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Friday, March 1, 2024

The NFL Gets What It Wants, Including on Christmas. But the NBA Isn’t Going Away

  • Last year, the NFL staged a Christmas Day tripleheader, immediately driving a wedge into NBA programming.
  • The Association just leveled up with a successful In-Season Tournament debut, but for the second time, faces competition on its trademark holiday.
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
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Detroit Pistons Hall of Famer Joe Dumars was known as a defensive stopper and cornerstone of the infamous “Jordan Rules” that the team used to lock down Michael Jordan. 

These days, Dumars has a less aggressive attitude toward the Jordan-like dominance of the NFL, particularly on Christmas Day. 

“You stay in your lane and you do your thing,” Dumars, the NBA’s executive vice president and head of basketball operations, tells Front Office Sports. “We try to put on the best possible games that we can, try to put on compelling matchups. [Christmas Day] is a tradition for the NBA, but we’re not unaware that the NFL is broadcasting this year on Christmas. Our focus is really on the slate of games that we’re putting on, [and] our fanbase, who expect us to put on a great show.”

Last year, the NFL staged a Christmas Day tripleheader, amplifying a growing presence for the league on the holiday in recent years, and promptly trounced the NBA. The three football games averaged 21.9 million viewers, more than five times the Association average of 4.3 million over five contests.

The gap could widen even further this year, as the NFL’s three Christmas games are a big gift to fans. All three contests feature Super Bowl contenders, with the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles playing in the day’s first two windows against divisional rivals (Las Vegas Raiders and New York Giants, respectively). 

The nightcap is a battle between the current No. 1 seeds and a possible Super Bowl LVIII preview between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers—a far cry from last year’s Christmas slate featuring three teams already eliminated from playoff contention. 

“Last year was maybe a toe in the water. But this year, you can really see us diving in, particularly with the teams and brands we selected,” Mike North, the NFL’s vice president of broadcast planning, tells FOS. “While not quite catching up to Thanksgiving [in terms of viewership] just yet, it’s on its way. I’m really fascinated to see what these three games can do, given the brands, the quarterbacks, and the playoff implications.”

The NBA will provide its own Christmas showcase of top teams and popular players on ESPN, including Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, and Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers.

The full slate of Christmas games:

  • NBA: Bucks at New York Knicks: 12 p.m. on ESPN
  • NFL: Raiders at Chiefs: 1 p.m. on CBS
  • NBA: Warriors at Nuggets: 2:30 p.m. on ESPN and ABC.
  • NFL: Giants at Eagles: 4:30 p.m. on Fox
  • NBA: Boston Celtics at Lakers: 5 p.m. on ESPN and ABC
  • NBA: 76ers at Miami Heat: 8 p.m. on ESPN
  • NFL: Ravens at 49ers: 8:15 p.m. on ABC and ESPN+
  • NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns: 10:30 p.m. on ESPN

But with Christmas capping off an NFL-record one-week offering of seven national games for the NFL and the league staking out new ground (a Black Friday game and more international contests), the NBA’s challenge grows. 

“All we can do is put on a great slate of games and trust that our fans will support us the way they’ve been doing for years,” Dumars says.

Building Momentum

Traditionally, Christmas has served as a second opening day for the NBA, reintroducing the league to the masses and marking where the league starts to matter for many fans. NBA games on Christmas have been an annual staple since 1947, when in the first yuletide tilt the Knicks—with a player named Peter Noel on the bench—beat the Providence Steamrollers 89-75. For the past 16 years, the league has played five games on the holiday.

Last year, that crucial dynamic played out again as a Suns-Nuggets overtime thriller—won by Denver, the eventual league champion—sealed a 5% lift in viewers compared to Christmas 2021. 

The rhythms of the NBA season, however, have materially changed this year with the arrival of the In-Season Tournament. Inspired in part by European soccer tournaments and designed to elevate what often is a slower part of the schedule, the event was a success out of the gate, drawing an average of 1.67 million viewers, generating double-digit-percentage audience growth for both national and regional networks against comparable time frames last year. 

ABC and ESPN2’s coverage of the title game, in which the Lakers beat the Indiana Pacers, garnered an average of 4.58 million viewers, becoming the most-watched non-Christmas game in the regular season on any network in nearly six years. The In-Season Tournament is now actively being adjusted for 2024, expecting even greater prominence, including a potential shift in semifinal game locations and more lead time to design, build, and install the much-discussed tournament floors.

More immediately, though, the league is also anticipating a halo effect from the In-Season Tournament on Christmas.

“We just had an entire month of November and first week of December with the In-Season Tournament and a lot of excitement,” Dumars says. “Before you know it, you’re right into Christmas Day. Previously, we would start in October, and there would be that two-month gap [until Christmas]. So there’s a nice flow now with the way the In-Season Tournament fits into the schedule, and I believe this really helps keep the fans engaged.”

Room For Everybody?

The NFL has spent much of the past decade disproving a prediction made in 2014 by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who guessed aloud that the league’s push into new holidays and new game windows would backfire. “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered,” Cuban said. “And they’re getting hoggy.”

Part of the NFL’s success in avoiding that blowback has been its effort to reach new audiences, something that will be part of the league’s 2023 Christmas plan as well. CBS Sports will expand its multi-year run of youth-oriented broadcasts in collaboration with its sister network Nickelodeon, offering a return of its special “Nickmas” game presentation. Alternate coverage of the Raiders-Chiefs game will include the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in augmented-reality form.

“A lot of the discussion around these alt-casts is centered on touching a demographic that we don’t normally reach,” North says. “You think about the Toy Story execution that ESPN did back in October and what Amazon is doing every Thursday with the analytics broadcasts. … Our broadcast partners push each other, and when somebody does something successful, it’s a copycat league, not just on the field but off.”

The NFL and NBA are showing a respectful deference toward each other, with both entities acknowledging that while the NFL has a big lead in reach metrics, the NBA enjoys a younger audience on average. The leagues also coordinate schedules when possible to avoid overly taxing local stadium and arena districts. Notably, the NBA and NFL games on Christmas include no overlap in home team markets. 

“We’re sports fans ourselves, and we know this has been a day important to them,” North said. “There’s an open line of communication, and I think we’re respectful and honest. But we’re also going to do what we think is right for our fans.”

Meanwhile, Disney also has a significant stake in both camps, showing the entire slate of NBA Christmas games and the Ravens-49ers game. 

The Christmas fight will take at least a year off, as the holiday in 2024 falls on a Wednesday, a day of the week outside the normal NFL schedule. But Christmas 2025 falls on a Thursday and the holiday won’t again be on a Tuesday or Wednesday until 2029, opening up a new realm of possibilities and reigniting one of the most fascinating stories in both sports media and league operations. 

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