and potential damages related to relocation litigation.

Now, Kroenke may have to pay for most or all of the settlement.

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China’s Silence on Peng Shuai Shows Limits of Beijing’s Propaganda

When the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused a former top leader of sexual assault earlier this month, the authorities turned to a tried-and-true strategy. At home, the country’s censors scrubbed away any mention of the allegations. Abroad, a few state-affiliated journalists focused narrowly on trying to quash concerns about Ms. Peng’s safety.

Beijing seems to be relying on a two-pronged approach of maintaining the silence and waiting for the world to move on. The approach suggests that the country’s sprawling propaganda apparatus has limited options for shifting the narrative without drawing more attention to the uncomfortable allegations Beijing hopes would just disappear.

On China’s social media platforms and other digital public squares, the censors’ meticulous work has left almost no sign that Ms. Peng had ever accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier, of sexual assault. Like a museum to a previous reality, her social media account remains, without new updates or comments.

These tactics have worked for China in the past, at least at home. In recent years, officials have relied on heavy censorship and a nationalistic narrative of Western meddling to deflect blame for issues including the outbreak of Covid-19 and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

This time, though, the #MeToo accusation from a lauded and patriotic athlete implicating a top leader has no simple solution from Beijing’s propaganda toolbox. Any new narrative would most likely have to acknowledge the allegations in the first place and require the approval of top Chinese leaders.

“The central propaganda bureau does not dare go out on its own about a former Standing Committee member,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Communist Party newspaper, referring to Mr. Zhang’s position in the body that holds ultimate power in the party. “It would have to be approved by Xi Jinping.”

“For them, this is not just a propaganda matter, but also an issue of national security,” continued Mr. Deng, who now lives in the United States.

The level of censorship Beijing deployed to shut down discussion of Ms. Peng’s allegation has little precedent, said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.

To the Chinese authorities, the plan of action for now appears to be one of inaction. On overseas sites like Twitter and Facebook that are blocked in China, the response has been muted and fragmentary. When Beijing-backed journalists have addressed Ms. Peng on overseas social media sites, they have studiously avoided mentioning the nature of her accusations, or their target.

Instead, they have sought to put an end to the questions about Ms. Peng’s whereabouts, releasing photos and videos of the tennis star that seemed designed to show that she was safe despite having disappeared from public life. Ms. Peng also appeared in a live video call with the leader of the International Olympic Committee that only raised more concerns.

To some, the apparent stage-managing of Ms. Peng was a reminder of the authorities’ use of forced confessions and other video testimony from detainees for propaganda. In 2019, a state run news service ran a “proof of life” video of Abdurehim Heyit, a prominent Uyghur folk poet and musician, to quell international concerns that he had died in an internment camp.

When Peter Dahlin, a Swedish activist, was detained by the authorities in 2016, he was forced to speak in a Chinese propaganda video about his so-called crimes. He said in a recent interview that he saw the state media’s gradual release of photos and videos of Ms. Peng as evidence that Beijing was monitoring her movements mainly to silence her while waiting for the outcry to die down.

“She is obviously under custodial control,” Mr. Dahlin said. “Everything she does will be scripted from beginning to end; she will be told exactly what to do, how to act, how to smile.”

A waiting game has helped Beijing defang attacks from individual critics in the past, be they dissidents or sports stars. When Hao Haidong, a retired Chinese soccer star, called for the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party in 2020, officials purged records of his career and waited as he faded from memory. Though Ms. Peng brings more international backing, Chinese officials may be betting the social media cycle of shock and anger will eventually dissipate.

For Beijing, the concern is that the blowback could interfere with the upcoming Winter Olympics, which China is hosting.

“They have to placate not just the usual critics in the West, but also decidedly apolitical tennis stars and sporting associations overseas, while at the same time burying all mention of Ms. Peng’s original charge,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia and author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.”

“It’s no surprise that the propaganda system is floundering,” he said.

In a strange turn, the only recent post about Ms. Peng that remains on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, is from the French Embassy in China. It calls on Beijing to respect its commitments to combating violence against women. But the seemingly curated comments on the post accused France of meddling in China’s affairs. Along similar lines, some Chinese journalists took to Western social media sites to question the motives of those who expressed concern about Ms. Peng.

“Can any girl fake such sunny smile under pressure? Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside,” Hu Xijin, the editor of the nationalist Global Times tabloid, wrote on Twitter.

The narrative that Ms. Peng is being used by hostile foreign forces to undermine China has been echoed by other state media employees on Twitter. The posts have done little to appease concerns outside China.

“There’s no narrative even to really distract; there’s nothing substantive beyond character attacks on the West and Western media,” said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, a research program in Hong Kong. He added, “This is really the best they’ve been able to come up with.”

