Over the last decade, the NBA has taken control of Christmas as its very own special sports day, the time when families can gather around the television, show off their prized gifts, and watch some of the best athletes in the world do their thing. The TV ratings are generally quite good, both because the league saves their most compelling games for the day and because a lot of people like to watch TV on Christmas.
So, in a way, the very good TV ratings for Tuesday's games was expected. What wasn't ideal for the league, though, was that ratings went down from last Christmas, when the lockout turned that slate of five games into the season opener. Here are the numbers:
Based on overnight numbers from Nielsen, the Oklahoma City-Miami game received the highest rating with a 6.0 share nationally, which also was the fourth highest in history for a regular-season game on ABC. That, however, was down from the Chicago Bulls-Los Angeles Lakers game from last year and the Lakers-Heat game in 2010.
Additionally, the Heat-Thunder game broke records in Oklahoma City and Miami as the most watched regular-season game ever on ABC.
The New York Knicks-Lakers game followed with a 5.9, the best rating on Christmas Day for ABC in the early window of a doubleheader. In the same time slot, the Heat-Dallas Mavericks matchup received a 5.6 last year.
The opening game of the extravaganza, which paired Boston against Brooklyn, drew a 2.7 rating, Houston and the Bulls received a 1.7, up 21 percent from a game two years ago in the same time slot, and the Los Angeles Clippers' late game against Denver capped the day with a 2.0 rating, up 54 percent from Portland-Golden State two years ago.
Add to that the NBA's highest-rated tripleheader ever on ESPN, with a 2.1 average, was up 17 percent from a 1.8 in 2010 and it was an impressive day for viewership.
In short, while numbers were down overall from last season, they improved upon the figures from two years ago, the last time the Christmas games weren't also season openers. In other words, the NBA is generally gaining more fans — for high-profile games, at least — despite the fact that those same fans might prefer it if the season started a little later.
However, that last point is open to argument. Although several coaches say they preferred the exciting Christmas kickoff, they likely didn't approve of the condensed schedule of the lockout season. On top of that, last year's ratings weren't only dependent on the later start. Fans were anxious to watch the NBA after a very frustrating lockout — the games were openers, yes, but also represented returns to basketball after months of seemingly interminable labor strife. There's reason to believe those numbers were inflated.
Plus, a shorter, later-starting season just wouldn't be a good financial decision for owners. As noted by Kurt Helin at ProBasketballTalk, the third-of-a-season that teams have played so far represents substantial revenue that couldn't be won back even with substantial gains in the per-game revenues a shorter season could bring. The NBA is a business, first and foremost, and if the players and coaches can handle 82 games the season is going to be 82 games. Fans have proven they'll pay for it, and that's what matters most.
For the league, the ideal length of a season isn't what creates the best, most enjoyable basketball. It's whatever number of games makes them the most money while ensuring the product is good enough for people to come back.
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