Ultimately, the affair showed how even the most conscientious organizations could find their plans undermined by Chinese politics, how any business could unwillingly become a vessel for an international spat.
“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.