NFL Christmas Games Threaten to Scrooge NBA’s Holiday Pageant

·6 min read

The NBA gave fans their first look at its Christmas hoops schedule on Tuesday, and in keeping with a tradition that’s been responsible for churning up the league’s highest regular-season ratings, this year’s slate is designed to cram as many superstars under the tree as a 12-hour window allows. Trouble is, the NFL has cooked up some Yuletide plans of its own, with a counter-programming measure that’s sure to take some of the jolly out of the NBA’s holiday.

The NBA’s day should start off without a hitch, but the league and its network partners will face considerable headwinds as a pair of marquee matchups are set to go head-to-head with two NFL games. If history’s any guide, a national NFL broadcast on Fox is likely to put the humbug on Disney’s Christmas revels.

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On paper, ABC’s 5 p.m. ET Warriors-Suns showcase looks awfully sweet, as it features a meeting between point guards extraordinaire Steph Curry and Chris Paul. Golden State will be in the midst of a bid to return to the postseason after a two-year layoff, during which Klay Thompson was benched with various leg ailments. The Suns, meanwhile, are still smarting from their 4-2 loss to the Bucks in the NBA Finals; all things being equal, this is the sort of pairing that should draw as many as 9 million viewers.

Unfortunately for ABC, the Golden State-Phoenix broadcast airs directly opposite Fox’s coverage of a Packers-Browns game in which Aaron Rodgers will suit up against Baker Mayfield. The grizzled-vet-versus-cocky-upstart trope generally makes for good TV, and seeing as how Green Bay has long been one of the NFL’s top draws, Fox is likely to pull a Grinch on ABC.

Case in point: When Fox aired the NFL’s most recent Dec. 25 outing (Vikings-Saints, 2020), it scared up 20.1 million viewers opposite ABC’s Nets-Celtics game, which drew 4.28 million viewers—down 35% from the analogous broadcast in 2019. And while NFL Christmas games are relatively uncommon, the impact they’ve had on the NBA’s deliveries is hard to overlook. The Steelers’ 34-6 blowout of the Texans in 2017 averaged just under 17 million viewers on NBC, eclipsing the 6.23 million fans who tuned in for Wizards-Celtics, while a 31-27 Steelers-Ravens nail-biter the previous year drew a record 14.8 million viewers on NFL Network, making short work of ABC’s Bulls-Spurs game (5.47 million).

And that’s just how the early NFL Christmas games have performed against the third NBA broadcast. In 2016, NBC’s primetime coverage of a one-sided Broncos-Chiefs scrap absolutely buried ABC’s Minnesota-Oklahoma City game by a margin of 21.4 million viewers to 1.39 million. This marked an all-time low for an NBA Christmas game.

The NBA’s holiday pageant will face another ratings obstacle during the marquee primetime game, an East Coast-West Coast shootout between the Kevin Durant’s Brooklyn Nets and LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers. While NFL Network’s Colts-Cardinals skirmish isn’t expected to put up anywhere near what Packers-Browns should serve up on Fox, the game will undoubtedly steal share from what is meant to be the NBA’s featured attraction.

As much as the NBA is synonymous with Christmas in much the same way that the NFL is associated with Thanksgiving, basketball in this century has never once beaten out football in the holiday ratings column.

That said, even a broadcast that’s somewhat diminished by a concurrent NFL game should still account for the NBA’s most-watched regular-season outing, a pattern that’s held for the better part of the last 20 years. The presence of James all but guarantees that the trend continues for at least another season; after all, the four-time champ has played in 11 of the highest-rated Christmas games in the modern Nielsen era. (No. 2 on the list is Kobe Bryant, who appeared in nine of the most-watched Christmas games, two of which also featured James.)

Last year’s primetime game (Mavs-Lakers) averaged 7.01 million viewers, and while that marked a 20% drop from the year-ago Clippers-Lakers game, it also outdrew every postseason NBA game in 2021 this side of the six Finals broadcasts on ABC.

As much as the two NFL games will make for a tougher sell, the NBA’s Christmas marathon should still generate a nice chunk of change for the Disney networks. According to iSpot.tv estimates, last year’s quintuple-header brought in around $40.2 million in ad sales revenue, thanks to heavy spend by wireless providers, quick-service restaurants, automakers and brewers/distillers. The beer and booze brands really stepped up in 2020, upping their collective spend by 46% versus the previous year, pouring a total of $3.47 million into ABC and ESPN’s coffers.

While theatrical movie spend understandably was far from robust—in the face of a pandemic that had shuttered the nation’s multiplexes, film studios spent 55% less Christmas cash than they did in 2019—streaming dollars helped stabilize the losses. The combined investment by the studios and streamers added up to some $4.58 million, per iSpot, effectively flat when compared to the previous year.

If the NFL promises to disrupt two of the most promising NBA games, the remainder of the slate looks solid. Tipping off the five-game set at noon ET is a rematch of the Hawks-Knicks playoff scrap, which introduced Trae Young as a worthy successor to Reggie Miller in the pantheon of great MSG villains. The Atlanta guard averaged 29.2 points and 9.8 assists in the series, and if his stat line weren’t savage enough, he absolutely demoralized the Garden faithful when he took a theatrical bow after sinking a three that ended the Knicks’ first postseason run in eight years.

The Hawks would go on to upset the Sixers before bowing out to the Bucks, and Young’s performance throughout the postseason went a long way toward locking in Atlanta’s first appearance in a Yuletide game since 1989. The prospect of watching New Yorkers dispense with the whole “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men” thing alone should be enough to get 3.7 million fans in front of the set.

The action jumps from ESPN to its broadcast sibling ABC, as the Celtics travel to Milwaukee to take on the defending champs. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday will square off against a rebuilt Boston team looking to rebound from last season’s forgettable 36-36 campaign. Six million viewers would be a strong turnout for this slot.

In what has been the lowest-rated holiday game for eight of the last 10 years, the 10:30 p.m. slot will feature the Mavericks and Jazz closing out the night on ESPN. Anything in the neighborhood of 2 million viewers is a big win for advertisers who buy units in this game as a means to reach a national NBA audience on the cheap.

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