By Rory Carroll
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Basketball fans in China are watching NBA games at levels close to where they were before Chinese state broadcaster CCTV took the league off the air for 18 months following a 2019 rift, a source familiar with the league's viewership data told Reuters.
Viewership has jumped 80% for the first seven telecasts this season as compared to the first seven telecasts once broadcasts resumed on March 29 of last season.
Viewership is not quite, but close to where it was prior to the dispute, said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the data.
The NBA, one of the most popular U.S. cultural exports in China, makes hundreds of millions of dollars every year from its presence in the Chinese market but the decades-long partnership with CCTV was rocked in October 2019.
Then Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey that month tweeted in support of the protests in Hong Kong, a Chinese-ruled city that was embroiled in a political crisis due to months of anti-government protests.
While the tweet was quickly deleted, it drew strong criticism in China. State media, including CCTV, criticized Morey for his tweet, which was labelled an example of Western interference in a bid to stir up anti-China sentiment.
The NBA backed Morey even as Chinese partners severed or suspended ties with the league.
The broadcaster immediately stopped showing NBA games and the blackout stretched on for over 28 months, barring the one-off showing of two NBA Finals games in October 2020.
The return of NBA broadcasts last season also provided a window into the near total absence of COVID-19 restrictions at large sporting events in the United States in stark contrast to their country's heavy COVID-19 curbs.
Likewise, Chinese viewers of the soccer World Cup in Qatar have voiced frustration on social media with China's chosen zero-COVID path of lockdowns, frequent tests and closed borders.
On Wednesday, Chinese citizens cheered the government's announcement that it would loosen strict rules that curbed the spread of the virus but sparked protests and hobbled the world's second-largest economy.
NBA viewership outside of North America continues its rapid ascent with year-over-year average growth this season outpacing China in both Portugal (+122%) and Italy (+81%).
Mexico (+36%), the Philippines (+31%), Spain (+12%), and Canada (+11%) have also seen upticks in interest.
NBA League Pass, which gives subscribers access to live and on-demand games, has also grown internationally, with a 272% increase in Cameroon, the home country of Philadelphia star Joel Embiid, a 203% increase in Turkey and 78% rise in Italy.
Beginning with late commissioner David Stern and accelerating under current commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA has aggressively targeted lucrative overseas markets.
This season included preseason games in Japan and Abu Dhabi and regular season games will be held in Mexico City later this month and Paris in January. The Basketball Africa League (BAL) completed its second season in May.
Global interest has been propelled by the rise and in some cases dominance of international players in the league, which had 120 non-U.S.-born players in teams' opening night squads this season.
Serbia's Nikola Jokic has won back-to-back league MVP awards after Greece's Giannis Antetokounmpo accomplished the same feat for the seasons ending in 2019 and 2020.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Christian Radnedge)