Within China, it remains unclear how many people are aware of the controversy. On Baidu, a Chinese search engine, queries for “Peng Shuai” spiked to nearly two million on Nov. 3, the day after she posted her accusation, but have since fallen to the tens of thousands. Ms. Peng’s frozen Weibo account, which does not appear in search results for her name, has gained 59,000 followers since her post — a blip in a country where top celebrities have tens of millions of followers.

Mr. Xiao, the research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, is the founder of China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese internet controls. His group has tracked hundreds of keywords, some with only the faintest connection to Ms. Peng, that had been blocked from posts and searches. Only the most sensitive topics — like Xi Jinping, China’s leader; and the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 — have such long lists of blocked terms, he said.

In the weeks since, censors have begun to fine-tune their approach. Some broad keywords, like “tennis,” have been restored in searches. Still, Mr. Xiao said, the wide gulf between what can be said outside China and what can be said inside the country could continue to plague attempts to control the topic.

“They know they cannot feel secure. The Great Firewall leaks,” he said, using a term that refers to China’s blocks and filters that keep out foreign social media. “Millions of people jump the wall to read about it.”

Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.

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Brian Kelly Leaves Notre Dame for LSU

Brian Kelly will leave Notre Dame to become the football coach at Louisiana State, the latest in a series of changes at some of the country’s most storied college football programs.

The news was confirmed Tuesday morning by L.S.U.

The hiring follows the move of Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to Southern California. Both shifts surprised the college football world, where coaches do not regularly leave elite programs voluntarily, and created enticing vacancies at the universities Riley and Kelly left behind.

The Fighting Irish finished the regular season 11-1 this year and, if a top team loses, could earn a berth in the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame was ranked sixth in the most recent rankings for the four-team playoff. The new rankings will be released on Tuesday night.

Kelly had seemed like an institution at Notre Dame after 12 years in the top job. He had a national championship game appearance in the 2012 season and a 113-40 overall record. (The wins in the championship game season were later vacated by the N.C.A.A. after a trainer was found to have done coursework for players.) This season, Kelly surpassed Knute Rockne with the most wins as a coach for the university.

As unusual as it is for a head coach with Kelly’s success to leave a program that is still in the playoff hunt, his move could potentially position him to finally win a national championship, something he could not do at Notre Dame. Kelly lacks a top tier bowl victory, with losses in the Fiesta, Cotton and Rose Bowls, along with the national championship game loss.

And Notre Dame, despite Kelly’s elite recruiting (he has produced a top-20 class every season since taking over the head coaching job in 2010), appeared severely outmatched in its recent playoff appearances, losing to Alabama and Clemson by a combined 44 points.

Louisiana has one of the most ripe recruiting grounds in the country. L.S.U. has had a class outside the top 10 only twice since 2010. Kelly will have access to as much talent as he has seen.

L.S.U. won the national championship after the 2019 season, only to fall to 5-5 in 2020. Coach Ed Orgeron announced this would be his last season in October, when his team was 4-3. The Tigers currently stand 6-6. Like his predecessor, Les Miles, he found that not even a national title guaranteed long-term job security in Baton Rouge.

L.S.U. reported that Kelly would be paid $95 million over 10 years, plus incentives, a significant increase from a salary believed to be in the $3 million range at Notre Dame.

“I could not be more excited to join a program with the commitment to excellence, rich traditions, and unrivaled pride and passion,” Kelly said in a statement that L.S.U. released Tuesday morning. He added: “I am fully committed to recruiting, developing, and graduating elite student-athletes, winning championships, and working together with our administration to make Louisiana proud. Our potential is unlimited, and I cannot wait to call Baton Rouge home.”

Scott Woodward, the university’s athletic director, called Kelly “the epitome of a winner.”

Reports had initially linked L.S.U. with Riley, who over the weekend denied he would take the job before he moved to U.S.C. There also had been in-state support for the University of Louisiana coach Billy Napier, but he chose to go to Florida.

Luring Kelly from Notre Dame, though, was an even bigger surprise.

Kelly started his career at Grand Valley State in Michigan, where he won two Division II national titles. He then spent three years at Central Michigan and four at Cincinnati, culminating in an undefeated regular season. That landed him the Notre Dame job.

The hiring of Kelly at L.S.U. helps keep the Southeastern Conference at the center of the college football universe: The conference has recently added the powerhouse teams Texas and Oklahoma, and its members Alabama and L.S.U. have won four of the seven national championships in the playoff era.

Another Southeastern Conference team, Georgia, is undefeated and No. 1 in the country this year. It will face Alabama (11-1), third in the playoff rankings, in the conference championship game on Saturday in Atlanta.

Alan Blinder and Alanis Thames contributed reporting.

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