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Major Sports Leagues Unlikely To Follow WTA Sanction On China

  • 3 min read

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) sent shockwaves through the sports world this week when it suspended tournaments in China out of concern for Peng Shuai, but larger and more invested leagues are not expected to follow suit.

WTA chairman Steve Simon remains unconvinced that Peng, a former world No. 1 in doubles, is able to speak or move freely after her three-week disappearance since accusing a former top Chinese official of sexual assault. read more

The National Basketball Association (NBA) and England’s Premier League (EPL) have much bigger financial stakes in the region than the WTA but are unlikely to confront China over Peng, sports marketing analysts said.

Those two leagues – which have drawn rebukes from Beijing in the past when members have voiced political positions on issues from Hong Kong to the Uyghur ethnic group – are yet to speak out over the tennis player.

“There’s no doubt that the NBA and the English Premier League both look pretty weak in the face of the WTA,” said Victor Matheson, a professor at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and an expert on sports economics.

“That being said, the NBA has a $1.5 billion rights deal to broadcast games in China, and the EPL signed a deal somewhere in the $700 million range.”

Neither the NBA nor Premier League immediately responded to requests for comment.

China has not responded to Peng’s allegation of assault, though it has denounced the politicization of tennis, said her case has been hyped for malign reasons, and pointed to her appearances in mid-November at a dinner and a tennis tournament.

Despite its exit from China, the WTA can in fact reduce the financial hit by moving tournaments elsewhere, as it has done during the COVID-19 pandemic, while also burnishing its reputation in the West by standing up to the Beijing government.


“I’m not saying that human rights should be trumped by dollars and cents, but it’s a whole lot more difficult decision for the NBA and the EPL to make when you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars versus the WTA,” added Matheson.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which will welcome the Beijing Winter Games in February and which has sought to reassure the public about Peng, has the most on the line, said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing analyst at U.S.-based Pinnacle Advertising.

“More than any of these leagues, they are about the money, money, money… it’ll be really interesting to see how this all plays out because in Beijing, it’s going to get more intense with more protests and pressure from outside groups.”

Asked for comment, the IOC, which has held two video calls with Peng, reiterated its support for her and said it would hold a personal meeting with the player in January.

Other big sports leagues might sing a different tune if it was one of their players missing in China, but as it stands they are able to take a wait-and-see approach, Dorfman said.

“If (Golden State Warriors’ guard) Klay Thompson went to China to promote his shoes and disappeared, maybe, but at this point it’s a little distant and there’s too much money on the line for the NBA and the IOC,” he said.

“All these companies are global and they have tremendous amounts of money in China, and China is one of the biggest growing markets in the world. It’s going to be very hard for any global company to back away from them at this point.”