Since the 1980s, the NBA has become synonymous with Christmas Day, similar to the NFL with Thanksgiving or college football with New Year’s Day.
The five-game celebration is a global media event, reaching more than 41 million people in more than 50 languages across 200 countries and territories last year.
“I think our fans are conditioned and, quite frankly, look forward to the games on Christmas Day because they tend to be the biggest, most anticipated matchups of the season,” NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum told Front Office Sports.
The league’s biggest names from Michael Jordan and LeBron James to Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell have balled out on the annual hoops holiday, and Christmas Day games have produced innumerable classic moments.
Despite losing family time, most players welcome the tradition, said ESPN analyst JJ Redick. They know these nationally televised games will generate NBA Playoff-like audiences.
“Playing on Christmas is a mark of significance, it’s a mark of validation, and it carries meaning,” said Redick, who’ll call ESPN’s first game of the day with Ryan Ruocco and Cassidy Hubbarth. “As a team, as a city, as a franchise, as a player, it always meant something.”
But tomorrow, because the holiday falls on a weekend this year, the NFL will try to play Grinch, rolling out its first ever Christmas Day tripleheader.
Now, the Association won’t just have to share its annual holiday, but there may be nothing stopping the NFL from making Christmas one of its new traditions — no matter which day of the week it falls on.
A 75-Year Tradition
The league’s Christmas history stretches back to Dec. 25, 1947, when the Knicks beat the Providence Steamrollers 89-75 at the old Madison Square Garden (the Steamrollers folded two years later).
But it really took off as a TV tradition in the 1980s and ‘90s when the league started to broadcast doubleheaders — and consistently deliver a high quality product on the holiday.
- 1984: Bernard King of the New York Knicks dropped a Christmas Day-record 60 points on the New Jersey Nets.
- 1992: Air Jordan torched the Knicks for 42 points at the old Chicago Stadium.
- 2004: Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal faced off for the first time since the Diesel’s trade to the Miami Heat, generating a Christmas Day record 13.18 million viewers for ABC.
- 2011: Opening day of lockout-shortened season sparked most-watched Christmas game slate ever.
- 2015-17: James’ Cleveland Cavaliers battled Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors three Christmases in a row.
For decades, the NFL seldom played on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve — unless the holiday fell on a weekend.
Meanwhile, the NHL has not played a Christmas Day game since 1971 due to contractual requirements in its collective bargaining agreements, and Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, NASCAR, and the WNBA are all off in December.
In the last 15 years, the NBA has ramped up to a five-game Dec. 25 slate, stuffing a 13-hour coverage window with the most marquee players and teams.
For the league and its TV partners — Disney’s ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery’s TNT — Christmas Day matchups drive strong TV viewership and ad sales.
Last year’s five-game lineup averaged 4 million viewers — 150% higher than the 1.6 million average for games airing across ABC, ESPN, and TNT so far this season.
- ESPN televises most of the NBA’s Christmas Day games. ESPN will show all five games this year, and is planning a few coverage “firsts.”
- Knicks vs. 76ers will be the first Christmas game streamed on the ESPN+ platform.
- It will be the first time ESPN will air live commentator conversations with mic’d up players. The plan is for announcers to chat up stars and coaches while they’re on the bench or sidelines.
Matt Kenny, ESPN’s vice president of programming, calls Christmas the “long-established No. 1 day” of the regular season.
“We’re always bullish on the NBA. Without getting into specific estimates, we’re confident that the five games will perform well across ABC and ESPN,” Kenny told FOS.
Back in 2014, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban warned that a “greedy” NFL would cannibalize its ratings by adding too many new game windows. “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they’re getting hoggy,” Cuban declared.
Nearly a decade later, it seems Friday night high school football is the only remaining territory upon which the Shield won’t encroach.
The NFL held its first Christmas Day games in 1971. The games weren’t received well and the league hit pause until 1989. Since then, it has only intermittently scheduled games on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Yet when the NFL swooped in last year with its first Christmas Day doubleheader in four years, the strategy paid off. The two games averaged a whopping 20 million viewers — besting the NBA’s numbers fivefold.
The NFL has essentially taken over the entire Christmas weekend this year, playing games Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.
And why not? Over the last five years, 49 of the Top 50 and 92 of the Top 100 most-watched telecasts have been NFL games, according to Nielsen.
And next year, the league will invade Black Friday for the first time.
The only problem for the NFL’s Christmas tripleheader are the matchups: Green Bay Packers-Miami Dolphins (1 p.m. ET/Fox); Los Angeles Rams-Denver Broncos (4:30 p.m. ET/CBS-Nickelodeon) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Arizona Cardinals (8:20 p.m. ET/NBC).
- Three of those six teams have been eliminated from playoff contention.
- Only two teams are currently in a postseason seed.
- Russell Wilson, Baker Mayfield, and Trace McSorley represent half of the starting QBs.
- Five teams are in the bottom half of scoring, three are in the bottom five, and the Rams and Broncos are the league’s two worst.
Despite the NFL’s lineup this weekend, the league usually enjoys huge ratings during these windows as the regular season winds down, postseason berths are on the line, and fantasy football is reaching its apex.
The NBA’s Tatum passed on discussing the NFL, but reiterated that Christmas is one of his league’s “most viewed” days.
Eight of the ten NBA teams playing Sunday have winning records. But the defending champion Warriors and Lakers are both under .500. Curry, the 2022 NBA Finals MVP, is out due to injuries. Ditto for Anthony Davis of the Lakers.
Amazon Wish List
The NBA will be seeking $50 billion to $75 billion long-term for its next cycle of media rights negotiations.
As talks heat up in 2023, look for Amazon to try to play Santa Claus.
Amazon Prime Video got high marks for its first season exclusively streaming the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football.” The giant streamer believes it can also handle an NBA package.
“When you look at the events we’ve done even in the last year — Champions League in Germany and Italy, Djokovic vs. Nadal in France, Premier League in the UK, and TNF in the United States — we feel great about our ability to deliver any event anywhere in the world,” Jared Stacy, Amazon’s director of global live sports production, told FOS.
Another successful Christmas Day NBA slate is just another bargaining chip to throw into those negotiations.
The question could be whether the NFL’s extra Xmas game this year — and any effects it has on NBA ratings — could toss a wrench into that equation.
This NBA-NFL Christmas Day battle is far from over: The holiday falls on a Monday in 2023.
Front Office Sports writer Doug Greenberg contributed to this story.